Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Reflections on the Revolution in France
, 2nd ed. (London: J. Dodsley, 1790), p. 231:
But in this, as in most questions of state, there is a middle. There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction, or unreformed existence. Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna. This is, in my opinion, a rule of profound sense, and ought never to depart from the mind of an honest reformer. I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases. 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. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.
The Latin phrase "Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna" means "You have received Sparta as your portion; ornament her." It is a translation of a line from Euripides (fragment 723, from Telephus
, spoken by Agamemnon to Menelaus): Σπάρτην ἔλαχες, κείνην κόσμει.
I don't find it in Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques
, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010), but
there is an extended discussion by Erasmus, Adagia II v 1