Jun 19 2011
Not particularly Russian, but this does have some military history relevance . . .
In summer travels, I found myself stuck without a wide selection of reading material, but came across an old Modern Library edition of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Since that’s a book far more often referenced than read, and I didn’t have lots of other options, I decided to plow through it.
The book lived down to my expectations. It’s positively Hegelian in its grand rhetorical flights of fancy about capital-H History, and in its impenetrable style. On the bright side, once you get the hang of what Spengler is up to, the book’s easy to skim through very quickly. I may comment on some of his substantive arguments anon, what struck me was a single line on p. 387 in the chapter on “Philosophy of Politics”:
The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.
Thanks to a youthful flirtation with alternative rap, I recognized this as a line from PM Dawn’s 1991 song “Comatose.” I was pretty sure Spengler hadn’t stolen from PM Dawn, but I found it only slightly less surprising that PM Dawn was citing Spengler. To google I turned . . .
. . . to find to my surprise that the quotation is widely attributed to Marcus Aurelius (for example, here, here, here, and here), both in collections of military quotation and especially in business books. One organization even made it their official slogan, complete with a bust of Marcus Aurelius on the home page.
To add insult to injury, Marcus Aurelius wins the citation wars by a ratio of about 5:1 over Spengler.
The problem is that there’s no evidence that Marcus Aurelius ever uttered or wrote the words in question. It’s nowhere in his Meditations, and no one ever gives a real citation. The dubious prize for earliest misattribution to Marcus Aurelius (at least according to google books) goes to Jay Levinson and David Perry’s Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters.
Of course, in terms of the popularity of the quotation, Marcus Aurelius is a lot better than Spengler. The one is a philosophical emperor, one of the last good one the Romans had. The other was an obscurantist pessimist, and while not the Nazi he’s often painted as being, was no friend to democracy, capitalism, or liberalism. It’s tough to imagine management theorists being quite so eager to Spengler for inspiration.