I was looking around for a quote to descibe what is happened to our college (10% cuts, redundancies, restructuring etc.) and remembered an old quote from Petronius Arbiter, a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero, which I first saw on our notice board in the sociology department at Newcastle Poly 20 years ago.
We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
I've since seen this quote in various places over the years. How amazing that something written 2200 years ago can have such resonance for us today. In fact it's a little TOO amazing, and a quick search on Google reveals it to be a fake, though it appears on hundreds of websites, quoted as being for real. Most quote it as being written in 210 BC, which would have been tricky for ol' Petronius because he wasn't born for another 237 years! (ca. 27–66 AD)
Who started it? Nobody is sure but this website http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~reedsj/petronius.html has some ideas:
The following appears on page 162 of Robert Townsend's Up the Organization (New York: Knopf, 1970):
I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
Townsend cites ``Petronius Arbiter (circa A.D. 60).'' Another quote from Townsend (page 7):
``And God created the Organization and gave it dominion over man.''
... Genesis 1, 30A, Subparagraph VIII
which tells us how reliable Townsend is.
Is Townsend the sought-for perpetrator? Many think so, but it seems more likely he is simply an early continuator into print of a long-standing bulletin-board joke. Many correspondents, most notably Richard Dengrove, have told me about a note by J. P. Sullivan in the May 1981 Petronian Society Newsletter (12(1), p.1) addressing this important question. Quoting (without permission):
... let me give my tentative account, which I hope other readers can correct, of its provenance. Some disgruntled soldier of a literary bent, whether commissioned or noncommissioned I do not know, pinned this ``quotation'' to a bulletin board in one of the camps of the armies occupying Germany sometime after 1945 (the style suggests a British occupying force). Since the sentiment is impeccable, whether applied to military, governmental, or academic administration, it has enjoyed a cachet borrowed from Petronius ever since.
(To which I might add, sometimes I think it applies to administration in the business world, too.)
(Thanks to the STUMPERS list for the Townsend reference, and to Dengrove and others for the Sullivan one.)
I like this guy's style:
Comments from our readers
Many people send in email letters, asking similar questions:
- Why do I think the quote is a fake?
- Was there really such a person as Petronius Arbiter?
- Don't I agree that even if the quote is a fake the sentiment it expresses is so true that it ought not be a fake?
My answers would be (if I bothered to reply to the masses of email I receive on this topic):
- Why do you think it is genuine? Because you read it somewhere on some computer?
- Yes. Look him up in the encyclopedia.
- After a while it becomes a bit tedious.
(The answers I should give, if I wanted to be a responsible netizen -- or should I say webster? -- are:
- I've read all the surviving works of Petronius, and the quote just ain't there.
- Yes, he was a courtier of the emperor Nero's. His famous book, the Satyricon was the basis of a Fellini movie. Its structure is loosely modelled on Homer's episodic epic, the Odyssey. In Homer's work, every time the hero is about to reach home, the god Poseidon (because of a previous insult) thwarts him with a storm. In Petronius's, every time the hero is about to have sex, the god Priapus (because of a previous insult) thwarts him with impotence.
- Such wry sentiments are commonplaces in the ``how to conduct yourself in business'' genre of writing, a debased modern branch of the ever-popular ``conduct literature.'' If mankind lost the Petronius quote we could repair the damage by clipping out Dilbert cartoons.
Don't tell anybody.)
Again from: http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~reedsj/petronius.html
As he himself says, however, don't trust something just because you see it on a computer screen. The site lists erroneous uses of the quote, and includes:
But a check of the Hansard records for that day reveals no such reference. The plot thickens! However, further check confirms the reference is correct but the date is a mistake. For the full text see here: