Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna.

Time passes and different translations of the Loretto School motto come and go. Over the years we have witnessed the literal:

“You have obtained Sparta: embellish it” and “Sparta is yours: adorn it”

To the more general:

“You were born with talents: develop them” or “Develop whatever talents you have inherited”.

The motto of Loretto is used rarely beyond the school gates today although it still plays a part in the induction of Professors at St Andrews University. Scholars have cogitated upon its meaning when translated from Latin but in fact it is a mistranslation of a line from a play by Euripides and originally written in Ancient Greek.  Only a fragment of the play survives; translated by the Renaissance scholar Erasmus in the sixteenth century and since then this one quotation has developed a life of its own.

The context of the original Greek line in the play was within a discussion between King Agamemnon, King of Argos, and his younger brother, King Menelaus. Menelaus is interfering, trying to tell Agamemnon how to run his kingdom. Agamemnon, exasperated and frustrated by his brother’s attitude, turns to Menelaus and says, “Sparta is what you have ended up with, that is what you should rule.”  In translation, however, the mention of Sparta immediately but incorrectly brought to people's minds the Sparta of a much later period with its strict methods of bringing up young men and women. The quotation taken on its own seemed to urge people to make the best of what they had got and not to be constantly looking for something better. Hence, despite the confusing origins, it developed a moral dimension quite disconnected from its original meaning in the play.

At the end of the eighteenth century the saying was used by Edmund Burke MP in his essay attacking the French Revolution. Burke knew that there was injustice, corruption and hardship in France but he believed that the road to improvement lay with reform, not revolution.  By way of explaining the quotation he wrote, “A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”

And so was born the idea we hold to today at Loretto. The idea of improving things in a civilised way: preserving the best, changing the worst, emphasising the need to make the best of what one has and seeing great potential in all people.

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