Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Sparta in the Enlightenment
by Mehta, Varad, Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2009, 636; 3338792
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation traces the emergence of modernity in the eighteenth century by examining Enlightenment debates about the legitimacy of using ideals inspired by classical Sparta to criticize contemporary European civilization. Renowned for its militarism, repudiation of commerce and the arts, and suppression of the individual, that ancient society seemed the antithesis of a Europe increasingly characterized by the progress of the arts and commerce, the triumph of great territorial states, and a growing awareness of the claims of the individual. Some thinkers perceived in Sparta an antidote to these new conditions, which they feared might corrode the foundations of European society. Modern Europe’s champions, on the other hand, maintained their civilization was superior to Sparta’s obsolete barbarism. Sparta thus became a useful model for both sides to advance and defend their positions. The past became, as ever, contested terrain in the battle for the present.

Neither, however, was the real prize. The Enlightened thinkers realized there could be no return to the past, nor could the present be altered. Only the future, unknown and unbounded, could be molded. Ultimately, therefore, the contest over Sparta was really a contest over the future. The reconceptualization of the future as open and indeterminate and not a continuation of the past or the present, was the crux of the new consciousness of modernity that the Enlightenment bequeathed to posterity. The relationship of past to present too was reoriented, as the battleground shifted from the past into the future. Even to oppose modernity was to embrace it, for the struggle against modernity is itself in the essence of modernity. That is why Sparta and all other models of the past were inadequate. Modernity alone could solve the problems it created. If it was the cause, it was also the solution. The past may serve as guide, but we must chart our own course into the future. This conclusion is perhaps the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment. How and why it was reached, the subject of this dissertation.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Agnew, Hugh L.
Commitee: Creppell, Ingrid, Peck, Linda L., Schwartz, Daniel, Zimmerman, Andrew
School: The George Washington University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-A 69/12, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: European history, American history, Ancient history
Keywords: American Revolution, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Modernity, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Sparta
Publication Number: 3338792
ISBN: 9780549931058
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