Petronius Arbiter, Time Traveller

Expletive, but I am sick of seeing this fake quote:
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.

Petronius Arbiter, 210 B.C.

I don't know who originated it, but here are some of the misinformed people who think it is legitimate:

An Interesting Variant

Petronius Arbiter comments on organizaions:

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 reorganization; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.''

- Petronius Arbiter - Greek Navy - 210 BC

http://www.calpoly.edu/~coram/stuff/


More Variants

There are as many (or more) who credit the exact same glopola to Petronius Arbiter, 66 AD.

This one is fairly rare:

"We trained hard - but [...]
for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency,
and demoralisation." - Petronius, 100 BC

Geert Jan de Groot, Philips ICA, Weisshausstrasse 1, 5100 Aachen, Germany
Email: geertj@ica.philips.nl or ..!hp4nl!philica!geertj
Phone: +49 241 6003 714  FAX: +49 241 6003 709

And check out the citation on this one (in http://www.au.com/bong/bongs/bong277.htm):

Mac and print it out large for a dandy deskside poster:
        We trained hard, but [...]
inefficiency and demoralization. -- Petronii Arbitri Satyricon,
 A.D. 66, attributed to Gaius Petronius, a Roman General who 
later committed suicide.
        It's a contribution by Rick White, information specialist 
at the University of Tennessee, who wins a dandy free cigar 
cutter.  Make other contributions to BONG Center (address 
below).

And http://www.om.org/relay/lighten.htm credits it to ``Petronius Arbitor, 210 BC;'' while http://www.bomacalgary.org/95sep.htm credits it to ``Gains Petronius Arbiter in the 1st Century A.D.''

Mike Marshall (http://www.mikemarshall.com/jcfavori.htm) credits it to ``Calus Petronius Arbiter (1st Century, BC).''

According to a quotation collection http://www.hevanet.com/kort/QUOTES13.HTM hosted by ``Overall Technology, The Inspection Network: Setting the Standard of Excellence in Inspection Technology,'' the culprit is ``Petronius Arbiter, 201 B.C.''

Owens Community College (in Ohio), http://netra.owens.cc.oh.us/CDT/nw_newsletter.html thinks for some reason it's by ``Gaius Petronius, Centurian, Rome, 1st Century.''

Another version (http://www.davjac.demon.co.uk/page23.html) thinks it's by ``Gaius Petronius, a Roman centurion in 200BC.''

Many of the messages posted to newsgroup comp.sys.sgi contain this snippet

From the TARDIS of Mark Callow
msc@ramoth.sgi.com, ...{ames,decwrl}!sgi!msc
"and a wonderful method (reorganization) can be for creating the illusion
of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
        - Petronius Arbiter, 210 BC.
and many contain this:
From the TARDIS of Mark Callow
msc@ramoth.sgi.com, ...{ames,decwrl}!sgi!msc
"and a wonderful method (reorganization) can be for creating the illusion
of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
        - Petronius Arbiter, ?? AD.

A shortened version occasionally seen (as on http://huizen.nhkanaal.nl/~rickdos/kwot.htm, which to do the web-page author justice, lists it as an ``annoying quote'', and on Martin F. Falatic's http://enteract.com/~marty/quotes-short.html, which does not) is:

Reorganization is a splendid method of producing the illusion of progress whilst creating confusion, inefficiency and demoralization (Petronius Arbiter, 60 A.D.)

Jim Grossen of the University of Tennessee, writing in http://orion.cas.utk.edu/PetroniusArbiter.html , credits it to ``Petronius Arbiter, about AD 30.''

According to Martin Leese, Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering, University of New Brunswick, in http://www.omg.unb.ca/~mleese/plan.html, it is a ``quotation from Gaius Petronius, 65 AD.''

According to Edward Ferris, who uses ``a lot of quotes in [his] work to emphasize a point, or to provide inspiration or perspective,'' writing in http://plusultrainc.com/frmain-19.htm the quote is due to ``Petronius Satyricon, First Century AD.''

In http://www.apogee.net/ntherapy.htm, a web page on ``electrotherapy,'' the quote it credited to ``Petronius Arbiter, 1st Century, Satyricum.''

For Lahbib Marouan, http://www.agora.dk/users/lahbib.marouan/, the deathless words are due to ``Galus Petronius, AD 57.''

Dean, a self-professed mainiac, in http://www.tka.com/dcbanks/reorganize.htm credits ``Petronius (256 B.C.)''

For Grant I. Szabo, in http://207.229.159.165/, the quote is due to ``Petronius the Elder, 1st Century A.D. ''

According to Ms Tanny Wells of the South Rosedale Ratepayers' Association, on 10 February 1997, (quoted in http://www.ontla.on.ca/hansard/36_parl/session1/cttee/gengov/g062_1.htm)

We trained very hard...but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into a team 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.''

This was written in 210 BC by Petronius the Arbiter, who was a famous satirist during the reign of Nero. It applies equally well in Toronto, 1997 AD...

but not, I hope, because Nero is alive and well in Toronto! Where did her ``very'' come from?


And from overseas:

Vom Fortschritt
Wir betreiben harte Ausbildung, aber jedes Mal, wenn wir dabei waren, Gemeinschaften zu bilden, wurden wir umorganisiert.
Später im Leben habe ich gelernt, dass wir dazu neigen, neuen Situationen mit Reorganisation zu begegnen: Und dies kann eine glänzende Methode sein, die Illusion von Fortschritt zu schaffen, während Verwirrung, Wirkungslosigkeit und Demoralisierung produziert werden.
Petronius Arbiter. 210 vor Christus.

http://www.xculture.de/libri/hypes/Hypes004.html

And

Dieses Problem ist nicht neu, schon der Senator Petronius Arbiter, zu Kaiser Neros Zeiten, schrieb: Wir trainierten hart,... aber es schien, dass wir immer dann reorganisiert wurden, wenn wir gerade dabei waren, ein Team zu werden".
http://www.nd.edu/~thodel/mo.htm
(I like the ein Team zu werden: it klings me so much better than Gemeinschaften zu bilden.)

And

...Der Altminister belegte dies mit einem goldigen Ausspruch von Petronius Arbiter, einem Schriftsteller am Hof des römischen Kaisers Nero:
"Wir betreiben harte Ausbildung, aber jedesmal, wenn wir dabei waren, Gemeinschaften zu bilden, wurden wir umorganisiert. Später im Leben habe ich gelernt, daß wir dazu neigen, neuen Situationen mit Reorganisation zu begegnen. Dies kann eine glänzende Methode sein, die Illusion von Fortschritt zu schaffen, während Verwirrung, Wirkungslosigkeit und Demoralisierung produziert werden".
http://www.th-zwickau.de/~rz/reis1195/sa.html

A nice example, almost certainly back-translated from German, appears as the ``Quote of the month of March 1998:''

We are engaging in tough training, but each time when new communities were emerging we were re-organised. Later in my life I understood that we incline to encounter new situations with re-organisation: and this would be a brilliant method to create the illusion of progress while it is producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.
Petronius Arbiter, 210 B.C.
proposed by our member J. Henninger
http://www.ageg.de/spruche.htm
at a web site run by the ``German Association of Development Consultants (Coop.)''

And

Endelig er der én ting, som vi oplever rigeligt af inden for det offentlige for tiden, og det er administrative og strukturelle omstillinger. Cajus Petronius, der var embedsmand under den romerske kejser Nero, død år 66 e.Kr. sagde: "Vi arbejdede hårdt, men hver gang vi begyndte at fungere, blev nye planer om omorganisering iværksat. Jeg lærte mig senere i livet, at vi er tilbøjelige til at møde enhver ny situation gennem omorganisering. Og jeg lærte også hvilken vidunderlig metode dette er til at skabe illusion om fremgang, mens det i virkeligheden skaber kaos, ineffektivitet og demoralisering."
http://www.enhedslisten.dk/lokalt10/fynsamt/program.htm

And (brevity the soul of wit)

Een reorganisatie kan een fantastische methode zijn om een illusie van vooruitgang te cre ren en ondertussen demoralisatie, verwarring en ineffectiviteit voort te brengen. Vrij naar Gaius Petronius, arbiter, A.D.66
http://www-sci.sci.kun.nl/aon/docs/aiopener/aiopener_1195.html

And

Relativerende woorden kwamen er tenslotte uit Rotterdam. Daar hield collegevoorzitter Van der Molen zijn gehoor de ruim tweeduizend jaar oude woorden voor van Gaius Petronius Arbiter, pro-consul van Bithynia ten tijde van Nero: ,,Ik heb ontdekt dat er de neiging is om te proberen elke nieuwe situatie te beantwoorden met een reorganisatie. En een reorganisatie vormt inderdaad een uitstekende methode om de illusie van vooruitgang te suggereren, terwijl het in werkelijkheid vaak resulteert in verwarring, inefficiëntie en ontmoediging.'' (HOP/M.W.)
http://www.delta.tudelft.nl/delta/jaargangen/26/26/open.html

The culprit?

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.)


Comments from our readers

Many people send in email letters, asking similar questions:
  1. Why do I think the quote is a fake?
  2. Was there really such a person as Petronius Arbiter?
  3. 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):
  1. Why do you think it is genuine? Because you read it somewhere on some computer?
  2. Yes. Look him up in the encyclopedia.
  3. 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:
  1. I've read all the surviving works of Petronius, and the quote just ain't there.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)

Obtuse in Chicago

One person has said of this web page: ``His argument may be true but is hardly convincing.'' Later on in some interminable netnews discussion that windy-city scholar adds:
So, again, that it doesn't appear in the writings of Petronius Arbiter is not very interesting. If, on the other hand, we find no trace of it in any writings whatsoever, till modern times, then it is a reasonable conclusion that the quote cannot be attributed to the Roman culture at all. Which is possible.
I didn't think I needed to mention it, but: there are indeed no traces whatsover, till modern times, of the ``Petronius'' quote. So there!

Thanks to:

Richard Dengrove, Beth Foster, J. P. Sullivan, William C. Waterhouse, William P. Thayer, Mati Meron, Nathan Hicks, the Digital Equipment Corporation, Lycos Inc., STUMPERS, and Rob Pike.

Last modified 19 May 2004.

Jim Reeds reedsj@dtc.umn.edu