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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)
I/ Late-nineteenth Literary Commitments

The Politics of Utopia: Walter Pater’s “Lacedaemon”

Bénédicte COSTE


Walter Pater n’est habituellement pas considéré comme un auteur engagé politiquement au regard de la place centrale qu’il occupe au sein du mouvement esthétique à travers The Renaissance (1873). Si l’Esthétisme a fait l’objet d’études récentes ayant montré son inscription dans le champ politique, Pater reste curieusement ignoré. Son Plato and Platonism (1893) qui traite en particulier de la République traite de philosophie politique. Le chapitre que Pater consacre à « Lacédémone » lui permet de surcroît de porter un regard oblique et original sur le champ politique de la fin de siècle victorienne. Méditant sur la citoyenneté spartiate à travers le genre inattendu sous sa plume de l’utopie / dystopie, Pater montre qu’elle s’appuie sur la négation d’une caractéristique individuelle essentielle à ses yeux : le paraleipomenon.

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  • 1 Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873. Republished with (...)
  • 2 Lectures “written for delivery to some young students of philosophy, and now printed with the hope (...)
  • 3 “[Pater] translates […] Plato’s theory, with the greatest freedom and vivacity, into its true moder (...)

1Walter Pater is not usually considered to be a politically committed writer: his writings engage mainly with art and literature spanning from Antiquity to his times, and he is rather seen as a gifted theoretician of Aestheticism through his 1873 text, The Renaissance (1981).1 Although the political commitments of the Aesthetic movement have been seriously questioned over the last two decades, both by including women aesthetes (Schaffer and Psomiades eds. 2000; Schaffer 2000), and by reassessing its dissemination among the middle and urban working classes (Maltz, 2006; Livesey, 2007), discussion of Pater’s political ideas is almost non-existent (Morgan 2010, 731-756). Arguably the political commitments of Aestheticism provided an alternative to both mainstream Victorian politics and to the increasingly complex political discourse from the 1850 onwards. For their part, fin de siècle Aesthetes chose to elect beauty as a sovereign Good and such an election translated in many ways: W. Morris advocated linking beauty to social transformation while others promoted alternative lifestyles (Coste and Delyfer eds. 2013), which in turn constituted a fertile ground for the twentieth-century avant-gardes. Through their writings, artworks, and lifestyles, late-nineteenth-century Aesthetes engaged in many forms of commitment. Praising The Renaissance in 1873, John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review where most of Pater’s essays had been previously published, wrote that the book could contribute to the social transformation his magazine advocated: “It is pregnant with intellectual play and expansion, and it is this intellectual play and expansion that we require, before the social changes craved by so many can fully ripen” (Morley 1873, 477). Such link between Aestheticism and politics was however far from being as conspicuous as Morley thought, and Pater’s Plato and Platonism (1893) may appear even more remote from any intervention in the political debate since it discusses Plato’s philosophy.2 The monograph came from a series of lectures before Oxford undergraduates in 1891 partly published in Macmillan’s Magazine and The Contemporary Review. Presenting Greek philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to Plato, it draws subtle parallels with later philosophers, identified as such by its first readers,3 to show the permanence of philosophical. But Pater’s study is not simply a stimulating history of philosophy: it also provides an imaginary portrait of Plato and Socrates foregrounding the literary skills of Plato and the pedagogical smartness of Socrates. Insisting on Plato’s mastery of style, as he had defined it (Pater 1888), Pater then discusses the theory of Ideas and dialectics, before concluding on the unsolved question of the link between ethics and aesthetics by a careful reading of the Republic. Plato’s rejection of poets from his ideal city does not solve the issue of aesthesis, i.e. the capacity to perceive and feel—especially the beautiful.

  • 4 E. Gosse, New Review 8 (April 1893): 419-29, rpt. Seiler: 254-5.
  • 5 [R. Le Gallienne], Star, 23 February 1893, 2, rpt. Seiler: 246. Paul Shorey writes: “Lacedaemon […] (...)

2The result of years of teaching Greek and Latin philosophy at Brasenose College (Shuter 1988; Shuter 2003), Plato and Platonism elicited favourable comments from some Oxford hellenists among whom Benjamin Jowett and Lewis Campbell. Literary critic Edmund Gosse acknowledged its political value in a troubled fin de siècle: “it is impossible to read his book and not to perceive how eminently apposite much of it is to the intellectual and political life of to-day. … The Sophist is with us to-day.”4 By focussing on political philosophy and style, Plato and Platonism appeared as a salutary corrective to the confused political climate of the early 1890s. It also included a chapter devoted to Sparta, “Lacedaemon” (Pater 1892, 791-808), immediately acclaimed as “a wonderful ‘imaginary portrait’”, 5 which will be the focus of this article.

  • 6 Those discoveries gave rise to Pater’s series of lectures upon archaeology: “The history of Greek A (...)

3Pater’s portrait of the Greek city-state remains intriguing both for its relation to Platonism and for its situation in the monograph, before the discussion of both the Republic and of Plato’s aesthetics. Why does Pater interest himself in Sparta? As an attentive reader of G. Grote’s 12 volumes of The History of Greece (1846-56) which discussed Sparta as well as the importance of paederastia for Greek philosophy, and of K.O. Müller’s Die Dörier (1824, translated into English in 1830 as The Histories and Antiquities of the Doric Race) (Coates 2005, 45), Pater’s academic interest was reinforced by archaeological discoveries.6 Like other Greek cities whose remains slowly came to sight from the 1870s onwards, Lacedaemon came to be seen as a piece of the past providing the Victorians with a standard to measure the progress or deplore the decadence of their civilisation. The parallel between Ancient Greece and modern times that Pater drew in his chapter enabled him to intervene in the political debate from an original, at least for him, standpoint, rightfully acknowledged by his contemporaries. As an instructor to the elites of Britain and her Empire, he appeared qualified to discuss paideia, the personal, educational, and social training of the citizen.

4Pater’s political commitment appears as a meditation upon a specific form of citizenship, historically remote, and presented through a literary genre that was used for the first (and last) time in his writings—utopia. As G. Deleuze and F. Guattari underlined in their discussion of the utopian “no-where” as the “now-here”, utopia fosters political and philosophical reflection as well as political intervention (Deleuze and Guattari 1991, 96). Free from verisimilitude and observing the laws governing reality, the genre usually appears in texts advocating a social and/or political transformation. Presenting Lacedaemon as heralding the “City of the Perfect, The Republic, Καλλίπολις, Uranopolis, Utopia, Civitas Dei, The Kingdom of Heaven (Pater 1931, 266), Pater displays a willingness to inscribe his political reflections within an unusual genre for him.

  • 7 Along with “admiring allusions … covert, yet bold enough” in The Republic itself (201-2), there is (...)

5In his Lectures upon Ideology and Utopia, P. Ricœur contrasted ideology and utopia, which are both ambiguous and which address the problem of power sometimes on a confrontational mode. If every ideology tends to legitimize authority, Ricœur argues, every utopia radically questions it through the notion of a “nowhere”, and builds up an empty locus peopled with others who progressively turn into mirror images. To ideology as a distortion of reality, utopia answers as fantasy; to ideology as a legitimation of power, utopia provides an alternative manner of governing; to ideology as the preservation of individual or group identity, utopia suggests itself as a way of exploring alternative subjectivities. More fundamentally, utopia shows that power relies on discursive operations, always questionable and unable to be grounded. It necessarily exposes what Ricœur terms “a kind of blind point in our existence” (Ricœur 1986 311) as well as in the political realm. Such intent was arguably Pater’s when portraying Lacedaemon. One may wonder about the purpose of an author who seems to adopt no clear-cut position and relies on multiple and contradictory sources (Plato, Pausanias, Xenophon, K. O. Müller) (Coates 2005, 41-66). The answer appears in the next chapter discussing The Republic. Pater draws a parallel between the alleged historical reality of Sparta and Plato’s ideal polity in order to interrogate the realisation of such a political ideal. He creates an imaginary Sparta, partaking of utopia which inevitably leads to the dystopian republic where individual desire is negated. Invoking and partly inventing some other place to question reality, Pater confronts readers to late-Victorian times where education and citizenship remain prominent issues. Plato takes the secluded city of Lacedaemon—“an organised place of discipline” (205)—as the model of his Republic as is proven by “many a detail taken straight from Lacedaemon as it really was” (198),7 and Pater’s portrait of Lacedaemon where the “very genius of conservatism … [is] enthroned” (204) mirrors Plato’s community partaking of the same spirit, “though with no conscious theories about it” (200). According to Plato, “those conservative Lacedaemonians being, so to speak, the people of memory” (199) were the guardians of past times towards which subjects confronted to uncertain democratic times could turn to with nostalgia or interest. Such a retrospective glance was also that of the Victorians, and Pater’s Sparta resembles another place where memory was being kept and traditions upheld amid growing anxieties—the University of Oxford (Brock and Curthoys 1997).

  • 8 Pater mostly reflected on political issues in Gaston de Latour, his unfinished novel about 16th-cen (...)

6Pater’s explicit parallel between Oxford and Sparta—rather than with Britain—is unique in his writings: like nineteenth-century Oxford, Lacedaemon is “only a great village, a solemn, ancient, mountain village” with its “open place or street, High Street, or Corso—Aphetais by name, lined irregularly again, with various religious and other monuments” (208). Youth in Lacedaemon behaves “like our own academic youth at Oxford” (215). One may therefore read Pater’s particular portrait of a place and polity as embodying his thoughts on the English educational system, and more generally upon his era. Politics in Pater’s writings may therefore be approached as an under-current, from his earlier writings developing a specific notion of individuality within a certain type of culture and time, to a later consideration of the situation of the individual vis-à-vis the social body which mainly deployed in his 1880s-1890s writings.8

I. Entering Lacedaemon

  • 9 “You couldn’t really know it unless you were of it” (215).
  • 10 “[S]ome contemporary student of The Republic … mak[ing] personal inspection of the place” (202).
  • 11 Athens is a “growing place, always rebuilding, remodelling itself, after the newest fashion, with s (...)

7Pater portrays Sparta as a place where “to Laconise consists in the study of philosophy far rather than in the pursuit of gymnastic” (198), thereby inscribing his meditation in the discursive field. Of such laconism, Plato was not exempt, neither was he devoid of humour to picture a city unwilling to admit strangers,9 be they the Seven Sages. Pater is likewise humorous in sending “an admiring visitor” (198) to describe a place and a system upon which testimonies are scarce and conflicting, and which came to be used for different purposes across the ages. J. Coates has convincingly noted the strangeness of the chapter stemming from the multiplicity of contradictory testimonies and unbelievable doings presented as such. Lacedaemon is an imaginary reconstruction for both Plato and Pater, thereby enabling the latter to adopt some distance from the social and educative system he belongs to. Pater purposefully creates a utopia vis-à-vis the utopia of The Republic to reflect on the ideology of British higher education. Examining the Lacedaemonian polity through the fictive eyes of young Anarchasis,10 discovering an austere type of beauty “in the hidden valley of the Eurotas” (203), Pater contrasts that “little mountain town” (210), with its comforting sight of plane trees—“characteristic” of both Lacedaemon and of Plato—exercising “an aesthetic influence on character” (209), to Athens behind which looms London as a metropolis threatened by dispersion.11

8With its “two kings … reigning together, in some not quite clearly evolved differentiation of the temporal and spiritual functions” (211), Lacedaemon may evoke a theocracy, but more importantly Britain with her Established Church. In Sparta, “a certain ἄσκησις” (222), the result of both a sensitiveness to aesthetics and of a demanding ethical ideal sustained by “a special purpose” (211), is embodied in “palaces, with a certain Homeric, Asiatic splendour, of wrought metal and the like” (211), while the “relics of [the Spartans’] worship, their sanctuaries, their tombs, their very houses, were part of the scenery of actual life” (212). Asiatic splendour is contrasted to the prevailing Dorian style, the equivalent of Gothic whose purity Pater always praised. Aesthetics appears reconciled with politics and ethics, while an ironical Pater notes: “Those who in other places had lost their taste amid the facile splendours of a later day, might here go to school again.” (213) Utopia always begins as a glorious dream.

  • 12 Scott and Liddell translate the word as “omissions, deficiencies” and quote The Republic (401, e). (...)

9As an extra-territorial location—the “trap, or falcon’s nest” (207)—Lacedaemon is however repeatedly characterized by its rejection of any “παραλειπόμενον, as Plato says, [any] ‘oversights’” (206). The word, also used by Pater to describe Plato’s Republic,12 designates here the impossibility of everything pertaining to the field of individual desire. The rejection of paraleipomenon shows that we are indeed in a singular place, a dimension that seems to have been unnoticed by most readers possibly deceived by Pater’s artful portrait.

10Both Xenophon and K. O. Müller stressed the Spartans’ interest in music (μουσική), a music continuously played and listened to, which constitutes Pater’s starting-point in questioning the ethics of that strange community:

What was this ‘music,’ this service or culture of the Muses, this harmony, partly moral, doubtless, but also throughout a matter of elaborate movement of the voice, of musical instruments, of all beside that could in any way be associated to such things—this music, for the maintenance, the perpetual sense of which those vigorous souls were ready to sacrifice so many opportunities, privileges, enjoyments of a different sort, so much of their ease, of themselves, of one another? (200)

11If the “half-military, half-monastic spirit” (218) of Sparta persisted, it is because its moral and political system survived as an end in itself, Pater concludes. Every society is arguably founded upon an ideal to which every member identifies and which creates the body politic through an implicit link between individuals, as well as upon some renunciation for the sake of a collective unity, but Lacedaemon strikes an unusual note because all renunciations are purposeless. No ideal, no Aristotelian sovereign Good guides the citizens who must behave in unchanging ways and according to an especially strict discipline. Spartans, often compared to monks, are “seen but not heard except under regulations, when they made the best music in the world” (210). In this music, according to Plato, no paraleipomenon, “no superfluities”, should be found (206).

  • 13 Helots are described as “on a level with their masters in essential qualities” (217).

12Pater’s picture becomes gloomier when he describes Spartan institutionalised slavery: the polity relies on a “race of slaves, distinguishable however from the slaves or serfs who tilled the land” (215), who have the particularity of being also “Greeks” (204). That this never existed is of no importance to Pater who maintains such invention because it serves his purpose of foregrounding both the racial homogeneity of the city and its class disparities.13 Those disparities must be maintained at all costs, including that of night attacks committed by “youthful lords” (217) against any Helot grown “too tall, or too handsome, or too fruitful a father, to feel quite like a slave” (205). Maintaining the social status quo rests upon the benefits of slavery for both slaves who are part of “an organised place of discipline”, and “for the sort of youth that knew how to command by serving … youth thus committing itself absolutely, soul and body, to a corporate sentiment” (206). Not only are all Spartans perfectly fitted to their employment with Helot craftsmen structured in guilds to transmit their art while their masters, “les Gens fleur-de-lisés” or the “aristocrats”, have “unbroken leisure … to perfect themselves for the proper function of gentlemen” (216), but their whole polity rests upon a “slavish ἦθος, the servile range of sentiment, which ought to accompany the condition of slavery” (216). This translates as “the ἀρετή, or ‘best possible condition,’ of the young servitor as such, including a sort of bodily worship, and a willingness to share the keen discipline which had developed to so attractive gallantry of his youthful lords.” (217) Noting that Helots “could never be entirely subdued in spirit” (217), Pater stresses that such “traditional conception of life, with its earnestness, its precision and strength, its loyalty to its own type, its impassioned completeness” constitutes “a spectacle, aesthetically at least, very interesting, like some perfect instrument shaping to what they visibly were, the most beautiful of all people, in Greece, in the world” (218). Lacedaemon rests on an ethos of servitude.

  • 14 Spartans play a “sport, rougher even than our own” (210), exercise with “feet and head uncovered th (...)

13The young Spartans enjoy “σχολή, leisure in the two meanings of the word, which in truth involve one another” which they have been taught in “austere schools” (216). Like English colleges, the Spartan “strictly public education” (219) is predicated upon renunciations and the “obedience” of all members (221). It is based on the endurance of pain,14 “not of bodily disease […] but as it were by dignified rules of art, [which] seem to have refined them, to have made them observant of the minutest direction in those musical exercises, wherein eye and ear and voice and foot all alike combined” (206).

14In education, Sparta is the paragon of “proportion […] and of the education of its youth” (219). The role of a “strictly public” education, so reminiscent of England’s, is to make the liberales “the lords, the masters, of those they were meant by-and-by to rule; masters of their very souls, of their imagination, enforcing on them an ideal, by a sort of spiritual authority, thus backing, or backed by, a very effective organisation of ‘the power of the sword’” (219-20). For all these qualities, Sparta appears as “a spectacle, aesthetically, at least, very interesting” (218). Such spectacle may mask that the system is founded upon the individual absence of social or personal mobility and on the sacrifice of all members—the “genuine Laconism of the Lacedaemonians” (218). Such self-sacrifice may elicit some admiration, but its emphasis by Pater points out to its lack of verisimilitude and confirms both that we are indeed in Utopia and that Pater meditates on such ethos.

15To achieve this harmonious division between masters and slaves, young Spartans leave their homes to live “a peculiar kind of barrack-life, the temper of which [is] a sort of military monasticism” (220), and which aims at fostering “personal dignity… self-command” (221). In parallel, “neither there nor everywhere else, were the boys permitted to be alone” (220-1). Constantly living under “the imperative, inevitable gaze of [their] fellows, broad, searching, minute” (221), young Spartans are deprived of all intimacy, i.e. of every aspect that constitutes one’s core identity. Spartan education aims at fostering deference and absolute obedience thereby leaving no room for individual desire. Shared musical education underlines that individuality has disappeared for the sake of a community, all the more peculiar as it is “bent above all things on keeping indelibly its own proper colour” (223).

  • 15 In “Emerald Uthwart,” Pater defines British public schools as a via media between paganism and mona (...)

16Young Spartans train their memory and imagination by a learning method closely based on rote learning quite similar to the one dispensed in British schools with “some Gothic cloister … of the young Lacedaemonian’s cousins at Sion, singing there the law and its praises” (224).15 Such an education is also remarkable for developing both body and mind. Young Spartans display “a male body, far remote from feminine tenderness” (222), whose education predicated on “music”, culminates with “body, mind, memory above all, at their finest, on great show-days, in the dance” (224). In their theatre, Lacedaemonians perform a “concise, direct, economically expressive, in all its varied sound and motion” art—that Plato justified in the Republic—and which indeed partakes of “both of a liturgical service and of a military inspection” (225). However, no paralipomenon should mar the spectacle: “With no movement of voice or hand or foot, παραλειπόμενον, unconsidered, as Plato forbids, it was the perfect flower of their correction, of that minute patience and care which ends in a perfect expressiveness; not a note, a glance, a touch, but told obediently in the promotion of a firmly grasped mental conception” (225).

17Religion is conspicuous in that “catholic or general centre of Greek religion [where] the Lacedaemonians were the hereditary and privileged guardians, as also the peculiar people of Apollo, the god of Delphi” (226). Pater had previously mentioned the legend of a city “come ready-made from the mind of some half-divine Lycurgus, or through him from Apollo himself” (203). However Apollo is no ordinary god: besides being the god of music, he is also presented by Pater “in a peculiar development of his deity,” as an “ethical” god, whose cult embodies “a marked preference for the human element in him, for the mental powers of his being over those elemental or physical forces of production” (227).

  • 16 “[A]bstract qualities and relationships, ideals, become subsidiary objects of religious considerati (...)

18In Pater’s “The Marbles of Aegina” (1880), Apollo already appeared as an ethical god, as opposed to the more material and sensual Dionysus. Apollo enjoys a higher degree of abstraction16 while “other gods also are, so to speak, Apollinised, adapted to the Apolline presence” (227). His worshippers enjoy “a religion of sanity”, “deeply imbued everywhere with an optimism as of hopeful youth”, a religion which somehow functions as a “purgation of religious thought and sentiment”, the salutary religion of Apollo, “sanest of the national gods, […] also the tribal or home god of Lacedaemon” (227). By proclaiming themselves the sons of a single abstract god, the Spartans appear similar to the elect whose conviction of being the beloved sons of their father sustains their community.

19Spartans also celebrate the Hyacinthia, i.e. the death of Hyacinthus, “son of Apollo or son of an ancient mortal king, […] greatly beloved of the god, who had slain him by sad accident as they played quoits together delightfully, to his immense sorrow.” (229) Celebrated for the ethical sense of a “tragic analogue in human life, behind of the figure of the dying youth” (229), the cult is also akin to the cult of the Dioscuri, “fraternal leaders of the Lacedaemonian people”, celebrating the abandonment by Polydeuces of his immortality for the sake of Castor, his brother fallen on the battlefield, so that both brothers finally become “gifted with immortal youth” (231). “Brothers, comrades, who could not live without each other”, the Spartan tutelary figures are a “consecration of the clean, youthful friendship, ‘passing even the love of woman,’ which, by system […] elaborated into a kind of art, became an elementary part of education” (231). Such a pair refers to the homosociality and same-sex love Pater has been exploring since 1868 to foreground their ethical and political value. Both embody an ethics where “[t]he beloved and the lover, side by side through their long days of eager labour, and above all, on the battlefield, became respectively ἀίτης, the hearer, and εἰσπνήλας, the inspirer; the elder inspiring the younger with his own strength and noble taste in things” (231-2). Hearer and inspirer are divine versions of the Lacedaemonian slaves and masters.

2. From hearers and inspirers to subservience

  • 17 “It is as an erastes that Alcestis sacrifices herself for her husband. This is less of a radical, t (...)

20That masculine couple has elicited many scholarly commentaries (Dellamora 1990; Dowling 1994); it also evokes the couple of the érastès (lover) and érôménos (beloved) as analysed by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Reading Plato’s Symposium in his Seminar VIII (1960-61) to discuss transference and the erotic relationship, Lacan defines love as a metaphor where the subject goes from being an érôménos to being an érastès. Reading Phaedrus’ discourse in the Symposium opposing Alcestis and Admetus to Patroclus and Achilles—couples where one member sacrificed itself for the sake of the other—Lacan argues that if the gods are less sensitive to the attitude of Alcestis, who “is the only one who substitutes herself for husband”, (Lacan and Gallagher) than to the attitude of Achilles, who “makes of the destiny of Patroclos the debt for which he himself has to answer, which he himself must face”, it is because Achilles goes from being an érôménos to being an érastès (Lacan and Gallagher), whereas Alcestis remains an érastès.17 Lacan therefore defines love as a metaphor or a substitution where the subject goes from being desired to desiring. Such an analysis casts an illuminating light on Pater’s intriguing chapter. In Pater’s reconstructed Lacedaemon, there is no metaphor but a relation of domination founded upon submission, a “slavish ἦθος” (216).

21Such a relation echoes “Emerald Uthwart” (1892), another imaginary portrait written simultaneously as “Lacedaemon”, following a visit Pater paid to King’s School in Canterbury where he had been educated. “Emerald Uthwart” brings Pater’s implicit argument in Lacedaemon to explicitness by showing the individual effect of the ascetic Dorian ideal. Therefore both texts should be read in parallel, as B. Inman suggested (Inman 85-107).

  • 18 “The aim of a veritable community, says Plato, is not that this or that member of it should be disp (...)

22Emerald arrives in a world of “grey stones” (EU 204) where “instantaneous obedience” (205) is expected, and where roles are only those of the dominant and the dominated (205). He is compared to a “plain tablet” upon which the school “embodied ideal”, will be impressed (207). The school centres around mastery: “The very place one is in, its stone-work, its empty spaces, invade you; … challenge you … to systematise your vagrant self; which however will in any case be here systematised for you” (207). Such an institution is said to partake of the Platonic community18 privileging groups over individuals. It is therefore to this Lacedaemonian ideal conforming minds and bodies to its rule (208) that Emerald will have to submit.

  • 19 Submissiveness!—It had the force of genius with Emerald Uthwart” (217).

23Presented as “the genius of submissiveness”,19 Emerald appears to be fascinated by “ἄσκησιs” (210), before he succumbs to the sway of James Stokes, his prefect, whose feelings he first awakened by his enigmatic character:

There is something however in the lad’s soldier-like, impassible self-command, in his sustained expression of a certain indifference to things, which awakes suddenly all the sentiment, the poetry, latent hitherto in another—James Stokes, the prefect, his immediate superior (212).

24James is first presented as a “seemingly plodding” student (212) whose desire is aroused by the self-restraint and apparent impassibility of Emerald, before he seeks the model of their friendship first in classical writings, then in the military “glory” (214). But whereas the Platonic eros rests upon the transformation of an érôménos into an érastès, Emerald remains subjugated. He accepts responsibility for the fault committed by his superior (217), going as far as to ask forgiveness from the person who flogs him, before he submits to the will of James leading him to rob the standard of the enemy during the war they take part in: “an act of thoughtless bravery, almost the sole irregular or undisciplined act of Uthwart’s life, […] still following his senior” (230). Emerald has embraced the deed of his friend not by personal willingness or desire, but by a sense of subservience. He has been seduced by James who is himself prey to his own hubris:

always eloquent in action, longing for heroic effort, and ready to pay its price, maddened now by the palpable imposture in front of him morning after morning, as he demonstrates conclusively to Uthwart, seduced at last from the clearer sense of duty and discipline, not by the demonstrated ease, but rather by the apparent difficulty of what Stokes proposes to do. (233)

25There is therefore no erotic metaphor and all throughout the story roles remain fixed with the blessing of a school and military system described in Lacedaemon. After he has been court-martialled and dismissed, Emerald still wearing “a look of humility and submission” wanders in the countryside, almost envious of the fate of his friend shot for treason (238). Finally back home, he dies, this time in a state of “absolute submissiveness” before death (243). His relationship to James shows the extent of Emerald’s subservience as well as the fixity of their places: neither the ἀίτης, and εἰσπνήλας, Pater’s version of Lacan’s érastès and érôménos, will move. Both are prisoners of a school system Pater weights and finds wanting.

26Back in Lacedaemon, let us wonder first with the “Platonic visitor”: “Why this strenuous task-work, day after day; why this loyalty to a system, so costly to you individually, though it may be thought to have survived its original purpose; this laborious, endless, education, which does not propose to give anything very useful or enjoyable in itself?” (232) What is the aim of an education based on a permanent relation of domination without any object or reward? As some “intelligent young Spartan” might have replied: “To the end that I myself may be a perfect work of art, issuing thus into the eyes of all Greece.” (233) Such education aims at turning the individual into a work of art in perfect conformity to “the institutions of his country” which “had a beauty in themselves”, and which, Pater notes, “as we may observe also of some at least of our institutions, educational or religious” (233). The Lacedaemonian education reduces the desiring subject to an individual perfectly fitted to his community. Like those of English institutions where, thanks to classical syllabi bringing out “the lights and shadows of human character, and reliev[ing] the present by maintaining in it an ideal sense of the past” (233), the spirit of Lacedaemon has been kept, the relationship of ἀίτης and εἰσπνήλας only fosters strict obedience and stasis.

  • 20 “Emerald Uthwart” contrasts the “seeming indirectness or lack of purpose” of British public schools (...)

27Pater insists: “To what purpose? Such ἄσκησιs reminding one of “the monasticism of the Middle Ages” has “no prospect of Israel’s reward” (233). Its reward is indeed paltry: to the winners of games, playwrights, and statesmen, the Spartans give “that so ‘corruptible’ and essentially worthless parsley crown in place of the more tangible prizes of an earlier age” (233). Such a prize points out towards a purely symbolic Good and exposes the illusion of all forms of power. The Spartan ethics is different from the Christian reward in some after-world, from the medieval Christianity for which ἄσκησιs functions as “the purging of a troubled conscience, or for the hope immense prize” (233). The particularity of such ethics of selflessness is that it has no other aim but itself. 20 As opposed to the Christian self-abnegation entailing a place in Heaven, as against Utilitarianism where every individual only seeks his/her self-interest with the hope that the addition of individual quests will produce some collective good, Lacedaemon, or “some of our English places of education, […] it is good to visit […] on occasion” (234), has the sole aim of perpetuating a system where individuals are “like hired servants in [their] own houses” (234). Likewise, the education of Oxford relies on an ethics the aim of which consists in turning the subject into a work of art, without any defect, without any paraleipomenon. Such an ethics interrogates the idea of an existence reduced to the strict observance of rules, along with an intersubjective economy resting upon the subservience of all individuals, deprived of any possibility of erotic metaphor, therefore indefinitely postponing the time for desire.


28Following the law of the genre, Pater’s utopia ends in dystopia. Begun as a pleasant periegesis, it leads to a society so perfect that it becomes inhuman. In “Lacedaemon”, Pater presents the picture of a polity forbidding all expression of desire, anticipating Lacan’s conclusion of Seminar VII: “The morality of power, of the service of goods, is as follows: ‘As far as desires are concerned, come back later. Make them wait.’” (Lacan 1997, 315) For Lacan, power establishes its very strength by seeking to repress or postpone desire. For its part, Lacedaemon, where the same repression occurs, is still intriguing Pater: this “paradoxical idealism in life … puzzle[s] us” (234). Lacedaemon is indeed Pater’s dystopia vis-à-vis Plato’s Republic casting a dystopian shadow over Plato’s invention. Both chapters echo and mirror each other, painting a grim, somehow ironical portrait of imaginary polities. Putting a purely symbolic good as the sovereign Good amounts for Pater to a negation of man’s essential characteristic: his paraleipomenon.

29As J. Coates argued, Pater voices a rejection of Victorian higher education in Oxford all the more effective for its careful moderation and subtlety (Coates 63). A pamphlet would have posited writer and reader in the field of polemos: by creating extraterritoriality, utopia/dystopia establishes the necessary distance for an unimpassioned look on a locus characterised by the very absence of all venue for individuality. Lacedaemon is an unreal locus that “some philosophic Athenians… loved to [visit], at least in thought” (234). It is assuredly the best situation to measure the real paraleipomenon that the absence or negation of the subject of desire constitutes. Utopia/dystopia appears as the most suitable literary genre to consider paideia and citizenship so as to demonstrate the dead end of subjectivity reduced to mere obedience. Its implicit parallel between creation and reality also enables a sideways glance behind the Greek city-state to that other city-state of the University. Such an institution fails to produce enlightened free citizens. Implicitly Pater suggests the creation of an institution that would acknowledge individual desire he always posited as the basis of society.

30Both through its literary genre and its educational and political suggestions, Pater’s Lacedaemon finally appears as a political text, fully committed to exploring the life and conditions of the polis the nature of which it has become increasingly difficult to grasp in 1893. Not as famous as W. Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), “Lacedaemon” demonstrates that the proponents of a Sovereign Beautiful were not averse to exploring the Sovereign Good as well.

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1 Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873. Republished with revision in 1877, 1888 and 1893, the book had considerable influence upon the undergraduates of the 1880s and 1890s.

2 Lectures “written for delivery to some young students of philosophy, and now printed with the hope of interesting a larger number of them,” (W. Pater 1931, v). All references are to this edition.

3 “[Pater] translates […] Plato’s theory, with the greatest freedom and vivacity, into its true modern equivalents.” [W. Hutton], Spectator 70 (1 April 1893): 422-3, rpt. Seiler: 268.

4 E. Gosse, New Review 8 (April 1893): 419-29, rpt. Seiler: 254-5.

5 [R. Le Gallienne], Star, 23 February 1893, 2, rpt. Seiler: 246. Paul Shorey writes: “Lacedaemon […] is a prose poem”, Dial 1. 14 (April 1893): 211-14, rpt. Seiler: 258.

6 Those discoveries gave rise to Pater’s series of lectures upon archaeology: “The history of Greek Art from Pausanias’s books I, V and VI” during the Michaelmas term of 1878. Those lectures were published as “The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture,” “The Marbles of Aegina” (1880) and “The Age of Athletic Prizemen” (1892).

7 Along with “admiring allusions … covert, yet bold enough” in The Republic itself (201-2), there is “a certain spirit at Lacedaemon of which [Plato’] own ideal Republic would have been the completer development” (198).

8 Pater mostly reflected on political issues in Gaston de Latour, his unfinished novel about 16th-century France (Pater 1995).

9 “You couldn’t really know it unless you were of it” (215).

10 “[S]ome contemporary student of The Republic … mak[ing] personal inspection of the place” (202).

11 Athens is a “growing place, always rebuilding, remodelling itself, after the newest fashion, with shapeless suburbs stretching farther and farther on every side, grown too large, as Plato threatens, to be a body, a corporate unity” (207-8).

12 Scott and Liddell translate the word as “omissions, deficiencies” and quote The Republic (401, e). L. Campbell disagreed with Pater’s use, see Classical Review 7 (1893): 263-6, rpt. Seiler: 275.

13 Helots are described as “on a level with their masters in essential qualities” (217).

14 Spartans play a “sport, rougher even than our own” (210), exercise with “feet and head uncovered through frost and heat” (207), have “no warm baths” (222) while “[w]hips and rods [are] used in a kind of monitorial system” (206).

15 In “Emerald Uthwart,” Pater defines British public schools as a via media between paganism and monachism: “by a double compromise […] we teach them their pagan Latin and Greek under the shadow of medieval church-towers, amid the haunts, the traditions, and with something of the discipline, of monasticism,” Pater, “Emerald Uthwart”, New Review 6 (June 1892): 708-722; 7 (July 1892): 40-54, rpt. Pater 1895: 205. All references are to this edition.

16 “[A]bstract qualities and relationships, ideals, become subsidiary objects of religious consideration around him, such as sleep, death, fear, fortune, laughter even.” (227)

17 “It is as an erastes that Alcestis sacrifices herself for her husband. This is less of a radical, total, spectacular manifestation of love than the change of role which is produced at the level of Achilles when, from being an eromenos he transforms himself into an erastes.” (Lacan and Gallagher 42)

18 “The aim of a veritable community, says Plato, is not that this or that member of it should be disproportionately at ease, but that the whole should flourish […]. The social type he preferred […] was conservative Sparta and its youth; whose unsparing discipline had doubtless something to do with the fact that it was the handsomest and best-formed in all Greece. A school is not made for one” (EU 210).

19 Submissiveness!—It had the force of genius with Emerald Uthwart” (217).

20 “Emerald Uthwart” contrasts the “seeming indirectness or lack of purpose” of British public schools with “forms of education more obviously useful or practical” (211).

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Bénédicte COSTE, « The Politics of Utopia: Walter Pater’s “Lacedaemon” »E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 25 mai 2016, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Bénédicte COSTE

University of Burgundy
Bénédicte Coste is Professor of Victorian Studies at the University of Burgundy. She mainly specialises in late-nineteenth-century writing and culture. She has devoted three monographs in French on Walter Pater and is currently working on a monograph in English on the literary dialogue between Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. She has translated almost all essays by Pater into French, including The Renaissance (Classiques Garnier, 2016). With Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, she co-edited Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism (Routledge, 2016), an exploration of the dis/continuities between Aestheticism and Modernisms.

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