“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
                            Which taken in the flood leads on to fortune;
                            Omitted, all the voyage of their life
                            Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

                                                         Julius Caesar, IV. 3

Eventrics, like ordinary physics, divides into two parts: macro and micro. The micro part is covered in Ultimate Event Theory while macro-Eventrics, or just Eventrics for short, deals with ‘bulk events’, the only ones we perceive directly. As in physics, it is not at all clear whether the interplay of events at the macro-level is, or is not, ultimately reducible to behaviour at the micro level. In what follows, I shall for the moment simply take for granted that there are such things as ‘individuals’, ‘society’, ‘historical forces’ and so on, without attempting to ‘explain’ them in terms of more basic entities.
Nonetheless, the focus remains firmly fixed on ‘events’ (as opposed to persons or processes). In particular, it is assumed that particular bundles of complex macro-events have an intrinsic momentum that is to a considerable extent independent of the personalities involved. This does not, however, mean that individuals or close-knit associations of individuals are powerless, quite the reverse. The successful individual  ‘goes with the current’ when it suits him and immediately abandons it when it ceases to be favourable. Moreover, depending on where one is situated, some control over the direction of the current is possible: as the 19th century diplomat, Talleyrand, put it “L’homme supérieur épouse les évènements pour les conduire” (‘The great man welcomes events in order to redirect their course’) (Note 1).
The most important question in ‘Eventrics’ is to determine   whether there exists a completely general method for dealing with whatever one is confronted with, something that can be applied,  with appropriate modifications, to the specific context right across the board. Such a life-skill is what the Chinese Taoists referred to as the ‘tao’ (tao literally means ‘way’ or ‘path’). If there really is such a method, it follows that, when examining ‘world-historical figures’, we should expect to find very similar defining circumstances, roughly similar life trajectories and, above all, similar ‘event-strategies’. Is this the case? 

Mission?

We start by asking to what extent conquerors and world-historical figures foreshadow their future greatness (good or bad) at an early age? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be ‘not very much’. The early lives of  Abraham Lincoln or Hitler, even Julius Caesar, showed no particular promise; the sense that they, and people like them, were destined to be world-movers and world-shakers often only came with maturity, and even then somewhat by accident (Note 2). As we know, Hitler was twice refused entry to the Viennese School of Architecture for lack of  talent and, incredibly for a future war leader and strategist, he started his military career as an Austrian draft dodger ─ though he volunteered promptly enough when World War I broke out. Lincoln was an ungainly, self-educated man from the backwoods who, though a reasonably successful lawyer, only got the Republican Presidential nomination because the support for the other, more popular, candidates was evenly divided. At the age of forty, Oliver Cromwell was a provincial squire, holding no office, local or national, and not even possessing the land on which he grazed his cattle. As for the Duke of Wellington ─ “Until his early twenties, Arthur showed little sign of distinction and his mother grew increasingly concerned at his idleness, stating, “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur” ”(Wikipedia). The list can be extended endlessly.
Even Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman of all,  though he had some minor military successes, was, up to the age of forty, notorious not for his victories but for his debts and dissipated life style ─ Curio referred to him contemptuously as “every man’s woman and every woman’s man”. Even in the case of military prodigies like Alexander the Great and the 17th century Charles XII of Sweden (now somewhat forgotten but hailed at the time as ‘the second Alexander’), circumstances played at least as great a part in their future celebrity as the drumroll of destiny. Both Alexander the Great and Charles XII came unexpectedly to the throne at a very young age (20 for Alexander, 15 for Charles XII). It was ‘sink or swim’ and, as it happened, their enemies, the anti-Macedon Greek states in the case of Alexander and Denmark in the case of Charles XII, got the shock of their lives when they took them on. But it was in both cases as much ‘forced to become great’ as ‘predestined to conquer’ (Note 3). In war and politics, it is often the case that, after an early success, the only way forward is up since retreat is actually more dangerous than the attempt to scale the peak ahead (Note 4).

Summarizing so far, one might even hazard a sort of  ‘power law’ of Eventrics, namely:
       An early disadvantage overcome gives rise to a much greater advantage than an outright advantage.

Macchiavelli even makes this a sine qua non:
“Fortune, when she wants to make a new ruler powerful….makes him start off surrounded by enemies and endangered by threats, so that he can overcome the obstacles and climb higher on a ladder supplied by his enemies”   The Prince, ch. 20

Ruthlessness and Luck

 It is sometimes said that such people as Hitler and Julius Caesar only got to the top because they were extremely ruthless and extremely lucky. Certainly, they were both, but this explanation doesn’t get you very far. Ruthlessness is, unfortunately, not a particularly rare human trait ─ every incumbent mafiosi has it, but how many get to be controllers of nations? Moreover, to demonstrate cold-bloodedness too readily, or too systematically, can be a liability, as it makes it extremely difficult to form alliances which every future leader needs at some stage. Psychopaths don’t usually become conquerors: even Genghis Khan, who is the nearest to being one, spent years forging (and unforging) alliances in the complicated world of Mongolian tribal politics before he was finally accepted as the ‘Great Khan’.
As for luck, Pasteur rightly said that it comes to the prepared mind and Macchiavelli agrees:
“You will find that they [Moses and Cyrus] were only dependent on chance for their first opportunity. They seized their chance to make it what they wanted. Without that first opportunity, their strength of purpose [virtù] would never have been revealed. Without their strength of purpose [virtù], the opportunity they were offered would not have amounted to anything”    The Prince ch. 6

 Intelligence

Future commanders and world-leaders are rarely exceptionally intelligent in the ‘normal’ sense, I mean academically speaking. Napoleon is in this respect an exception, since he was a brilliant pupil at his École Militaire and is one of the few (only?) Western rulers who was a capable mathematician. Nonetheless, it is generally accepted today that Napoleon was not a great military theorist or even innovator:  he took almost all his ideas from the Maréchal de Saxe ─ but then again why not? “Napoleon was wise enough not to tinker with his legacy; [but] he knew how to exploit it to the full” writes Marshall-Cornwall in Napoleon as Military Commander.
Oliver Cromwell, one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time, was certainly no intellectual and, indeed, prided himself on being a man of common sense, hence his approval (doubtless with himself in mind) of “the plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”. Stalin was an extremely capable Bolshevik hit-man (hence the nickname ‘Stalin’ or ‘man of steel’) but, unlike Lenin and Mao, he made no important contribution to Marxist theory apart from the nebulous doctrine of “Socialism in One Country” which was forced upon him by events. Hitler, surely the most unprepossessing  of all modern leaders, turned his lack of formal education and undistinguished appearance  (“He looks like the house painter he once was”) into an advantage since it enabled him to relate effectively to ‘ordinary people’ ─ and had the immense additional benefit of making aristocrats and educated people underrate him to their cost.

Similarity of Situation  

So, if we discount intellectual brilliance, ruthlessness and an early sense of mission as essentials, what does one notice about the rise and fall of famous historical figures? The four most powerful, non-hereditary Western leaders in recent centuries are probably Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. Now, the first thing to note is that they all came to prominence in a fractured society near to breakdown: this gave them the chance they would never have had otherwise. Take Napoleon. Had Buonaparte been born just a few years earlier, he would never have been able to obtain a scholarship to a French École Militaire. For Corsica belonged to Genoa until 1768  and, anyway, it was well nigh impossible for someone outside the leading French families to get real advancement in the army prior to the revolution ─ as it was, the teenage Buonaparte was mocked by his fellow cadets for his dreadful accent and flimsy claim to noble birth. Moreover, the revolution came at exactly the right time for him: all but three of the cadets of Napoleon’s year offered their services to the monarchy ─ which meant the Republic desperately needed trained officers and was eager to promote them. Much the same applied to the Roundhead armies: the professional soldiers mostly fought for Charles I and, once Cromwell’s ability as an organiser of scratch troops was noticed, advancement followed.
As for Hitler, one can with difficulty see him getting anywhere at all in a different time and place, not because he had no talents but because a different environment might never have revealed them to him. He only discovered his uncanny ability as a public speaker by chance when addressing a tiny patriotic society in Munich in 1921 and, as for his military experience, he would never have had any but for the outbreak of WWI which enabled him to gain the Iron Cross and the respect of his comrades and superior officers.
But why, we must ask, did social breakdown favour these individuals? Because there was all of a sudden a power vacuum and someone had to fill it (Note 5). But this is not the only reason. A revolutionary situation drives  a society close to ‘tipping point’ and it may only require a very slight action on the part of a single individual to propel it irreversibly over a certain threshold. In normal circumstances this is almost never the case: a slight action produces a slight outcome but, when a complex system is  near to a ‘phase transition’ or ‘tipping point’, the effects of tiny actions are ‘non-linear’, i.e. can produce  disproportionately large consequences. Principe, the Serbian nationalist who shot the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 did not, as it happens, intend to bring about a European war but this is what ensued. The five great powers were locked in a tense, complex web of alliances, so much so that what was in itself a fairly trivial incident at once set off a frantic round of threat, bluff and counter bluff between Austria, Serbia, Russia and Germany which, within a couple of months,  culminated in the invasion of Belgium and we know the rest.
The 9/11 attack on the Two Towers is one of those rare historical ‘avalanche events’ that really was deliberate. Without the Two Towers there would almost certainly have been no invasion of Iraq and thus none of the sequels. Bin Laden seems to have known what he was doing, his aim being not to ‘overcome’ America militarily, which was and is impossible, but to tempt it into invading an Arab country in reprisal. The Middle East then, and even more so today, exhibits all four classic attributes of a ‘complex system’ on the brink:  the states involved are (1) diverse; (2) closely connected geographically; (3) interdependent; and (4) ceaselessly adapting to each other’s initiatives. 9/11 drew America directly into the fray (invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) and this extra ingredient made the whole Middle East tip.

One lesson to draw from all this is that if someone, or some group, wishes to bring about really big changes, he or she must position himself at an ‘event hub’, somewhere that is extensively connected to diverse, rival, mutually interacting power groups. In such a position, minor personal initiatives really can have vast consequences ─ this is Archimedes’s “Give me a fixed point and I will move the world” translated into geopolitics. Napoleon and Hitler found themselves ‘by chance’ at such an event hub, revolutionary France at the end of the 18th century and Germany in the Twenties after her ignominious defeat in WWI  and subsequent hyper-inflation (Note 6).

Opposing Strategies

Supposing one happens to find oneself in an ‘event-hub’ of potentially momentous importance, what then? Broadly speaking, there exist two opposing strategies for the ambitious person, the first active, deliberate, calculating, the second passive, indirect, instinctive. Nineteenth century Western thinkers such as Carlyle and Nietzsche emphasized ‘will’ and ‘character’ while Clausewitz stressed the importance of sheer numbers, i.e. the active approach. Eastern philosophies generally recommend the second, indirect approach. China’s most famous military theorist, Sun Tzu (who is said to have influenced Mao), recommends systematically avoiding direct confrontation and relying instead on manoeuvre and deception. (Not that China’s history is any less bloody than Europe’s for all that.)
To employ Taoist terms, the first method is ‘Doing’, the second ‘Not-Doing’ (wu-wei), a strange concept to our ears though it is central to Taoism. The Tao Te Ching is a peculiar work because it can be (and has been) interpreted in two mutually contradictory ways. On the one hand, it purports to preach a form of quietism: it recommends retirement from the ‘world’ with all its bustle and senseless striving in order to cultivate the ‘inner self’. The Tao Te Ching specifically condemns the use of brute force in government, viewing it as both inhumane and ultimately ineffective. At the same time the title Tao Te Ching means, literally, Way Power Book and it has been interpreted as a sort of manual for an aspiring ruler. According to this view, the aim of the book is to show the future ‘philosopher king’ how to rule effectively without appearing to govern at all. At first sight this sounds all very civilised ─ but is it really? Such a ruler, according to the Tao Te Ching, gets people to do what he thinks right because they admire him for his ‘moral authority’ and ‘inner poise’ ─ but this sounds dangerously close to the ‘charisma’ that mass-murderers like Hitler and Stalin undoubtedly possessed to a high degree.
What does all this mean in practice? ‘Not-Doing’ does not necessarily mean abstaining from action, though it can mean this ─ sometimes the best plan is simply to let things take their course. Sun Tzu speaks a great deal about ‘momentum’ which he sees as an intrinsic property of certain sequences of events ─ what in Ultimate Event Theory I term ‘dominance’. “Skilful warriors” he writes, “are able to allow the force of momentum to seize victory for them without exerting their strength”. And this ‘momentum’ is impersonal, does not depend on individuals: “Good warriors seek effectiveness in battle from the force of momentum, not from individual people”.
The Tao Te Ching assumes that only a ‘good’ man or woman can possess the mysterious moral authority that makes the use of force secondary, or even unnecessary. This is too optimistic by far, not to say dangerously naive. ‘Not-Doing’ is certainly useful (and preferable to coercion) but will not take you all the way: one thinks at once of Stalin’s immortal quip, “How many battalions can the Pope put in the field?”
          The truth seems to be that both ‘Doing’ and ‘Not-Doing’ are essential for success in practically every sphere, but above all in warfare and government. If we look at famous European leaders, especially Cromwell and Hitler, we find that they practised both ‘Doing’ and ‘Not-Doing’ in more or less equal doses, were alternately ‘active’ and ‘passive’ and at ease in  both modes. It is now known that a great deal of mental and physical activity is ‘unconscious’: in a routine situation, it is often better, and even safer, to put oneself in a state of ‘auto-pilot’. However, the ‘self’ must remain ultimately in control, able to step in and overrule learned behaviour when changing circumstances make it inappropriate. Warfare is inevitably an activity that requires intense training, since the aim is to turn a warm-blooded human being into a killing machine (Note 7). But the soldier who is completely incapable of taking initiative is a liability: part of Napoleon’s success lay precisely in his ability to maintain firm overall control of strategy while encouraging his subordinates to act independently when necessary. This is one reason why he outclassed the Prussians and Austrians who tended to make war strictly by rote and were thrown into confusion by the unexpected. Similarly, the historian Grant says that Julius Caesar’s “supreme qualities as a commander were speed, timing, and adaptability to suddenly changing circumstances” (my italics).

If we consider the English Civil War and the Protectorate, we see that Cromwell and the Roundheads in general owed much of their success to their belief system. The Puritan world-view, though hardly logical, proved to be a very suitable one for men of action whether soldiers or, at a later date, pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. For, while the Puritans, and Protestants generally, firmly believed that  ‘grace’ trumped virtue (since God chose whoever He wished), they simultaneously stressed the importance of an ‘active life in the world’ ─ as opposed, for example, to retreating into a monastery to ‘watch and pray’. Cromwell’s belief in Providence is central to his character and to his conduct as a military and political leader. The moral earnestness of the Puritan obliged him not only to ‘take up arms’ for a just cause, but also to plan ahead carefully since he could not expect any miraculous intervention from above. “Duties are ours, events are the Lord’s” as Samuel Rutherford put it in a nutshell. Such a belief system protected the Puritans from the dangers of cocksureness, and induced in Cromwell a state of mind somewhere in between ‘meditation’ and ‘rational analysis’. Typically, when a categorical decision one way or the other was required, Cromwell would retire to weigh up the situation and commune with God. In ‘event’ terms, he was trying to get the feel of the mysterious ‘momentum’ of which Sun Tzu speaks ─ except that, for Cromwell, this ‘momentum’ had something to do with Providence. But if a plan did not work, it was his fault, never God’s ─ he had not been sufficiently alert to the signs pointing the way. This was clearly a very favourable mind-set for the leader of a rebellion.
Cromwell’s admirers encouraged him in the belief that he was chosen by God: “Your victories have been given you of God himself, it is himself that has raised you up amongst men, and hath called you to high enjoyments” as John Desborough put it. This sense of being a ‘man with a mission’ obviously gave Cromwell enormous self-confidence as it always does but, again, the Puritan in him stopped him from being completely carried away: he did not, as Napoleon seems to have done, conclude that he was invincible or, like Hitler, that his judgment was infallible. Cromwell, thus combined to a remarkable degree the advantages of the indirect and the direct  approaches. His ‘Not-Doing’ was making himself a passive instrument for God and Providence, his ‘Doing’ was giving full attention to meticulous military planning and logistics. One of the reasons he was such a successful cavalry leader was the seemingly mundane one that he trained his troops to advance at a trot and regroup smartly in good order once they had penetrated enemy lines, whereas the Cavaliers charged at full gallop and typically wasted precious time ransacking the supply train behind the lines.
We find much the same combination of opposites in Hitler as we find in Cromwell. “I carry out the commands that Providence has laid upon me” might well have come from Cromwell, but it is in fact Hitler speaking. As for ‘Not-Doing’, we have Hitler’s  chilling statement, “I go to my goal with the precision and security of a sleep-walker”. But this sense of mission, even combined with Hitler’s oratory, would not have ‘taken him to his goal’ if he had only been a sleep-walker. Halder, his one time Chief of General Staff, writes of Hitler’s “astonishing grasp of technical detail” ─ and, since Halder was eventually sent to a concentration camp by Hitler, he was not playing the flatterer. We are talking about data such as the range of certain guns or the tonnage of certain ships, hardly the bedside reading of a visionary.
Bullock cites the diary of an ordinary German who heard Hitler speak long before he became Chancellor and who wrote, “I have never heard an orator so fanatical or so logical”. Logical? Hitler? In fact, yes, given his premises which were to make Germany great at all costs. Hitler saw more clearly than anyone else at the time that Germany could not become a world power in post-WWI circumstances for two reasons: (1) it did not produce enough food for its burgeoning population; and (2) it was woefully deficient in raw materials for a leading industrial power. His solution was simple: invade the Soviet Union to get hold of the wheat-growing areas of the Ukraine and the oil rich Caucasus. This was clearly stated in the so-called Holbach Memorandum where Hitler outlined (to his generals) the reasons for the forthcoming invasion of Russia. An additional plus for this strategy was that it did not involve war with Britain (or so Hitler supposed); there was no point, Hitler argued in trying to recover  Germany’s lost colonies in Africa ─ let Britain rule the waves and Germany the land. Furthermore, this devastatingly rational economic analysis dictated Hitler’s basic military strategy, Blitzkrieg. Aggression suited Hitler’s temperament, of course, but the main reason for ‘lightning war’ was that Germany would never have been able to sustain a long war because it needed imported food, oil and steel amongst many other commodities.
Bullock observes that most historians writing about Hitler either stress his “fanatical will” or “insist that he relied for his success on calculation and lack of scruple”. But Bullock goes on to say, correctly, that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. “He [Hitler] was at once fanatical and cynical, unyielding in his assertion of will power and cunning in calculation”. In particular, “His foreign policy….combined consistency of aim with complete opportunism in method and tactics”. Now, this is an extremely unusual combination and shows where Hitler differed from Mussolini, “an opportunist who snatched eagerly at any chance that was going”. In summing up, Bullock writes, “Fixity of aim by itself, or opportunism by itself, would have produced nothing like the same results”.

Application to other areas

To what extent can these precepts be applied in more congenial areas of human activity than war and government?

Firstly, there is the importance of being at a cultural ‘event-hub’. It is possible for geniuses like Nietzsche to mature in more or less complete isolation but this is hardly to be recommended ─  it doubtless contributed to his mental collapse. Writers, painters and composers tend to congregate in particular spots where they cross-fertilize each other even if, or maybe above all, if they quarrel. For reasons that are none too clear, Elizabethan London suddenly produced more great dramatists than perhaps any other place or time. And the Restoration London coffee-houses were suddenly all agog at once with sparkling comedies, Locke’s philosophizing, Defoe’s political and social broadsheets and the revolutionary physical ideas emanating from the newly created Royal Society. Edinburgh at the end of the 18th century is another notable hub since it produced James Watt, Adam Smith and Hume alongside many lesser but still significant thinkers. Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of psycho-analysis, Boltzmann’s statistical physics, logical-positivism and early abstract painting. I have read somewhere that post-war Paris deliberately kept its exchange rate artificially low relative to the dollar and the pound in order to attract Americans and Britons; this along with the incredible profusion of cafés and cheap hotels made Paris the cultural world-centre for half the 20th century, spewing out surrealism, cubism, modernist fiction and finally existentialism. More recently, the cultural ‘world event-hub’ seems to have shifted to California since the latter state gave rise to two utterly opposed but strangely interrelated cultural phenomena, the hippie movement with all that it entailed and Silicon Valley. Today, the awakening giant, China, has given birth to an unexpected amalgam of laissez-faire capitalism and centralized government but has, so far, not produced anything equally new and wonderful in the cultural domain. Maybe this is to come.
So, the advice to an aspiring author, artist or entrepreneur is to position yourself near the coming (not actual) cultural centre-point, or at least pass through to absorb the vibes. (However, the existence of the world-wide web has, arguably, made geography far less important.) As for luck and ruthlessness, much the same principles apply to artists as to politicians and military commanders. In a writer, ruthlessness translates as clarity, precision and economy with respect to words and lack of sentimentality with respect to one’s own early productions ─ though it is also crucial not to overdo this. In mathematics, rigour is the rule but the really great mathematicians such as Leibnitz, Newton and Euler were very far from being logic-machines and relied to a large extent on their undefinable ‘mathematical intuition’ (which is why they sometimes made mistakes). And Bullock’s ‘consistency of aim combined with opportunism of execution’ certainly sounds as much a winning formula in the arts as in foreign policy.

SH 15/2/2018

 Note 1 Talleyrand was the ultimate survivor: he not only lived through, but flourished during, (1) the French Revolution, (2) the Directorate, (3) the Napoleonic period and (4) the Bourbon Restoration, eventually dying quietly in his bed.  

Note 2 Hitler, the proto-typical modern ‘man of destiny’, only got the first intimations of his future role in the trenches in 1915 when he was twenty-six. And it was only during his brief imprisonment in 1923 after the failed ‘Beer-hall putsch’ that he finally cast himself in the role of Germany’s predestined leader. As a youth Hitler had no interest in warfare and little enough in politics: his passion was, and remained, architecture. 

Note 3 If it is true that Alexander’s mother had Philip of Macedon assassinated, as some historians think, she has a better claim than Cleopatra to being a woman who changed the course of history.

Note 4 In the case of Julius Caesar, he absolutely had to stay continuously in office once launched on his career since, like certain contemporary heads of state, this gave him immunity from prosecution.

Note 5 I had the occasion to personally witness something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, during the May 1968 ‘student revolution’ and ensuing General Strike. For a few weeks, the Parisian faculties were occupied and even the police didn’t dare to go in. It was amazing to see, alongside genuine ‘revolutionaries’, future Robespierres and Stalins manouevering shamelessly in committees to get themselves into positions of power (see my reminiscences ‘Le Temps des Cérises, May ’68 and aftermaths’ in the anarchist quarterly The Raven No. 38).

Note 6 In Hitler’s case, it was perhaps not entirely chance that had him end up in Germany: some obscure instinct made him leave Vienna for what, as it transpired, was an even more suitable locale, Munich ─ since Germany offered far greater scope to his ambitions than Austria. Hitler, though Austrian by birth, was permitted, by special demand, to enlist in the German (not Austrian) army in WWI. 

Note 7 “The aim [of military training]…..is to reduce the conduct of war to a set of rules and a system of procedures ─ and thereby make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive” ( Keegan, The Face of Battle p. 20).

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