Grand Strategy, Thinking like a Fox, and Conjunctions of the English Language

Screenshot from School House Rock Video “Conjunction Function”

“[Grand strategy is] the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”

The historian John Lewis Gaddis has been teaching a Yale class, titled “Studies in Grand Strategy” for about two decades now, On Grand Strategy is an attempt to distill down the lessons from the seminars into a book.

I recently finished reading the book On Grand Strategy. These are some lingering thoughts that I had as I was finishing the book and looking through some of my notes. Right off the bat, the book is rather dense, its not super long, but man if history is not your strong suit you will struggle. You should be familiar with a few historical figures that are heavily referenced in the writing; you will need some basic understanding of who they were, why they matter, and where in the timeline of history they existed. Thankfully we have wikipedia.

Some of these figures include:

  • Abraham Lincoln (Face of the penny, but also USA president)
  • Leo Tolstoy (GOAT Russian Author)
  • Niccolò Machiavelli (inspiring 2pac to create the alter ego Makaveli, also basically invented “modern” political science during the Renaissance)
  • Carl von Clausewitz (Prussian Military Theorist)
  • Elizabeth I ( “Brass shines as fair to the ignorant as gold to the goldsmiths.”)
  • Octavian aka Augustus (Ceasar’s adopted son and heir; legitimized after Ceasar’s assassination, also has a whole month named after him…yea)

Disclaimer: On Grand Strategy heavily references the classic: War and Peace which I have not read, maybe I should, but War and Peace is over 1000 pages long so I’m not fucking with that at this particular juncture in time.

The structure of the book appears to be this: Take the views of history presented by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace then combine it with the theories presented in Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox to breakdown leadership and statehood case studies, along time, space, and scale.

I’ll try to outline two of the concepts and lessons learned through my reading:

Here is the first one, thinking as a hedgehog and thinking as a fox. It is a story with some Greek origin, only the following passage seems to survive from a poem by Archilocus (nice name for a Death Metal Band), the passage goes, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

From The Hedgehog and the Fox by Berlin, “Taken figuratively, the words can be made to…mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers…”

He continues explaining. There are those “on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision..less or more coherent or articulate” and on the other side “those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory…related to no moral or aesthetic principle”.

The first are hedgehogs, the second, foxes.

Gaddis reiterates Berlin’s explanation, “[Hedgehogs] 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.”


Next is the concept of hendiadys, if you’re like me you’ve heard it being used but lacked the words to name it. Hendiadys is a figure of speech, famously employed by the likes of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and… others. Past the first page of a google search the exact definition gets a little murky, but I like this one, “Hendiadys is the use of two words linked by a conjunction to express a single, more complex idea.

To give you a few examples, “she’s hot and cold” , “pride and prejudice”, “crime and punishment”, “nice and easy”. As you could hopefully follow along the this and that – align sometimes but not always. They can even contradict each other, for example – “war and peace“, “almighty and most merciful father”.

The formula is basically this; use a combination of two words to present a new idea of higher complexity; can an almighty being also be truly merciful? Isn’t there an obvious inherent contradiction written into – hot and cold- – – war and peace? How can we have war and peace? These are two different states of temperament, play the classic game Civilization 3, to find out how these can essentially become two sides of the same coin.

Screenshot of the video game Civilization 3 (Firaxis Games)

In a hendiadic relationship the minute you learn about one of the elements you can infer the other.

LIGHT.

AND

DARK.

Hendiadys is basically English language black magic.


Much later in the book, Gaddis turns to Tetlock and quotes, “Foxes were better equipped to survive in rapidly changing environments in which those who abandoned bad ideas quickly held the advantage. Hedgehogs were better equipped to survive in static environments that rewarded persisting with tried-and-true formulas. Our species–homo sapiens–is better off for having both temperaments.”

But how?

How do we apply this theory?

When should you be a fox? When should you be a hedgehog?


p.s. I wrote an e-mail to John Lewis Gaddis as I was writing the above, asking him to expand on his thoughts about Philip II of Spain. And he actually fucking responded back, a Pulitzer prize winner took the time to answer my dumb ass question.

I’ve officially peaked, it’s all downhill from here.

Further Reading:

“The Fox and the Hedgehog” from Hidden Brain an NPR Podcast

New York Times interview w/ John Lewis Gaddis

Elizabeth I : Armada Speech to the Troops at Tilbury (Read the second paragraph carefully–fox)

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