Train guards and underground drivers are planning to amuse passengers with a range of thought-provoking apophthegms. Most of the examples sound achingly dull. Classical ones would certainly wake up the carriage. Perhaps the most common Greek sentiment was, ‘It is your duty to help your friends and harm your enemies.’ So the Greek philosopher Thales, asked how best one could endure adversity, replied, ‘If one sees one’s enemies doing worse.’ He also came up with the following gem: ‘There are three attributes for which I am grateful to Fortune: that I was born, first, human and not animal; second, man and not woman; and third, Greek and not barbarian.’ Whoops.
Clearly the squibs must be appropriate for the audience. In the morning, that means businessmen. The Greek Cleobulus had a good eye for targets: ‘When a man leaves the house, let him inquire what he intends to do; and when he returns, what he has achieved.’ Solon was good on policy-making: ‘Measure life as if you have both a short and a long time to live.’ For the head-hunter, Pittacus replied to someone who said it was vital to find a good man, ‘If you look too carefully, you will never find one.’ On those tempted to overextend themselves, Bias commented, ‘Your soul is diseased if you yearn for what you can never attain.’
But the Spartans are the real stars. Inhabiting Laconia (whence ‘laconic’), they were famous in the ancient world for their cracking one-liners. If business is a form of warfare, there might be much to learn from them. King Agis used to remark that he never knew how many the enemy were, just where they were; and another, informed that the enemy were close to them, replied, ‘So are we to them.’ The shortest soundbite in history occurred when an enemy embassy announced that they were about to invade Laconia and if they succeeded, Sparta would be razed. The Spartans replied ‘If’. As for status, when the young king-to-be Agesilaus was given a lowly part in a school show, he said, ‘Fine. I’ll show that it isn’t positions that enhance men, but men who enhance positions.’ Bankers and politicians, take note.
The point about Spartan brevity is that it enabled Spartans to contribute forcefully and memorably to verbal debate without compromising their tight-lipped, all-action image. We could do with some of that.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 4, 2009