Eugenics Yesterday and Today (2): Positive Eugenics Among the Greeks

May 20, 2020
Statue of Leonidas I (540-480 B.C.), King of Sparta.

Only Catholicism has the complete vision of this question. History notes the appearance of errors before Revelation and their reappearance when states and individuals fight the Church and refuse her teaching. It is therefore instructive to consider these ideas at work in the history of mankind.

Preoccupation with eugenic concerns comes to light very early in this history, and it takes the two forms that we have distinguished: positive and negative. This article deals with positive eugenics in ancient Greece: how to improve the human race?

This aspect is more a matter of theory than of practice: it is seen mainly as a goal to be achieved in an ideal society. But it was embodied in at least one society, that of Sparta. Further, the place given to it by philosophers like Aristotle and Plato shows its importance. The concerns are indicative of the mentalities.

Spartan Legislation

In Sparta, strict regulations presided over the procreation of children according to the laws imposed by Lycurgus. Xenophon has this to say about the procreation of children: “the production of children was the most important duty of free women. So in the first place he [Lycurgus] required the female sex to take physical exercise just as much as males … in the belief that when both parents are strong their children too are born sturdier” (On Spartan Society, §1).

He adds other conditions such as continence, considered favorable to good procreation. A law stipulated it to be a matter of disgrace that a man should be seen either when going into his wife's room, or when leaving it. In addition “he would no longer allow each man to marry when he liked, but laid it down that they should marry when at their peak physically – his idea being that this too would help in the production of fine children” (Ibid.).

Furthermore, “he would not have his citizens to be begot by the first comers, but by the best men that could be found” (Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men). The purpose of these laws was to maintain the purity of the race. The number of citizens was fixed at nine thousand. It was therefore necessary to rigorously limit births, achieved by eliminating children of weaker constitution.

In this system, one is not born Spartan, one becomes one: the child had to be approved at birth by the elders. This means that he does not belong to his parents, but to the city: “Lycurgus was of a persuasion that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth” (Ibid.). And besides, his education would be entrusted exclusively to teachers from the age of seven.

Xenophon thus ends his presentation of the Spartan constitutions:  “For the production of children, then, he [Lycurgus] made these arrangements so different from those of others. The question of whether he did thereby endow Sparta with men whose size and strength are in any way superior, is for anyone who wishes to investigate for himself” (On Spartan Society, §1).

Plato’s Ideal Republic

It is in The Laws and The Republic, but especially in his last dialogue, that Plato sets out his ideal of the city. This philosopher dealt at length with the question at hand.

The principle laid down from the start is the stability of the number of citizens: “we’ll leave the number of marriages for the rulers to decide, but their aim will be to keep the number of males as stable as they can, taking into account war, disease, and similar factors, so that the city will, as far as possible, become neither too big nor too small” (Republic V, 460a). Which led up to the constitution of Lycurgus and was the constant preoccupation of the Greek cities; incidentally, it would inevitably produce a drop in the birth rate, as Polybius observed in 148 BC: “In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population, owing to which the cities were denuded of inhabitants, and a failure of productiveness resulted, though there were no long continued wars or serious pestilences among us” (Polybius’ Histories, Bk.37).

It is also necessary to ensure the sustainability of the classes as they are established: “the best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that if our herd is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s offspring must be reared but not the latter’s” (Plato, op.cit., 459d).

It is then necessary to ensure the best possible parents, which is achieved by a system of reward: “the young men who are good in war or other things must be given permission to have sex with the women more often, since this will also be a good pretext for having them father as many of the children as possible” (Ibid., 460b).

This is thus eugenics for social advancement, favoring procreation by the most gifted subjects, which is found in some contemporary legislation. To understand this prescription, you should know that Plato recommends the community of women. But he adds here that the best men should procreate more than the others.

A prescription is attached to make maternity easier for the guardian women (the upper caste) by relieving them of part of the care “by wet nurses and other attendants” (Ibid.,460d).

The age at which fertile unions will be authorized is regulated: “A woman is to bear children for the city from the age of twenty to the age of forty, a man from the time that he passes his peak as a runner until he reaches fifty-five,” because “children’s parents should be in their prime” (Ibid., 460e & d).

We find again the goal of marriage as it was practiced in Sparta: to give birth to children for the state. And what follows shows how much for Plato, this function is above all social. “If a man who is younger or older than that engages in reproduction for the community, we’ll say that his offense is neither pious nor just, for the child he begets for the city, if it remains hidden, will be born in darkness, through a dangerous weakness of will, and without the benefit of the sacrifices and prayers offered at every marriage festival, in which the priests and priestesses, together with the entire city, ask that the children of good and beneficial parents may always prove themselves still better and more beneficial” (Plato, op.cit., 461a).

Statue of Aristotle in Stagire, Greece.

Aristotle's Politics

This pupil of Plato, who knew how to exceed his master, also dealt with these questions.

The starting point is always the same: “there is an absurdity…in not regulating the number of citizens…One would have thought that it was even more necessary to limit population than property; and that the limit should be fixed by calculating the chances of mortality in the children and of sterility in married persons. The neglect of this subject, which in existing states is so common, is a never-failing cause of poverty among the citizens; and poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. Pheidon the Corinthian, who was one of the most ancient legislators, thought that the families and the number of citizens ought to remain the same” (Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 2, ch. 6, 1265b).

It is therefore for economic and political reasons that Aristotle proposes to strictly limit the population. “What follows from the examination of the facts is that it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a state with too large a population to be governed by good laws.” (Ibid., Bk. 7, ch.4, 1326a). Thus, beyond a certain number of inhabitants, the city becomes ungovernable, and it is therefore necessary to prevent this accident by limiting births. This number varies according to the cities.

In the Aristotelian city, marriages are regulated, always with the aim of obtaining the best possible descendants. “Since the legislator should begin by considering how the frames of the children whom he is rearing may be as good as possible, his first care will be about marriage, at what age should his citizens marry, and who are fit to marry?” (Ibid., Bk. 7, ch.16, 1334b).

There follows a series of reasons why it is necessary to legislate in this matter, as much from the social, economic, and political point of view, as from the biological and eugenic point of view. Aristotle concludes: “Women should marry when they are about eighteen years of age, and men at seven-and-thirty” (Ibid., 1335a).

After age, it is a question of physical and moral qualities: “the problem of knowing which of the parents’ physical dispositions will be especially favorable to their offspring, must be the subject of a more attentive examination.” These qualities are a body trained in moderation and in various tasks, as well as the mother’s calmness of mind during the entire pregnancy.

Finally in Aristotle as in Plato, maternity is considered a public service: “let us also determine how long they shall continue to beget and bear offspring for the state” (Ibid., 1335b).

The positive eugenics of the Greeks aims above all at the quality of births, but also at their quantity; this second objective is achieved by negative eugenics, because it is easier to destroy. Greek civilization was not the only one to practice this type of selection. It is found in some Egyptian and Inca dynasties, with the goal of preserving the purity of the line.