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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Strength of Silence

In the ancient world, the Spartans were (in)famous for their culture of silence. Ancient “Laconophiles” collected alleged examples of Spartan speech all characterized by pithiness, and Xenophon stresses the – evidently unusual – ability of Spartan youth to hold their tongues except when directly addressed. Perhaps the most graphic example of the Spartan distaste for excessive verbiage, however, is the story of the Samian ambassadors, who sought Spartan aid in their fight against Polycrates. According to Herodotus, the Samians gave a very long speech after which the Spartan’s complained about having forgotten the start of the speech by the end of it. When the Samians then brought a bag and said the bag needed flour, the Spartans replied that the word ‘bag’ was superfluous – and then proceeded to give the aid requested. (Herodotus 3:46). Because Spartan eloquence was characterized by an absolute minimum of words, we describe minimalistic speech as “Laconic” event to this day. But while the Spartan culture of reducing speech to its bare essentials and speaking only when necessary was described and admired by ancient observers, the reasons for Sparta’s culture of silence are less obvious.

W. Lindsay Wheeler in his excellent article “Doric Crete and Sparta, home of Greek Philosophy,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2), claims that silence was a critical component of the Spartan educational system. He alleges that silence was purposely imposed on youth so that “their thoughts should gain force and intensity by compression” and so their speech would be “short, concise and to the point, like their spear points.” He goes on expound on the depth to which philosophy lay at the roots of Spartan society and culture. Clearly, a society that valued philosophical thought based on observation of nature, scorned idle chatter, and it is fair to assume that in Sparta men were expected to speak only when they had something worth saying.

During a recent intensive training course in administering first aid to the victims of traumatic injuries, I was struck by an additional feature of the Spartan culture of silence – its utility on the battlefield. The training focused on providing first aid to trauma victims in an environment without medicine, medical technology or specialized first-aid kits. It was heavily informed by recent military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the causes of battlefield injuries have changed dramatically since the age of Sparta, the result – severed limbs, massive hemorrhaging, life-threatening puncture wounds and crippling fractures – would have been familiar to any Spartan ranker. Astonishingly, despite all the advances in modern medicine, the first response probably has not changed much in two and a half millennia.

This is where the Spartan culture of silence might have proved its utility – if it was not part of the very reason for evolving it in the first place. In warfare, serious casualties are inherently traumatic, which means the victims inevitably suffer from shock and hypothermia. Both conditions worsen, if a patient is agitated and unable to keep still. If, on the other hand, a victim has been trained to remain still and silent, then they have a better chance of also remaining calm and so preserving rather than squandering their strength, blood and breath.

Furthermore, it appears (but I would welcome a medical opinion on this!) that the natural pain-killers the body produces in situations of extreme trauma are more effective if adrenalin levels are lower. Thus, developing behavior that reduces or shortens the period in which adrenalin is pumped into the body, may increase the speed with which natural painkillers are released into the bloodstream. Thus, far from being super-macho heroes, who ignored pain, as portrayed in most cartoons, films and novels, Spartans may literally have experienced less acute pain when dealing with battle wounds.

If we accept that this was a possibility, then it is even possible that Spartans, having observed how calm and stillness improved the survival rate among battlefield casualties, concluded that cultivating these behavior patterns in their children and youth would help them to respond accordingly on the battlefield. In short, the culture of silence and self-control may have helped Spartans to experience less pain and survive more readily on the battlefield, and the fact that self-control and silence was effective on the battlefield may have reinforced the culture of silence in the agoge and among adult, male citizens.

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