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“Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans I” by Plutarch

Plutarch's Lives

The Laws of Lycurgus

Long before Adam Smith developed the idea that commerce was necessary for the accumulation of wealth, Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawgiver, had used this principle to curb the avarice of his countrymen, and laid down a constitution for one of the most eminent commonwealths in the ancient world. The Spartan Constitution, according to Plutarch, was also the model for Plato’s Republic, in the regulation of marriage, conception and education of children by the state, etc.

After creating the senate to balance the power between the kings and the people, Lycurgus proceeded to eliminate inequality. For there was an extreme inequality among them, and their state was overloaded with a multitude of indigent and necessitous persons, while its whole wealth had centered upon a very few. To the end, therefore, that he might expel from the state arrogance and envy, luxury and crime, and those yet more inveterate diseases of want and superfluity.

1. Division of Land

A lot was so much as to yield, one year with another, about seventy bushels of grain for the master of the family, and twelve for his wife, with a suitable proportion of oil and wine. And this he thought sufficient to keep their bodies in good health and strength; superfluities they were better without.

2. Devaluation of Money

All gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was but very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen. With the diffusion of this money, at once a number of vices were banished from Lacedaemon; for who would take by force, or accept as a bribe, a thing which it was not easy to hide, nor a credit to have, nor indeed of any use to cut in pieces? For when it was just red-hot, they quenched it in vinegar, and by that means spoilt it, and made it almost incapable of being worked.

3. Elimination of Commerce and Superfluous Arts

Iron was scarcely portable, neither would it pass amongst the other Greeks, who ridiculed it. So there was now no more means of purchasing foreign goods and small wares; merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger or gold or silversmith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country which had no money; so that luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, died away of itself. For the rich had no advantage here over the poor, as their wealth and abundance had no road to come abroad by, but were shut up at home doing nothing. By relieving the artisans of the trouble of making useless things, he set them to show their skill in giving beauty to those of daily and indispensable use.

4. Obligatory Communal Meal

They should all eat in common, of the same bread and same meat, and of kinds that were specified, and should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks, to fatten them in corners, like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies, which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick.

The Masterstroke

It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observes, not merely the property of being coveted, but the very nature of being wealth. For the rich, being obliged to go to the same table with the poor, could not make use of or enjoy their abundance, nor so much as please their vanity by looking at or displaying it. So that the common proverb, that Plutus, the god of riches, is blind, was nowhere in all the world literally verified but in Sparta. There, indeed, he was not only blind, but like a picture, without either life or motion.

Sayings of Lycurgus

When asked why he allowed of such mean and trivial sacrifices to the gods, he replied, “That we may always have something to offer to them”.  (IOW, sacrifices should be made, not out of superfluity and pomp, but of continuous devotion to and exercise in virtuous living.)

Being consulted whether it were requisite to enclose the city with a wall, he wrote, “The city is well fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.” (IOW, solidarity among all citizens is the best defense against invaders.)

Pericles’ Vision for Athens

Pericles’ vision for Athens was the exact opposite of Lycurgus’ for Sparta. Athens fell less than 30 years after Pericles’ death, whereas Sparta lasted almost 500 years after Lycurgus.

That which gave most pleasure and ornament to the city of Athens, and the greatest admiration and even astonishment to all strangers, and that which now is Greece’s only evidence that the power she boasts of and her ancient wealth are no romance or idle story, was his construction of the public and sacred buildings. They converted the overplus of its wealth to such undertakings, as would hereafter, when completed, give them eternal honor, and, for the present, while in process, freely supply all the inhabitants with plenty. With their variety of workmanship and of occasions for service, which summon all arts and trades and require all hands to be employed about them, they do actually put the whole city, in a manner, into state-pay;

On Classics

For every particular piece of his work was immediately, even at that time, for its beauty and elegance, antique; and yet in its vigor and freshness looks to this day as if it were just executed. There is a sort of bloom of newness upon those works of his, preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had some perennial spirit and undying vitality mingled in the composition of them.

On the Problem with Historiography

Some men devoted their whole lives to mockery, and were ready at any time to sacrifice the reputation of their superiors to vulgar envy and spite, as to some evil genius. … So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time intercepting their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill-will, partly through favor and flattery, pervert and distort truth.

On Natural Causes and Signs

In my opinion, it is no absurdity to say that both natural philosopher and diviner are in the right, one justly detecting the cause of this event, by which it was produced, the other the end for which it was designed. …Those who say that to find out the cause of a prodigy is in effect to destroy its supposed signification as such, do not take notice that, at the same time, together with divine prodigies, they also do away with signs and signals of human art and concert, as, for instance, the clashings of quoits, fire-beacons, and the shadows on sun-dials, every one of which things has its cause, and by that cause and contrivance is a sign of something else.

On Divorce

Aemilius Paulus’ first wife was Papiria, the daughter of Maso, who had formerly been consul. With her he lived a considerable time in wedlock, and then divorced her, though she had made him the father of noble children; being mother of the renowned Scipio, and Fabius Maximus. The reason of this separation has not come to our knowledge; but there seems to be a truth conveyed in the account of another Roman’s being divorced from his wife, which may be applicable here. This person being highly blamed by his friends, who demanded, Was she not chaste? was she not fair? was she not fruitful? holding out his shoe, asked them, Whether it was not new? and well made? Yet, added he, none of you can tell where it pinches me. Certain it is, that great and open faults have often led to no separation; while mere petty repeated annoyances, arising from unpleasantness or incongruity of character, have been the occasion of such estrangement as to make it impossible for man and wife to live together with any content.

“Oeconomicus” by Xenophon

Economics Xenophon

The word economics is derived from Greek roots meaning literally “household management”.

Praise of Husbandry

For the pursuit of [husbandry] is in some sense a luxury as well as a means of increasing one’s estate and of training the body in all that a free man should be able to do. For, in the first place, the earth yields to cultivators the food by which men live; she yields besides the luxuries they enjoy. Secondly, she supplies all the things with which they decorate altars and statues and themselves, along with most pleasant sights and scents. Thirdly, she produces or feeds the ingredients of many delicate dishes; for the art of breeding stock is closely linked with husbandry; so that men have victims for propitiating the gods with sacrifice and cattle for their own use. And though she supplies good things in abundance, she suffers them not to be won without toil, but accustoms men to endure winter’s cold and summer’s heat…. For on a farm no less than in a town the most important operations have their fixed times.

The land also stimulates armed protection of the country on the part of the husbandmen, by nourishing her crops in the open for the strongest to take. And what art produces better runners, throwers and jumpers than husbandry? What art rewards the labourer more generously? What art welcomes her follower more gladly, inviting him to come and take whatever he wants? What art entertains strangers more generously?

Moreover, husbandry helps to train men for corporate effort. For men are essential to an expedition against an enemy, and the cultivation of the soil demands the aid of men. … It has been nobly said that husbandry is the mother and nurse of the other arts. For when husbandry flourishes, all the other arts are in good fettle; but whenever the land is compelled to lie waste, the other arts of landsmen and mariners alike well-nigh perish.

For the land never plays tricks, but reveals frankly and truthfully what she can and what she cannot do. I think that just because she conceals nothing from our knowledge and understanding, the land is the surest tester of good and bad men. For the slothful cannot plead ignorance, as in other arts: land, as all men know, responds to good treatment. Husbandry is the clear accuser of the recreant soul. For no one persuades himself that man could live without bread; therefore if a man will not dig and knows no other profit-earning trade, he is clearly minded to live by stealing or robbery or begging—or he is an utter fool.

The Queen Bee and the Proverbial Women

The queen bee does not suffer the bees to be idle; but those whose duty it is to work outside she sends forth to their work; and whatever each of them brings in, she knows and receives it, and keeps it till it is wanted. And when the time is come to use it, she portions out the just share to each. She likewise presides over the weaving of the combs in the hive, that they may be well and quickly woven, and cares for the brood of little ones, that it be duly reared up. And when the young bees have been duly reared and are fit for work, she sends them forth to found a colony, with a leader to guide the young adventurers.

Your duty will be to remain indoors and send out those servants whose work is outside, and superintend those who are to work indoors, and to receive the incomings, and distribute so much of them as must be spent, and watch over so much as is to be kept in store, and take care that the sum laid by for a year be not spent in a month. And when wool is brought to you, you must see that cloaks are made for those that want them. You must see too that the dry corn is in good condition for making food. You will have to see that any servant who is ill is cared for.

It is delightful to teach spinning to a maid who had no knowledge of it when you received her, and to double her worth to you: to take in hand a girl who is ignorant of housekeeping and service, and after teaching her and making her trustworthy and serviceable to find her worth any amount: to have the power of rewarding the discreet and useful members of your household, and of punishing anyone who turns out to be a rogue. But the pleasantest experience of all is to prove yourself better than I am, to make me your servant; and, so far from having cause to fear that as you grow older you may be less honoured in the household, to feel confident that with advancing years, the better partner you prove to me and the better housewife to our children, the greater will be the honour paid to you in our home. For it is not through outward comeliness that the sum of things good and beautiful is increased in the world, but by the daily practice of the virtues.

Appointing the Housekeeper

In appointing the housekeeper, we chose the woman whom on consideration we judged to be the most temperate in eating and wine drinking and sleeping and the most modest with men, the one, too, who seemed to have the best memory, to be most careful not to offend us by neglecting her duties, and to think most how she could earn some reward by obliging us. We also taught her to be loyal to us by making her a partner in all our joys and calling on her to share our troubles. Moreover, we trained her to be eager for the improvement of our estate, by making her familiar with it and by allowing her to share in our success. And further, we put justice into her, by giving more honour to the just than to the unjust, and by showing her that the just live in greater wealth and freedom than the unjust; and we placed her in that position of superiority.

References:

“On the Significance of Science and Art” by Leo Tolstoy

Ever since men have been in existence, they have been in the habit of deducing, from all pursuits, the expressions of various branches of learning concerning the destiny and the welfare of man, and the expression of this knowledge has been art in the strict sense of the word.

Ever since men have existed, there have been those who were peculiarly sensitive and responsive to the doctrine regarding the destiny and welfare of man; who have given expression to their own and the popular conflict, to the delusions which lead them astray from their destinies, their sufferings in this conflict, their hopes in the triumph of good, them despair over the triumph of evil, and their raptures in the consciousness of the approaching bliss of man,  in images and words. Always, down to the most recent times, art has served science and life,—only then was it what has been so highly esteemed of men. But art, in its capacity of an important human activity, disappeared simultaneously with the substitution for the genuine science of destiny and welfare, of the science of any thing you choose to fancy.

Scientific and artistic activity, in its real sense, is only fruitful when it knows no rights, but recognizes only obligations. Only because it is its property to be always thus, does mankind so highly prize this activity. If men really were called to the service of others through artistic work, they would see in that work only obligation, and they would fulfill it with toil, with privations, and with self-abnegation.

The thinker or the artist will never sit calmly on Olympian heights, as we have become accustomed to represent them to ourselves. The thinker or the artist should suffer in company with the people, in order that he may find salvation or consolation. Besides this, he will suffer because he is always and eternally in turmoil and agitation: he might decide and say that which would confer welfare on men, would free them from suffering, would afford them consolation; but he has not said so, and has not presented it as he should have done; he has not decided, and he has not spoken; and to-morrow, possibly, it will be too late,–he will die. And therefore suffering and self-sacrifice will always be the lot of the thinker and the artist.

There will be no sleek, plump, self-satisfied thinkers and artists. Spiritual activity, and its expression, which are actually necessary to others, are the most burdensome of all man’s avocations; a cross, as the Gospels phrase it. And the sole indubitable sign of the presence of a vocation is self-devotion, the sacrifice of self for the manifestation of the power that is imposed upon man for the benefit of others.

It is possible to study out how many beetles there are in the world, to view the spots on the sun, to write romances and operas, without suffering; but it is impossible, without self-sacrifice, to instruct people in their true happiness, which consists solely in renunciation of self and the service of others, and to give strong expression to this doctrine, without self-sacrifice.

True art and true science possess two unmistakable marks: the first, an inward mark, which is this, that the servitor of art and science will fulfill his vocation, not for profit but with self-sacrifice; and the second, an external sign,–his productions will be intelligible to all the people whose welfare he has in view.

No matter what people have fixed upon as their vocation and their welfare, science will be the doctrine of this vocation and welfare, and art will be the expression of that doctrine. That which is called science and art, among us, is the product of idle minds and feelings, which have for their object to tickle similar idle minds and feelings. Our arts and sciences are incomprehensible, and say nothing to the people, for they have not the welfare of the common people in view.

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References:

“Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson

The subtitle of the original version reads, “How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way”. Branson certainly delivered the goods. I can’t imagine anybody else having more fun doing business than he has. He described his strategies and adventures in such a straightforward and engaging manner, that I’m convinced this is how all business should be done.

Life is a series of challenges for Branson, and he has thrived on challenges since childhood. From winning a ten-shilling bet by learning to swim, to running a student magazine, to building a successful business empire, to flying around the world in balloons and exploring space travel, to helping solve social and environmental problems, he gave a comprehensive account of his extraordinary life. It’s candid, direct, humorous, fascinating and inspiring. One of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read.

“Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim

This book is more about business philosophy than about strategy.

The basic concept is simple: Instead of focusing on the technological, operational aspects of the business, or even the final products, rather focus on what type of service you’ll be providing, how does it meet the customers’ needs, and wants and how can you streamline your business to provide more value to the customers (in terms of functions delivered and purposes served).

The book recounts  stories of many businesses that have implemented this philosophy successfully. However, it does not provide any “actionable” guideline or process which, if you execute properly, will enable you to build a successful business.

“The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson

Book Summary

With the advent of the Internet and new technologies, the means of manufacturing and distributing consumer products (notably music, videos and books) have become so inexpensive and commonly accessible that they are decentralized and diversified to a great extent. Traditional manufactures built around old business models (newspapers, publishers, and music labels) are facing severe competitions from electronic commerce.

Consumers, now presented with unlimited choices, no longer gravitate towards “hits” or “bestsellers”, but delve into numerous niche markets and products that were unavailable before. E-commerce companies, such as Google, Amazon, etc, have been able to track customer activities online and use probability models to generate product recommendations and advertising campaigns.

“Purple Cow” by Seth Godin

What I’ve Learned

1. Invest in developing remarkable products, not in mass advertising, as the potential customers are either too busy or too saturated to pay attention.

2. Target people with discriminating taste and enthusiasm to seek out and spread unique, extraordinary products. They are called “otaku” in Japanese. Not all customers are equal in this case. Otaku are the best, because they not only buy the product but also provide free and effective marketing.

3. Develop a niche market. Design and develop products based on the needs and the wants of the customers, especially those of the otaku.

What I Dislike

The case studies are not well organized to support the take home lessons. Some of the case studies are too glib. It’s not entirely clear or convincing what makes the products unique and why they sell. I can fully appreciate the Starbucks phenomenon, because I already read Howard Schultz’s book “Pour Your Heart Into It” . However, for many of the other case studies, I don’t have sufficient background knowledge and therefore don’t “get it”. I suspect an average reader would have the same problem.

Notes:

“Pour Your Heart Into It” is one of the best business books I’ve ever read. Everything a business should be. I highly recommend it.

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