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The 300 and Blackstone

A movie about the last stand of 300 Spartans against the Persian Empire at Thermopylae is opening this weekend. Glasgow-born Gerard Butler has the role of Leonidas. With crowds at capacity in America, cinemas have added 2:30 am showings of 300.

The resistance of the Spartans in 480 BC inflicted heavy losses on the invaders and allowed the allied Greek forces to fall back, and regroup.

The Spartans who fought were citizens, though not of a democracy. The Athenians who defeated the Persians at Salamis and Plataea were citizens of a democracy. Without their united stand, Persia would have overrun Greece and Western civilisation would have been stillborn.

Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, which have been quoted for more than two centuries in the United States, suggest that the participation of citizens in the defense of their country is the surest defense against external attack and internal tyranny.

To prevent the government from becoming so militarily powerful it can oppress its own citizens, Blackstone writes, “it is requisite that the armies with which it is entrusted should consist of the people, and have the same spirit with the people. . . Nothing, then, according to these principles, ought to be more guarded against in a free state than making the military power, when such a one is necessary to be kept on foot, a body too distinct from the people.”

I take this to mean that to be the citizen of a free democracy or a republic means participating in some way in my nation's military. What would that participation look like?

In the event of attack, it would mean defending my nation, even when defeat seemed certain. In the case of the 300, defeat was not the last word.

Blackstone quotation via Volokh.


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