Power of the word

The Spartans were known for their legendary, concise, laconic (named after the region of which Sparta was part) wit. The adage that “less is more” never applied anywhere more-or-less than it does with the Spartan rejoinder. The verbal volley as decapitating as their legendary martial spirit. Plutarch, in On Talkativeness, in Moralia, recounts a story of Philip II, the shrewd, political, powerful king of Macedon. Sending a message to the Spartans, he wrote (depending on the translation): “If once I enter into your territories, I will destroy ye all, never to rise again”. The Spartans’ reply was a word: If.

The power of that one word is still enough to send the chills up the spine. The thrill up the leg, as Chris Matthews oddly puts it. There was no needless back and forth. Contained within that “If” was not a challenge, but a threat. A warning to the Macedonian that he could try; but that in ‘trying’ lay an implicit risk of failure. We know who you are, we know how powerful you claim to be, but we dare you to try. Either Philip would expend the manpower and resources trying to becalm this unruly state, one with a history of martial fortitude. All in a futile effort, perhaps. Or he could just avoid Sparta altogether.

He ended up opting for aversion. So did his son, Alexander the Great.

The Spartans showed that one word could contain enough force to act as deterrence. The ability to stop the entire Macedonian army from mounting an invasion. The Spartans abruptly ended “negotiations” and “war” with a single verbal blow. It was as political as it was martial. War, as Clausewitz brilliantly put it, merely being the continuation of politics by other means. Nothing got their message across as directly, decisively, or pointedly as that one word. Would they have gone to war to back up that threat, that warning of all warnings? It is precisely why Philip avoided Sparta. They believed in their war-making abilities so much that they were literally willing to go to war to prove it. Which is just a longwinded way of saying that they thought they were complete badasses. Philip needed no further proof. He, forgive the phrasing, took them at their word.

Regrettably, few things in life allow for this austere, laconic approach. Concepts, ideas, the very foundation of societies, cultures, and civilizations even, require painful and pained discourse. The promise of language is the ability to debate with one another. But such debate – the politics – frequently leads to conflict – the war. The flaw of language is that its varied meanings, for conventional words, but especially for contentious words, often suggest that the more one talks the more one leaves themselves open to attack. The more that is said, the more disagreements have a chance to arise. The more diluted discourse becomes.

A powerful lesson the Spartans teach us is to never say more than you have to; and that if you have to say something, say it as simply as possible. Directness leaves no room for ambiguity. The more words you use to attempt to even a situation, the more you have to talk, not only is there the greater chance of looking or sounding increasingly foolish, but increasingly misconstrued. And you allow ammunition for your opponents. However, a secondary approach might be less direct. Deflect somebody else’s words with short wit that contains implications and ambiguities. The cliché says that man is as good as his word. A voice empowers the speaker. What if I am right and you are not? Trust us, words seem to say. If you cannot trust the words, can you trust the source? Words give us a steering mechanism. When we can think something, and say it, it makes us feel autonomous. That because our thoughts matter, voicing them aloud is most important. Disempower the words, disempower the man.

Words have even more power if there is some force or energy backing them. Would Philip have forgone laying waste to Tyre if it had responded as Sparta did? Probably not. This is then another lesson. Contra-positive the previous lesson, and thus, when you empower the man, you empower the words. The more empowered the man, the more empowered the words. Philip had good cause to take the Spartans seriously. Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun, Mao once wisely quipped. Realize that those who matter enough need no guns. That the best power is institutionalized, legitimized. This legitimized institutional backing is what gives a state authority empowerment. Empower the man, empower the words. Empower the words by placing a very real force behind it. In the Spartans’ case, there were no such things as empty threats.

Philip’s threat, while not incredibly verbose, was long enough for the Spartans to exploit, redirecting a single word’s energy and power back at the threatening party. Philip told the Spartans what would happen. The Spartans, by omitting, thus disempowering, the actual threat, left Philip to imagine what would happen if (and if not). And what we often imagine turns out to be far worse than what might actually happen. Philip seems to have believed that the Spartans were as good as their word. But this is also speculation. The point is: Who knows what the Spartans would have done? Philip never followed through. Thus, we are left with the power of a word, and imagined scenarios.

In fact, to say that he “took them at their word” would be to laconically describe the power of the word. But that language can be so powerful a tool, yet also a terrible hindrance, is underappreciated. Language is evocative. Words have a power in themselves. On the other hand, language is also as limited as the words themselves, and their understood meanings. The word “if” implies a hypothetical. It has not yet happened. It might. It could. But just as well, it might as well not. Philip threatened them with an imagined scenario. Imagine your lands taken from you, yourselves obliterated, your women and children enslaved, eventually assimilated. Imagine what would effectively be the annihilation of everything Spartan. To this imagined scenario, the Spartans offered the Macedonians one in return: Imagine not.

(Positive thinking if there ever was such a thing. Or is it negative thinking?)


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