What about the apparent absurdity of the ideas of dignity, freedom and reason being sustained by extreme military discipline, including the practice of discarding weak children? This apparent absurdity is just the price of freedom - “Freedom is not free,” as it is said in the film. Freedom is not something given, but rather is regained through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything. The ruthless military discipline of the Spartans is not just the opposite of Athenian “liberal democracy”; it is its inherent condition and lays the foundation for it.
True freedom is not freedom of choice made from a safe distance; it is not like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake. True freedom overlaps with necessity - one makes a free choice when one’s choice puts at stake one’s very existence. One does it because one cannot do otherwise. When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, it is phrased not as, “You are free to choose,” but, “Can’t you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” No wonder all early modern egalitarian radicals, from Rousseau to the Jacobins, admired the Spartans and imagined republican France as a new Sparta. There is an emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline that survives once you subtract all the historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule - the ruthless exploitation of slaves, and so on. No wonder Trotsky described the Soviet Union in the difficult years of “war communism” as a “proletarian Sparta”.
Soldiers are not bad per se but soldiers mobilised by nationalist poetry are. There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.
Religion fits this role perfectly, and so does ethnic belonging. There are instances of pathological atheists being capable of committing mass murder just for pleasure but they are rare exceptions. The masses need to be anaesthetised against their elementary sensitivity to the suffering of others and, for this, a sacred cause is needed. Religious ideologues claim that, whether its dogmas are true or not, religion can make otherwise bad people do some good. Yet, as Steven Weinberg has argued, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, but only religion can make good people do bad.
Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city. It was rather sensible advice, however, at least when judged from the vantage point of the post-Yugoslav experience, in which ethnic cleansing was prepared by the dangerous dreams of poets. True, Slobodan Milosevic “manipulated” nationalist passions but it was the poets who provided him with the raw material that lent itself to manipulation. They - the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians - were at the origin of it all when, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia but also in other Yugoslav republics.”