Laconic Speech: The Minimalist Rhetoric of the Spartans

Lycurgus of Sparta explaining the importance of education.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

By Josh Rueff on May 14, 2013
The Spartans were known for their brevity and dry wit. Their style of speech became known as Laconic speech. Laconic speech or phrasing can be used for efficiency, quick witted humor, or in the philosophical pursuit of minimalism, which can be seen in the philosophy of Stoicism for instance. Regardless of its use, it is always brief and to the point.

Few possess the discipline to hold complete control over their speech, and fewer have both control and sharpness of wit. The Spartan elders taught this style of speech to the children during the Agoge, which was the Spartans’ mandatory education and training system. The training began at the age of 7, and was complete by age 29.

It’s no wonder the Spartans became known for their biting instrument of Laconic rhetoric.

Lycurgus of Sparta explaining the importance of education. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Lycurgus of Sparta explaining the importance of education.

Source: Wikipedia Commons




The Influence of Laconicism on Society

Laconic literature has been both praised and criticized throughout history. In ancient Greece, Aristotle scorned the Spartans for their simple speech, and Socrates applauded it. During the rise of minimalist literature, critics praised it’s succinct communication, while others called it scientific and prosaic.

Like it or hate it, Laconicism and minimalist writing has aided the minimalist movement against materialism, created a new avenue of efficient communication, and chiseled new angles into the structure of literature.

Examples of Laconic Phrases

The Greek historian Plutarch wrote an extensive collection of the sayings of the Spartans. Here’s a few excerpts from this collection:

Agis, in answer to the ambassador from Abdera, who, after winding up a long discourse asked him what report he should make to his people at home, said, “Report that during all the time you wanted to speak I listened in silence.”

He (Agis) said that the Spartans did not ask ‘how many are the enemy,’ but ‘where are they?’

When someone inquired how many Spartans there were, he said, “Enough to keep all bad men away.”

In answer to a base man who asked repeatedly who was the best Spartan, he said, “The one most unlike you.”

(Anaxandridas) To a man who told the Ephors of things that were needful, but spoke at greater length than would have sufficed, he said, “My friend, in needless time you dwell upon the need!”

When another person asked why the Spartans, in their wars, ventured boldly into danger, he said, “Because we train ourselves to have regard for life and not, like others, to be timid about it.”

In answer to the Athenian who called the Spartans unlearned, he said, “At any rate we are the only people who have learned no evil from you.”

When Dionysius, the despot of Sicily, sent costly raiment to Archidamus’ daughters, he would not accept it, saying, “I am afraid that, if the girls should put it on, they would appear ugly to me.”

Observing that his son was fighting impetuously against the Athenians, he said, “Either add to your strength, or subtract from your courage.”

Archidamus, the son of Agesilaus, when Philip, after the battle of Chaeroneia, wrote him a somewhat haughty letter, wrote in reply, “If you should measure your own shadow, you would not find that it has become any greater than before you were victorious.”

Brasidas caught a mouse among some figs, and, when he got bitten, let it go. Then, turning to those who were present, he said, “There is nothing so small that it does not save its life if it has the courage to defend itself against those who would lay hand on it.” (1)

How Laconic Speech Can Help You

1. It’s efficient: You’ll save time, effort, and frustration by learning to communicate efficiently, whether you want to use laconic speech to write minimalist literature, surprise people with dry wit, or to simply be a clear and effective communicator.

2. Laconic speech cuts useless babble: Have you ever gotten caught up in a conversation that you find yourself frantically thinking of a good excuse to get out of? Don’t be that guy. Keeping your stories brief and concise while retaining their entertainment value is a skill worth mastering.

3. It’s effective: After reading the Spartan use of laconic wording, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of laconic dialogue.

4. Laconicism builds a sharp wit: Wit is often used to tear people down, but that’s the lesser use. Quick wit can be a valuable tool in helping a friend save face, lightening the mood, or speaking persuasively.

5. It makes your words more relevant: Often, laconic wording takes advantage of universal emotional connotations attached to specific words or groups of words. This makes your communication far more relevant, as the people listening or reading are able to attach their own definition to the words you use. Hemingway’s 6 word story is a great example of this: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

6. Laconic phrases mean more: Especially as others become accustomed to your habit of speaking in brief, meaningful language. Words from a “man of few words” hold more weight than the words of a rambler.