Propter rationem belli : For strategic reasons
Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide. - Napoleon Bonaparte
Noble strategy can be summarized as the alignment of potentially infinite aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities. The same could be said for strategy of life. Once one is able to internalize this, one can thrive in any domain.
If one seeks ends beyond one’s means, then sooner or later one will have to scale back one’s ends to fit one's means. Expanding means may attain more ends, but not all because ends can be infinite and means can never be. Whatever balance one strikes, there’ll be a link between what’s real and what’s imagined: between current location and intended destination. One won’t have a strategy until one has connected these dots—dissimilar though they are—within the situation in which one is operating.
Thanks for reading Healthy, Wealthy, & Wise! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Strategy requires a sense of the whole that reveals the significance of respective parts. One must be able to see the forrest through the trees to then understand the power of each individual pine. A network cannot be created without the interplay of nodes. The nodes make the network and the network makes the nodes. One facilitates the other in a positive feedback loop. The node does not preclude the network or vice versa. The understanding of the connectedness of reality is what one must realize to leverage strategy in an advantageous manner.
The well-trained soldier will surely perform better than one with no preparation at all, but what is training? It’s being able to draw upon principles extending across time and space, so that one has a sense of what’s worked before and what hasn’t. One then applies these to the situation at hand: that’s the role of scale. The result is a plan, informed by the past, linked to the present, for achieving some future goal.
For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that displays the combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together. With fitness more fashionable now than in years past, there’s more participation in games than ever before. But what does that yield and what does it have to do with noble strategy?
One learns to play the game by having a coach, literally a “trainer,” who does what drill instructors used to do when military service was mandatory: teach the basics, build stamina, enforce discipline, encourage collaboration, show one how to fail and to recover from failure. Once the game begins, though, the coach can only shout or sulk from the sidelines. One and ones teammates are on their own. Still, all will do better for having been coached: it’s not for nothing that coaches’ salaries, at certain universities, exceed those of the presidents who’ve recruited them.
Does any of this mean, though, that while playing the game one has been a hedgehog or a fox? One would probably regard the question as silly because one has been both: one had a hedgehog-like plan, one modified it as needed in a fox-like manner, and won or lost depending on whether it worked or didn’t. One would find it hard to say, looking back, when one had been which. Instead one held opposing ideas in one’s mind as one functioned. It’s much the same in most aspects of life, where we make such choices instinctively, or almost so.
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. - Isaiah Berlin
No one can anticipate everything that might happen. Sensing possibilities, though, is better than having no sense at all of what to expect. Sun Tzu seeks sense—even common sense—by tethering principles, which are few, to practices, which are many. He fits the mix to the moment, as if setting sound levels on a synthesizer, or color combinations on a computer screen.
He leaves enough options to satisfy any fox, while retaining the purposefulness of a hedgehog. He keeps opposing ideas in his mind by projecting them across time, space, and scale. Leadership in The Art of War, then, is seeing simplicities in complexity. Some realities are as easily grasped as Sun Tzu’s five fundamental sounds, colors, and flavors: that’s how we know their nature. But when simplicities mix, complexities become endless. No matter how thoroughly we prepare, they’ll always surprise us. If tethered to principles, however, they need not paralyze us. And how might you learn to tether? By having great teachers, for tethering is what they have us do.
Thucydides wouldn’t have put it in that way, but this is what he meant when he encouraged his readers to seek “knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” For without some sense of the past the future can be only loneliness: amnesia is a solitary affliction. But to know the past only in static terms—as moments frozen in time and space—would be almost as disabling, because we’re the progeny of progressions across time and space that shift from small scales to big ones and back again. We know these through narratives, whether historical or fictional or a combination of both. Thucydides and Tolstoy are, therefore, closer than one might think, and we’re fortunate to be able to attend their seminars whenever we like.
The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.
Hedgehogs, Berlin explained, “relate everything to a single central vision” through which “all that they say and do has significance.” Foxes, in contrast, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.” The distinction was simple but not frivolous: it offered “a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation.” It might even reflect “one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”
By way of an Oxford party, an Archilochus (Greek Poet, satires) fragment, and Tolstoy’s epic, Berlin had stumbled upon two of the very best ways to become intellectually indelible(permanent). The first is to be Delphic/religious (one world view that ties all things together), a trick known to oracles throughout time. The second is to be Aesopian: turn ideas into animals, and they’ll achieve immortality.
Foxes are far more proficient predictors than hedgehogs, whose record approximated that of a axe-throwing orangutan.
Foxes rely, for their predictions, on an intuitive stitching together of diverse sources of information, not on deductions derived from grand schemes. They doubt “that the cloud-like subject of politics” could ever be “the object of a clocklike science.” The best of them “share a self-deprecating style of thinking” that “elevates no thought above criticism.” But they tend to be too discursive—too inclined to qualify their claims—to hold an audience. Hedgehogs, in contrast, shun self-deprecation and brush aside criticism. Aggressively deploying big explanations, they display a “bristly impatience with those who ‘do not get it.” When the intellectual holes they dig get too deep, they simply dig deeper. They became “prisoners of their preconceptions,” trapped in cycles of self-congratulation.
We need to combine, within a single mind (our own), the hedgehog’s sense of direction and the fox’s sensitivity to surroundings. While retaining the ability to function.
One controls some things, but align oneself with others. Balance, while never forgetting that the reason one is balancing is to get from where one is to where one wants to go. One is a fox and a hedgehog at the same time—even in the sea. That was the younger Pericles steering Athens: a polymath with a purpose. Over time, though, Pericles began trying to control flows: the winds, the currents, the rowers, the rocks, the people, their enemies, and even fortune, he came to believe, would follow his orders. He could rely, therefore, on intricate causal chains: if A, then not only B, but inexorably C, D, and E. Plans, however complex, would go as planned. The older Pericles still steered Athens; now, however, he was a hedgehog trying to herd foxes, a different and more difficult enterprise. That’s the difference, fundamental in strategy, between respecting constraints and denying their existence.
Genius, does not consist in a single appropriate gift—courage, for example—while other qualities of mind or temperament are not suited to war. Instead it requires a harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be in conflict with the rest. It demands, in short, an ecological sensibility. The man responsible for evaluating the whole must bring to the task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point. Otherwise a chaos of opinions would arise, and fatally entangle judgment.
So when troops get sick, or their tools break, or Kings don’t follow the scripts one has written for them, one sketches what one knows and imagines— informed by the sketch—what one doesn’t: this allows recovering from surprises and moving on. Strategists and artists are therefore on the same page. But how can planning anticipate surprises? Only by living with contradictions, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”
Something or someone will sooner or later break, but one can’t know how, where, or when. What one can know is that, owing to friction, one always falls far short of the intended goal. Asymmetries in aspirations and capabilities have always constrained strategies, which is one of the reasons they’re needed in the first place.
The good leader must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible. Leaders must keep their feet on the ground and utilize their inward eyes to grasp truths in an instant.
How, though, does one “prune” theory? By not asking too much of it. “It would indeed be rash” to deduce, from any particular reality, “universal laws governing every single case, regardless of all haphazard influences.” But those who never rise “above anecdote”—those tireless repeaters of pointless stories—are equally useless, for they “would construct all history of individual cases, digging only as deep as suits them, never getting down to the general factors that govern the matter.”
Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.
Theorizing is training. It’s what hardens the body for great exertions, strengthens the heart in great peril, and fortifies judgment against first impressions. It’s the lubricant that reduces friction. It breeds that priceless quality, calm, which, passing from cavalryman and rifleman up to the general himself, will lighten the commander’s task. Troubles come not from embracing theory as a beginner, but from clutching it too closely while rising, a practice that defies common sense. Theory then becomes an excuse through which limited and ignorant minds justify their congenital incompetence. Don’t get lost in jargon, technicalities, and metaphors that swarm at high altitudes, a lawless rabble of camp followers torn from context and enlisted as principles. Stay focused, stay concise, stay one step ahead.
War - no other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. It’s a paradoxical trinity, composed of the passions that cause combatants to risk their lives, the skill of their commanders, and the coherence of the political objectives for which the war is being fought. Only the last is fully governed by reason: the others inhabit the murky realms of emotion, where all the usual landmarks seem to have disappeared. What’s needed, then, is a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets. But anyone who’s experimented with magnets will know that the difference between two and three, when a pendulum swings freely above them, looks like that between order and chaos: the third magnet shifts the oscillation from regularity to apparent randomness, or, in mathematical terms, from linearity to nonlinearity.
Magnets force us to ask, therefore, how a theory can balance behaviors that seem themselves to be, in their relation to one another, unbalanced. Not by promising certainty. One should place theory within the category of rules to which there can be exceptions, not laws that allow none. Value theory as an antidote to anecdotes: as a compression of the past transmitting experience, while making minimal claims about the future. Rely on theory for training, not as a navigational chart for the unforeseen. Trust coup d’oeil (the stroke of the eye, a glance) more than quantification: any reduction of war to numbers will not stand up for a moment against the realities of life. Distrust novices who, without theory, will lack judgment, which must work like a ship’s compass, recording the slightest variations from courses set, however rough the sea.
It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well, and look up to those who make no concessions.
Everything connects with everything else, there’s an inescapable interdependency across time, space, and scale—forget about distinguishing independent from dependent variables; that, as a consequence, there’ll always be things that can’t be known—breaking them into components won’t help because there’ll always be smaller components; that owing to what we can’t know, we’ll always retain an illusion of agency, however infinitesimal; that while laws may govern these infinitesimals, they make no difference to us because we can’t feel their effects; therefore our perception of freedom is, in practice, freedom itself.
The configuration is triangular, although in two ways. For as one balances knowns, probabilities, and unknowns, one is also doing so across time, space, and scale. In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all operations and modify their final outcome to some degree, however slight.
Any complex activity if it is to be carried on with any degree of virtuosity, calls for appropriate gifts of intellect and temperament. If they are outstanding and reveal themselves in exceptional achievements, their possessor is called a ‘genius.’” This means continuing adjustments of “intellect”—which sets courses—to “temperament”—which determines how they’re pursued. For just as no politics can be pure, so no “noble strategy” will remain unaffected by the unforeseen. Why doesn’t one ever see tightrope walkers without long poles? It’s because they’re stabilizers, as critical to the reaching of destinations as the steps taken toward them. And yet, the poles work by feel, not thought: focusing on them risks falling. Temperament functions similarly, in strategy. It’s not a compass—that’s intellect. But it is a gyroscope: an inner ear complementing one’s “inward eye.” Like poles on tightropes, temperament makes the difference between slips and safe arrivals.
Overstretch—the enfeeblement that comes with confusing ends and means— allows enemies to apply leverage: small maneuvers that have big consequences. Themistocles wouldn’t have won at Salamis without spinning a Delphic oracle. Elizabeth trusted her admirals to trust the winds. And Kutuzov could safely slumber after Borodino, certain that geography, topography, and climate—the “knowns” Napoleon had ignored—would drive the French out even if the Russians did nothing. The border would be the “golden bridge” the enemy would want to cross to get home. Kutuzov’s bridge could serve as noble strategy’s gold standard. For if ends are to fit within available means, then solvency and morality—practicality and principle—demand that they do so with the least possible expenditure of resources and lives.
Theory versus practice. Training versus improvisation. Planning versus friction. Force versus policy. Situations versus sketches. Specialization versus generalization. Action versus inaction. Victory versus defeat. Love versus hate. Life versus death. Leading from within clouds versus keeping the ground in view. But no “versus” whatever between art and science.
Begin with theory and practice without enslaving oneself to either. Each situation requires a balancing derived from judgment and arising from experience, skills acquired by learning from the past and training for the future. Theory reduces history’s complexity to teachable moments. It’s not reductionism that smooths over irregularities in search of predictability. Instead theory functions, with respect to the past, as coups d’oeil do in the present: it extracts lessons from infinite variety. It sketches, informed by what one needs to know, without trying to tell one too much. For in classrooms as on battlefields, one doesn’t have unlimited time to listen. Theory, then, serves practice. And when practice corrects theory— when it removes theorists’ horse blinders—it returns the favor, preventing stumbles off cliffs, into swamps, and toward Beijing.
Thanks for reading Healthy, Wealthy, & Wise! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.