The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the ancient Greeks can teach us about gun control

In the birthplace of democracy, refusing to bear arms was a mark of civilization.

In ancient Greece, weapons came to be seen as a mark of fearfulness and barbarity. (Associated Press)
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As America reels from yet another mass shooting, many — myself included — grow weary as the same talking points are recycled. We shouldn’t “politicize a tragedy.” “Gun control will leave guns only in the hands of criminals.” The Second Amendment is a necessary “safeguard for liberty.” For that last point, defenders of expansive Second Amendment rights often draw inspiration from the ancient Greeks, well-armed citizen-soldiers who continue to inspire American ideas of freedom and self-reliance.

Yet far from being some sort of proto-NRA, the Greeks had rather nuanced views when it came to bearing arms. Both the Spartans, remembered for their refusal to hand over their weapons to a would-be conqueror, and the Athenians, remembered for demonstrating the political consequences of removing the citizenry’s arms, reveal more about the underbelly of an armed society — that bearing arms can signify a lack of civil society and betray an innate fearfulness — than they do about its importance.

It is not uncommon to see pro-gun activists wearing shirts or brandishing placards emblazoned with the ancient Greek phrase “molon labe” (pronounced “mole-OWN lab-EH”). Translated roughly as “come and get them,” this phrase inspired Charlton Heston’s famous “out of my cold, dead hands” challenge to any meddlesome bureaucrat who might seek to take away the actor’s guns. For those inclined to value rugged independence and stalwart stands against tyranny, there are seemingly few better role models than the Spartans, who at Thermopylae resisted the Persians in the face of certain death, and uttered molon labe as they refused to lay down their weapons.

And yet, this story of courage and raw machismo overlooks how a major driving force behind the Spartans’ stubborn militarism was plain old fear, in particular a fear of the underclass. In fact, the Spartans were so skilled at arms because the Helots — state-owned slaves who were the native inhabitants of much of Sparta’s territory — worked the land and did the other jobs necessary for society to function. The full Spartan citizens made use of the resultant free time by training constantly for battle, rendering the Spartan army by far the deadliest in Greece.

Ironically, the subjugation of the Helots that allowed for such an effective war machine also made the Spartans deathly afraid of Helot revolts (which happened from time to time). Even though the Spartans could defeat any of their Greek rivals in battle, they very rarely left their home territory in the Peloponnese, a measure designed to keep the Helots in line. Thus, the Helots who made the Spartan army possible were also its prime target.

Gun enthusiasts have also mistakenly turned to Athens to defend the political importance of bearing arms. Before it became a democracy, Athens was ruled for decades in the 500s B.C. by the tyrant Pisistratus and his sons. Aristotle tells us that Pisistratus came to power by tricking his fellow Athenians: He invited everyone to a public address, and as he was speaking he had his minions round up the Athenians’ arms and lock them in a shrine. When the deed was done, he told the surprised Athenians that since he and his men were the only ones left in Athens with any weapons, the rest of the Athenians should go home, mind their own business and leave the running of the state up to him.

What stronger argument could one find for the necessity of the Second Amendment, lest some modern wannabe tyrant (a new King George III!) rise to power unchecked by the (well-armed) people? It was a cautionary tale even the Founders appreciated. Antifederalist 28, published in 1788, invokes Pisistratus as one of the villains of history who used his monopoly of arms to maintain his wicked power.

The Classical Athenians, however, actually approached weaponry with caution. Thucydides, an Athenian writing more than a century after Pisistratus, said that in the bad old days, all Greeks used to walk around armed at all times, due to the chaotic nature of their world. By his own day, though, the mark of a stable and civil society was a citizenry that had no need to bear arms.

The Athenians took the lead on this development, Thucydides says, laying down their weapons and adopting a style of clothing that actively hindered the use of weapons by restricting the wearer’s arms and hands (without bare arms, it was hard to bear arms). For Thucydides, not bearing arms was a key distinction between “civilized” Greeks and “barbarians” (who, according to Thucydides’s evolutionary view of history, would eventually give up carrying weapons too).

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein said, “An armed society is a polite society,” a favorite quote of the NRA. Thucydides, on the other hand, contended that an armed society is a lawless and backward one.

In America today, so many firearms aficionados portray themselves decked out in tactical gear to show their manliness and bravado. As one advertisement for an AR-15 rifle, the very weapon used in so many mass shootings, puts it, “Consider your man card reissued.” But like the Spartans, so much of this gun culture seems driven much more by fear than by bravery.

And, despite the example often made of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, this fear does not seem to be of an oppressive government, the supposed target of the Second Amendment, but instead of the marginalized, particularly black Americans. As David A. Graham wrote in the Atlantic, white gun-owners’ fear of black people is especially evident in the way Second Amendment rights are so often denied in the case of black gun owners. While the Athenians came to give up their weapons in favor of civic discourse, Spartan weapons remained as tools for controlling the Helots. Are American weapons the same?

Despite everyone’s desire for a future without routine mass shootings, I find it hard to hope in the face of an entrenched gun lobby and the religious fervor with which a certain interpretation of the Second Amendment is defended. But I imagine many would agree with me in hoping for an America civil enough that its citizens can walk around without being armed to the teeth, and equitable enough that certain of its citizens don’t live in constant, armed fear of those that are oppressed.