23 March 2023

Palmam qui meruit ferat

Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius refusing the crown of Italy offered by the Goths in 540 CE.

A few years ago a politician invited much ridicule over mispronouncing the motto of a school. It was in Latin. Even if it were in English, there’s no shame in getting the pronunciation wrong, after all, what IS correct pronunciation anyway?

Those who ridiculed him were one of two types: his political opponents and the self-styled elites of the country who have been reduced to a level that the only validation of their lives that’s possible is from assuming that those who are not proficient in English are somehow inferior and therefor can amenable to being looked at down their noses. Yes, it wasn’t even English, but that’s irrelevant for such people.

Most of them probably didn’t know what the particular motto, disce aut discede, meant. ‘Learn or depart’ would not be incorrect, but there’s a more profound reading of the line: ‘the only worthwhile endeavour in life is the acquisition of wisdom; any pursuit that eschews this indicates a worthless life.’

Now in this same school, there are two attendant sayings, again in Latin. 'Labor omnia vincit,’ means ‘work conquers all.’  If only that were true! On the other hand, labour is at least a necessary although insufficient condition for triumph of any kind. It is the other line that intrigues me at this moment: ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat,’ or ‘let whoever earns the palm bear it.’ Put another way, ‘the person deserving the crown should wear it.’

Meritocracy. That’s what it is about. And that’s not all. There's an obligation written into it. ‘Earning it’ implies that you’ve worked for it or rather you’ve done what it takes to make you deserve it. The crown, I mean. Leadership, if you will.  

It is about the cultivation of certain essential qualities. In the Raja Vagga (discourses referring to kings) of the Anguttara Nikaya (Numerical Discourses) the Buddha details these, especially in the Pagnamakkanuvattanasutta or the ‘First on the turning of the wheel.’ The five characteristics of the (successful) universal monarch can be applied in the modern context to any ruler or indeed any leader of any institution, public, corporate or cooperative: the monarch is required to act with full understanding of meaning (attannu), be conscious of the righteous (dhammannu), tempered enough to ascertain appropriateness of action (mattannu), have a sense of timing (kaalannu) and take cognizance of the gathering or the public (parisannu).

The cultivation of such attributes is what amounts to earning the palm. Typically those who do so, especially if acquiring the crown is not a goal they’ve set for themselves, are recognised as leaders, as deserving the crown. When this happens the particular individual is obliged to accept it, wear it and give leadership. If at any point thereafter the leader loses these qualities he or she ought to step down. He or she is no longer recognised as leader and, typically, will be ousted.  

This brings us to what I believe is the most important corollary of palmam qui meruit ferat: if a person does not deserve the crown should not wear it. Indeed such a person should not aspire to those leadership positions. Moreover, even if offered the crown, it should be declined.

Of course someone can argue that this is an ideal type and does not exist in reality. Let’s concede that. However, even the imperfect and the unqualified can cultivate these attributes. Indeed, there have been reluctant people on whose shoulders the full weight of leadership have fallen and who have risen to the occasion. In all such cases they’ve succeeded because they had these qualities or cultivated them.

Typically, though, most people upon whom leadership is thrust don’t realise they are not suited and don’t bother to reflect upon and develop such attributes. They fail. They may believe they’ve succeeded, for example, because they conquered territory, filled treasuries etc., but in the larger order of things, they are but glorified thugs.  

The world is full of leaders. Sure, few if any are of the chakravarti order about which the Buddha reflected in the Pagnamakkanuvattanasutta and in the Dutiyaccakkanuvattanasutta or the ‘Second on the turning of the wheel,’ which is an elaboration of sorts referring to succession, i.e. is the qualities that the monarch’s son ought to acquire and as such applicable to a person designated or aspires to replace a leader; for the would-be leader, then.

How many leaders act with full understanding of meaning, are righteous, tempered enough to ascertain appropriateness of action, have a sense of timing and are sensitive to the particular collective they lead? How many who aspire to be leaders reflect on such qualities and commit themselves to cultivate them? The answer would tell us a lot about the state of affairs of a team, an institution, a club, a community, a country or even the entire world.

Palmam qui meruit ferat
. The person deserving the crown should wear it. Therein lie many lessons for leaders, aspiring leaders and those who are or will be led. It’s quite alright if you mispronounce it. Mis-understanding can cost though.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart