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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Spartan Eloquence

In the ancient world, the Spartans were (in)famous for speaking rarely and employing as few words as possible to convey meaning. This was yet another area in which the Spartan tradition was the exact opposite of the Athenian one.  In Athens, the ability to sway the Assembly -- or the hundreds of jurors in a court case -- with a good speech was the very foundation of power and influence. Pericles and Alcibiades are just two examples of Athenian politicians, who owed their power largely to their skill with words.  

The Spartans, in contrast, valued simplicity in speech no less than in attire or architecture. Ancient “Laconophiles” collected examples of Spartan speech, all characterized by pithiness, while Xenophon stresses the – evidently unusual – ability of Spartan youth to hold their tongues except when directly addressed. Perhaps the most graphic example of the Spartan distaste for excessive verbiage, however, is the (probably apocryphal) story of the Samian ambassadors, who sought Spartan aid in their fight against Polycrates.  According to Herodotus, the Samians gave a very long speech after which the Spartan’s complained they had forgotten the start of the speech by the end of it.  When the Samians then brought a bag and said the bag needed flour, the Spartans replied that the word ‘bag’ was superfluous – and proceeded to give the requested aid. (Herodotus 3:46). 

Another, more famous example of Spartan succinctness was Leonidas reply to Xerxes demand that the 300 Spartiates at Thermopylae surrender their arms. Based on the speeches of various Athenian commanders recorded in Thucydides, it is easy to imagine what an Athenian commander would have answered. An Athenian commander would undoubtedly have given a long lecture to Xerxes on democracy and freedom, on honor and how beautiful it is to die for one's country. Leonidas confined himself to: "Come and take them."

Because Spartan eloquence was characterized by an absolute minimum of words, we describe minimalistic speech as “Laconic” even to this day.  Yet while the Spartan culture of reducing speech to its bare essentials and speaking only when necessary was described and admired by ancient observers, the reasons for Sparta’s culture of silence are less obvious.

W. Lindsay Wheeler in his excellent article “Doric Crete and Sparta, home of Greek Philosophy,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2), provides a possible answer. He notes that silence was a critical component of the Spartan educational system because it taught youth to give their thoughts "force and intensity by compression.” He suggests Spartans wanted their speech to be “short, concise and to the point, like their spear points.”  He goes on expound on the depth to which philosophy lay at the roots of Spartan society and culture. He argues that a society that valued philosophy based on observation, scorned idle chatter, and it is fair to assume that in Sparta men were expected to speak only when they had something worth saying. Sparta valued philosophers rather than sophists.

I think there may have been another factor at work here too, as I hinted last week's entry  about Gorgo's most famous quote. Whereas in Athens, men gained respect, influence and power through their ability to sway the Athenian assembly with their words, Spartans were more likely to gain respect and influence by proving their competency at arms.  Likewise, appointment to coveted office such as the Hippeis required living a "virtuous" life -- hardly something expected of Athenian elites. In short, in Sparta, what a man did counted for more than what he said.

This is not the same, however, as being uneducated and incapable of sophisticated expression. As Helmuth Graf Moltke, the novel-writing, strategic genius behind Prussia's military victories over Austria and France in the 19th Century pointed out, it is far more difficult to formulate thoughts concisely than to express them at length. Indeed, it is very easy to ramble on for hours without saying anything at all!  The Spartan form of minimalist expression required an equal command of language as the Athenian rhetorical tradition of long political speeches and theatrical monologues -- but a good deal more discipline.

As for silence, it too can convey meaning.  Silence can be threatening or sympathetic, disapproving or indifferent. Silence, especially when combined with action, can even be eloquent. I suspect, such eloquence was the kind most valued in Sparta.

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