Ancient Eugenics

Legislated Eugenics

In Greece, the theory underwent a "logical development." State-controlled infanticide passes into a definite scheme of negative eugenics. The negative aspect, giving rise to the positive, fades into the background, and is retained merely as a check on the imperfections of a constructive scheme.

The systematized infanticide of Sparta, so far from being a recrudescence to atavism, is an advance towards civilization. A custom which had been so deeply implanted in the race by ages of barbarism, and had resisted for centuries the incessant pressure of the Christian Fathers at Rome, would not easily have been uprooted in Greece. To supersede the reckless and capricious brutality of individuals by state infanticide on a definite basis was an essential gain to humanity.

The destiny of the new-born child is no longer decreed in the privacy of the home; it is brought instead into the Council Hall before the Elders of the tribe. If well set up and strong, the child is to be reared; otherwise, doomed as useless, it is cast into the fateful chasm on the slopes of Mount Taygetus, for they hold that "it was better for the child and the city that one not born from the beginning to comeliness and strength should not live."

Selective infanticide could only rest on a physical basis; there was no speculation in latent capacity. There was no list of unhealthy geniuses in the annals of Sparta, no St. Paul, no Mohammed, no Schumann, no De Quincey. Even if selection had been less rigorous, and physically handicapped genius had been conceded the right to live, environment would frequently have denied it the right to develop. Sparta, content that Athens should be the Kulturstaat of Greece, cared only that the military hegemony should be her unchallenged right.

Once infanticide had become a system, its recognition as a pis aller would suggest regulation of marriage. By retention of infanticide as ancillary to the constructive scheme of eugenics, the anomalies of heredity admitted of a simple and ruthless solution.

Positive eugenics, not only in the past, but also today, is based on the analogy of animal breeding. The Spartans were the first to realize the inconsistency of improving the breed of their dogs and horses, and leaving to human kind the reckless propagation of the mentally defective, the diseased, and the unfit.

The use of analogy presents many pitfalls to be surmounted, and it is easy to see the absurdity of any conception of eugenics as a sort of higher cattle-breeding. Full experimental control is not possible with man as it is with animals and plants. The analogy, literally accepted, would require a race of supermen, or some outside scientific authority manipulating a lower stock for its own advantage. Human eugenics, to be effective, can never be purely voluntary, unless it results from a new ethical sense of the individual's relation to the social group.

In the second place, the whole world of spiritual motives lies outside the province of the breeder. He is faced with no problem of differentiation. With a clear and homogeneous ideal before him, he sets himself to its attainment, killing and preserving with simple and ruthless precision. The Spartan system was a more lofty spiritualization. There was no cold-blooded selection of partners, no interference with sexual attraction, no interference with human emotions. The Spartans, within these limits, were unfettered in their choice of brides, but were punished for abuse of the liberty conceded them. There was a penalty appointed for celibacy, a penalty for late marriage, but the third and the greatest penalty was for a bad marriage.

A further concession, the privilege only of the worthy, is seen in the compliances permitted on the part of the wife, that she might produce children for the state. So far from this practice being a recrudescence to the habits of the early savage, or an instance of an Aryan custom akin to the Hebrew Levirate, it seems obvious that it was a eugenic measure suggested by the analogy of the breeder. Thus, within eugenic limits considerable play was conceded to human personality.

It is true that the bearing of children was regarded as the essential function of women, and this view, though biologically justified, seems to ignore that other aspect of marriage -- mutual assistance and companionship. But even in democratic Athens the ideal of a Nausicaa, Penelope, or Andromache, had been superseded long since by a conception of wives which regarded them as of little more than procreative importance. Love marriages and genuine affection were more common in Sparta than in Athens. The conduct of Agesistrata and Kratesickleia on the death of their husbands, though it is evidence at a later date, shows traces of genuine feeling. In this respect, therefore, the Spartan practice was not remote from modern ideals, but infanticide, eliminating the unfit at birth, offered a solution of the problem which we can only hope to solve by the scientific application of the principles of heredity.

In Ancient Sparta

The Spartan method of breeding avoided the pitfalls of analogy; their aim implied a literal acceptance. The modern problem is the selection of qualities on a basis broad enough to represent the many qualities that distinguish individuals and nations, the problem of a eugenic ethnology. The Spartans, like the breeder of animals, bred for a single quality, and a single uniform type. Setting life on a physical basis, regarding bodily efficiency as the only quality of use to a military brotherhood, they pursued their aim with the ruthless precision of the breeder. It was a narrow and egotistical aim, but consistent with a constructive scheme of eugenics which can only be maintained by eliminating undesired elements at birth.

At the same time the selection of racial physique as a criterion has certain obvious advantages. To the Greeks, believing only in the beauty of the spirit when reflected in the beauty of the flesh, the good body was the necessary correlation of the good soul. Though there was no conscious assertion of this relation among the Spartans, there may have been some latent recognition helping to justify their aim. Moreover, while there is no dynamometer of intelligence, physique admits of easy estimation. There is therefore a certain justification for the simple dogma of the Spartan lawgiver: "If the parents are strong, the children will be strong."

The Spartans realized that to secure the fitness of the child it must be guarded even before birth by bestowing due care on the food and habits of the future mother. Antenatal influences explain many of the apparent anomalies of heredity, but, while recognizing the value of the Spartan aim, a nobler conception of humanity rejects their method. Sedentary occupations can no longer be assigned to slaves. Society still rests on a basis of lower labour. He "that holdeth the plough" must still "maintain the state of the world," but he is no longer a mere means, a living instrument, excluded from every political privilege and every social reform. The aristocratic eugenic practices of Sparta are amplified into a schema which embraces every class of the community. But this extension involves fresh complexities. By state interference in various ways, such as endeavours to modify " the influence of the factory system on the women who would be the mothers of the next generation," we attempt to palliate where the Spartans were content to neglect.

The Spartans recognized that environment as well as heredity is a factor in the development of man. There is a scheme of physical education for men and women, and the one narrow aim was so exclusively pursued, that it was said of them that they could not even read. There is to be compulsory education, and there is an institution which is to be frequented by all children, on whose development there is no effective control at home. These methodically organized institutions, harmonizing well enough with the monistic view of the Spartan state, could never be adjusted to modern conceptions of individual right.

Apart from the question of quality, there is also the question of quantity. Modern eugenists are faced with the problem of the diminishing numbers of the professional and creative classes and of the rapid multiplication of the less competent. The Spartans were concerned with the same problem in a different aspect: the rapid reproduction of the under class and slaves.

The Spartans entered Greece as a small conquering nation of Dorians, subjugating an extensive and powerful autochthonous population -- they lived as an armed camp in the centre of a hostile population which they dominated. "We are few in the midst of many enemies" was the warning spoken by Brasidas, and this position of constant danger affected the problem in two ways. There must be no falling birth-rate among the Spartans, no unchecked fertility among their subjects. Three measures were employed to maintain the number of the Spartans: prevention of emigration, penalties for celibacy, and rewards for fertility. The man with three children was to be excused the night watch, the man with four was to be immune from taxation. A third measure known to the ancient world, the enfranchisement of aliens, though adopted at times under the ancient kings, was rendered impossible by the later exclusion of every foreigner from the land. Avoidance of moral or physical corruption was set before preservation of numbers. The alien is always a disturbing element in any eugenic scheme.

The natural tendency of civilization, a declining birth-rate, would have brought destruction upon Sparta. Nevertheless, this attempt to maintain the numbers of the citizens seems to have met with little success. Xenophon speaks of Sparta as having the smallest population in Greece. Aristotle tells us that once the numbers of the Spartans amounted to 10,000: in his time they were not even 1,000, though the country was able to support 1,500 horse and 30,000 foot. The city unable to support one shock was ruined. Aristotle finds the cause of failure in the unequal division of property. But nowhere have attempts to interfere with the downward course of the birth-rate met with success: they were doomed to failure in Sparta as they failed in Imperial Rome. There is a moral in the tale of Plutarch, that Antiorus, the only son of Lycurgus, died childless, dooming the race to extinction.

In limiting the numbers of the subject population, the drastic methods of the ruling Spartans admitted of no failure. Infanticide was brutal, but it was set on a rational basis; this indiscriminate and covert massacre, on the vague pretext of fear or suspicion, was possible only to a people not fully emerged from barbarism. On one occasion more than 2,000 were made away with, "on account of their youth and great numbers." Even Plutarch, with all his Laconism, censured the massacre as an "abominable work," and refused it a place among the measures of Lycurgus.

These inchoate eugenics had their measure of success. Surrounded by discontented subjects and hostile serfs, with enemies at their very doors, and no point in the land a day's march away, it was natural that they had no share in the progress of the world around them. But in the seventh century Lyric poetry had found a home on the banks of the Eurotus. Terpander the Lesbian, Alcman the Lydian, Cinaethon the Spartan, show that there was a time when Lacedaemon had cultivated the Muses. The nobles lived luxuriously: the individual was free.

The Lycurgean discipline was therefore no arbitrary product of circumstances: it was a deliberate and calculated policy. As such, it is easy to criticize its limitations, to assert that it mistook the means for the end, that it fitted the citizen only for war, and unfitted him for peace. It is wilful neglect of facts to declare that the only success achieved was the success of the disciplined against the undisciplined: that the only veneration the Spartans received was the veneration of conquerors.

Their whole aim was narrow, calculated, and egotistic; their eugenic system was merely ancillary to the one occupation of war: neglecting all the complexity of man's psychical nature, it aimed at the improvement of a single aspect of humanity, and that not the highest: sacrificing the Sudra caste in the interests of the Brahmins, it aimed only at the production of a breed of supermen. Nevertheless, it is clear that within its narrow confines this rude system succeeded. Sparta has been proclaimed the only state in which the physical improvement of the race was undoubted, while the chastity and refinement of both sexes were unimpaired. "It is easy to see," declared Xenophon, "that these measures with regard to child-bearing, opposed as they were to the customs of the rest of Greece, produced a race excelling in size and strength. Not easily would one find people healthier or more physically useful than the Spartans."

The Lampito of Aristophanes, introduced as the representative of her race, shows how the Spartan women impressed the rest of Greece. Beauty, physique, self-control -- these were the accepted characteristics of the type. Sparta was the proverbial land of "fair women."

The direct influence of Spartan eugenics beyond Sparta was infinitesimal. It was an honour to have a Spartan nurse and good form to affect the rude abruptness of the Spartan manner, but no attempt was ever made to adopt their training or institutions.

But Sparta, too, fell into decadence, as a result of constant losses in war. Xenophon lamented that in his time the Spartans obeyed neither God nor the Laws of Lycurgus. Already, when Plato wrote the Laws, there are signs that Sparta was falling into disrepute, and the politics of Aristotle shows an imminent degeneracy: Ares bears the yoke of Aphrodite, liberty has become license. Agis III attempted in vain to restore the old Lycurgean discipline, which had become a mere shadow and a name. Kleomenes attained some measure of success, but foreign arms intervened. Nevertheless, the empty husk of the ancient system lasted with strange persistence through centuries of neglect.

The fifth century at Athens was an age of criticism and self-consciousness: the era of reflection had followed the era of intuition, and skepticism brought iconoclasm which shattered the ancient symbols. There were abolitionists, collectivists, social reformers in every phase, but no scheme of eugenics till Plato.

There were the eugenic paper polities of Plato and Diogenes, but their legacy to the world was only "words and writings." The Athenians of the fifth century had nothing but contempt for the institutions of their rivals, voiced in the patriotic travesties of Euripides. Sparta was the national foe.

The intensity of anti-Spartan sentiment may have put such theories beyond the pale of the patriot. Social reformers could find their arguments for communism or promiscuity among Hyperboreans, Libyans, and Agathyrsi; but eugenics was a creed peculiar to the hereditary foe. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the question had been for centuries the commonplace of Greek thought. Even in the proverbial stage of Greek philosophy the gnomic poets among their isolated apothegms have caught some facets of the truth.

In Theognis there is a glimpse of the analogy between the breeding of animals and human kind and almost an anticipatory scheme of Eugenics: "We seek well-bred rams and sheep and horses and one wishes to breed from these. Yet a good man is willing to marry an evil wife, if she bring him wealth: nor does a woman refuse to marry an evil husband who is rich. For men reverence money, and the good marry the evil, and the evil the good. Wealth has confounded the race."

"His starting-point is the true one," remarks the ancient commentator, "for he begins with good birth. He thought that neither man nor any other living creature could be good unless those who were to give him birth were good. So he used the analogy of other animals which are not reared carelessly, but tended with individual attention that they may be noblest. These words of the poet show that men do not know how to bear children, and so the race degenerates, the worse ever mingling with the better. Most people imagine that the poet is merely indicting the custom of marrying the low-born and vicious for the sake of money. To me it seems that this is an indictment of man' s ignorance of his own life." Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, used this analogy to demonstrate the folly of other cities where the husbands, keeping their wives in seclusion, beget children from them even if mad, diseased, or past their prime. This was the starting- point of the Spartan eugenics, as it has been the starting-point of the modern: at Athens it was never more than the sententious maxim of an early poet.

The evils of disparity of age, the thought that "one must consider the ages of those who are brought together," had formed themes for Hesiod,Sappho,and Theognis. Pythagoras, it is said, had discussed the bad effects of early marriage:Solon had legislated upon it; and had dealt no less with that other recognized evil of antiquity and modern times, the mercenary marriage.

A problem that obsessed the Greeks was the relative influence of nature and nurture, of gametic and non-gametic causes. It is a question almost invariably of morals, though the dominant aestheticism of Greek thought may have reduced the problem to a single issue: "Thou art unpleasing to look upon and thy character is like to thy form."

"Most children are worse than their parents, few are better." "The evil are not wholly evil from birth, but associating with the evil they have learnt unseemly deeds." "Sometimes a noble offspring does not spring from well-born parents, nor an evil child from useless parents." But the general view of heredity was as fatalistic as Ibsenism. No education can make the bad man good: no Aesculapius can cure the moral taint. Just as roses and hyacinths do not spring from squills, so from a slave-woman no free child can be born. Antigone of Sophocles is fierce because her father was fierce, just as the brand of Ibsen was obstinate because his mother was obstinate.

Modern knowledge has justified the Greeks in attributing this dominance to heredity. Men do not gather grapes from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles: the total contribution of environment is merely opportunity; it can only aid or retard the development of genetic character. The Greeks, except in the dramatic conception of an ancestral curse, or in the inherited pollution of ancient sacrilege, seldom traced causes back beyond the immediate progenitors. Galton held that the individual was the arithmetic mean of three different quantities, his father and mother, and the whole species of maternal and paternal ancestors, going back in a double series to the very beginnings of all life. Greek thought never concerned itself with this third and unknown datum.

Side by side with this interest in questions of nature and nurture is the dawn of that individualistic spirit, which culminated at last in egotistic contempt of offspring and marriage. Heraclitus is the forerunner of Stoicism, Democritus of Epicureanism, and the negative teaching of the sophists is the precursor of that atomistic conception of society which reduced it to a mere complex of self-centred units.

If there had been any attempt to systematize these fragmentary conceptions, we should find it mirrored in the pages of Euripides. All the inconsistencies of current theory are voiced by opposing characters, every speculation that was born "in that great seething chaos of hope and despair," thesis and antithesis but no synthesis before Plato. It is the diagnosis and not the remedy which interests Euripides.

There is the question of the marriage age. It is a baneful thing to give one's children in wedlock to the aged. The aged husband is a bane to the youthful wife. No less is it an evil to wed youth to youth, for the vigour of the husband endures for longer, but a woman more quickly fades from her prime.

There is the denunciation, too, of mercenary marriage. Those who marry for position or wealth know not how to marry. Nature endures, wealth is fleeting. Is it not therefore the duty of the man, who takes good counsel, to marry the noble, and to give in marriage among the noble, and to have no desire for an evil wedlock, even if one should thereby win a wealthy dower? There is much discussion of the relative influence of heredity and environment. Is it not wonderful that poor soil, blest with a favourable season from the gods, bears corn in abundance, whilst good soil, deprived of what it should have received, yields but a poor crop, yet with human kind the worthless is always base, the noble never anything but noble? Is it the parents who make the difference, or the modes of training? And the answer of the ancients was that "Nature is greatest." There is the old adage that no good child will ever come from an evil parent. The opinion that children resemble their parents is oftentimes proved true. Noble children are born from noble sires, the base are like in nature to their father. If one were to yoke good with bad, no good offspring would be born; but if both parents are good, they will bear noble children. Nevertheless, mortal natures are complex things; a child of no account may be born of a noble sire, and good children from evil parents, but no education can transform the bad child of evil stock. The fairest girl that one can give children is to be born of noble parents. "I bid all mortals beget well-born children from noble sires." And the well-born man is the man who is noble in character, not the unjust man, though he be born of a better father than Zeus.

Nevertheless, it remains a duty to educate one's children well. Specialized athleticism was regarded as baneful as over-refinement. You cannot fight an enemy with quoits, nor drive them out with the fist. Though war is an evil, military training is an advantage to youth.

Euripides reflects no less the growing cynicism of the age, abusing women, praising celibacy, denouncing the cares and anxieties of bringing up children. There is something, too, of the philosophic egotism of Marcus Aurelius: if you marry, your children may turn out evil; if they are good there is the fear of losing them. But in the Ion he speaks with the voice of the old Athenian morality: "I hate the childless, and blame the man to whom such a life seems good."

There is one passage which served as a text for Plutarch's treatise on education, and might serve no less today as a text for modern eugenics: (Greek Unreproducable - reference, Plut., "De Edu.," 2; "H. F.," I264.)

Aristophanes also reflects all the foibles and obsessions of a skeptical age. The existence of eugenics at Sparta, robbing the theory of something of the revolutionary aspect which it wears today, would perhaps have rendered it less a feature for debate than community of wives or women' s rights.


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.