Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Grindstone

But with this change in condition comes inevitably adaptations to the change. What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision.

We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, (Public Domain Books, 2006), Kindle Locations (400-403) & (409-20).
The Victorian Era for the United Kingdom uniquely coincides with the Gilded Age of the United States. Both periods, for their respective countries, were marked by their increase in prosperity as well as technological advances making life "easier" in a lot of regards. Of course, rapid urbanization lead to pockets of high poverty and horrible slum conditions, but overall the period is well known for its descent into decadence for those at the "top" of society. It was during this era that H.G. Wells' masterpiece, The Time Machine, was written and published. Like many of the great 'classics' of English literature, The Time Machine combines solid writing, good story telling and intriguing social commentary into one nifty package. As a result, while reading it you not only are entertained but you get the real sense of life in that society.

I can recall seeing the 1960 film version of the The Time Machine when I was a kid, but until this week I had never read the novel. Needless to say, I was quite impressed with it and look forward to reading more H.G. Wells. Without going into the story line too deeply, the 'Time Traveler' is the protagonist who communicates the story throughout the book. He had built a time machine to travel through the fourth dimension which he explained was time. In traveling forward to the year 802,701 he comes in contact with an advanced age society of which most of the book discusses. In his first attempt at explaining one portion of that future society (the Eloi) he observes the laziness and lack of hard-work by the 'people'. It is from this observation he made the quotes as I posted above.

Hardship & freedom. Pain & necessity. I am blown away by Wells' keen observation of how critical these things are for humanity. In particular, the ideals of hardship & pain stand out as critical factors that are often overlooked. Much like the Victorian Era or Gilded Age, modern society has pushed the envelope of technology further and further while increasing the luxury and comforts for the high end social classes. Life has, in many ways, never been easier. And yet much like the Time Traveler's initial views of the Eloi, this should not immediately give us comfort. What is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? It is hardship. Pain. Self-restraint. Patience. Solid decision making. Doing things only out of necessity. The results of the 'active, strong, and subtle' pushing forward. And yet, it is hard to see these characteristics anymore. More and more they are thought of as archaic as modern conveniences and luxuries have made us loathe the difficult and embrace the easy. In many ways, the idea of effort has dissolved. This is especially seen in the younger generations which I am very much a part of.

So is all hope lost? That becomes the question. The picture we have seen and continue to see is certainly bleak. However, that being said, I still believe that anything is possible. Change will take time and the push-back on hard work will always exist. But human intelligence and vigour are needed as much today as they were in 1895. And if we believe in them still then we must fight forward with the very same weapons of hardship, pain, self-restraint, patience and solid decision making. The future is ours to make - what it will actually look like depends on the here and now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Failure of Purpose

The first campaigning season was a great disappointment; the departure of Alcibiades left the venture in the hands of a leader who did not believe in its goals and who had no strategy of his own to achieve them. Plutarch described the situation as follows: "Nicias, though theoretically one of two colleagues, held sole power. He did not stop sitting about, sailing around, and thinking things over until the vigorous hope of his men had grown feeble and the astonishment and fear that the first sight of his forces had imposed on his enemy had faded away" (Nicias 14.4). Since he still dared not leave Sicily, Nicias and his men would now be compelled to face the main enemy at Syracuse without a clear plan of action.

Perhaps the oversight was more a failure of purpose than of judgment. Nicias, as we have seen, never wanted to attack Sicily, and forced to take part in the campaign, intended to pursue a minimal course that would avoid any serious engagement. He had probably refused to consider any step as serious as an attack on Syracuse until circumstances made it unavoidable and then found himself without the forces to carry it out.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 274, 279.
Nicias, 470-413 B.C., was a politician/general/leader for Athens during the Peloponnesian War. He was known for his character and virtue, and by all accounts seemed to be a guy that the Athenians liked and admired. He was a watered-down version of the great Pericles, mostly being like him in that he did not desire war and conflict with Sparta. In fact, it was under his leadership that lead to a brief moment of potential peace in 421 B.C. between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians responded well to his leadership and had consistently placed him a position to make decisions. Despite a lack in military success, Nicias' endearment to the people kept him in power.

Unfortunately for Athens, a crisis came about on the island of Sicily in 415 B.C. As a result it pitted Athenian interests against those of Syracuse (allied with Sparta). The Athenians voted for bold action and war in Sicily, of which Nicias was strongly against. Despite his repeated attempts to avoid the conflict, Athens jumped into it with Nicias as the key leader. A variety of mistakes would follow ending not only with the defeat of the Athenians, but also with the death of Nicias. Athens was ill-prepared for battle lacking man-power, strategy, and even the drive to win. Nicias committed folly after folly ending with a decision to refuse withdrawal simply to protect his name. The Sicily was an absolute disaster for the Athenians and seemingly the end of the war.

Failure of purpose. That was the crime of Nicias in the Sicily campaign. His heart simply was not in the conflict. He did not believe in its aims or even necessarily its goals. He was just going through the motions while attempting to maintain his position and prestige. He could not plan, develop strategy or even make solid decisions in the moment. Without heart, he could not pour himself into the mission. I think we see this very issue in a lot of people today. On a regular basis we see people failing or at the very least failing the organization they are a part of because of a failure of purpose. Having character, a solid skill-set and even leadership ability do not matter without heart. It does not make a person a bad person - it simply means they are not in the right position for themselves. You have to believe in what you are doing if you have any hope of succeeding. Even if some form of success is seen, chances are likely the person is simply a hollow version of what they could be if they truly believed.

So the question becomes - are you like Nicias? Are you going through the motions hanging onto some position or place of leadership simply because you don't have the guts to step down and pursue that which you desire to do? Are you struggling to succeed not because of inability but lack of purpose? The end result for Nicias was death by execution. What will be your end result if you stay mired in the same place you are in now?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Power of the Xymbouli

The xymboulos Pharax was obviously thinking ahead to consider the political ramifications of the battle. To destroy the aristocratic elite of Argos when most of the ordinary, democratic Argives had escaped would guarantee the continued alliance of Argos with the other democracies, but if the Argive elite returned home after the great defeat of the anti-Spartan policy, they could gain control of the city and bring it into a Spartan alliance, striking a death blow to the enemy coalition. The vengeful, inexperienced Agis, determined to recover his honor, could not foresee this in the heat of the battle, and the Spartans' decision to appoint advisers to him proved to be a well-considered idea.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 240-241.
The Spartan King Agis II was a poor leader and awful strategist. His poor decision making, inexperience in leading during battle, and overall lack in inspiring confidence had left him in a precarious position of leadership. In addition, Sparta continued to lose prestige within their sphere of influence while Athens seemingly kept gaining. The situation was getting dire and any further loss by Sparta or Agis would seemingly cripple the Spartans and their hegemony within the Peloponnesian Alliance. Some form of success and victory was absolutely imperative. In 418 BC, in response to a situation in the Tegea/Mantinea area, Agis was given one final shot at proving himself in the Battle of Mantinea against the Argive Alliance.

History has a way of repeating itself as people tend to not change their habits, behaviors and ways of thinking. To say that Sparta was headed for doom under the ineffective leadership of Agis is not inappropriate. What made the Battle of Mantinea unique, however, was the decision made by the ephors (leaders who shared power with the Spartan kings - based upon election) that Agis had to be placed under supervision by advisers known as the xymbouloi. These 10 men were responsible for helping Agis make better decisions - specifically in the realm of military leadership. It seems that this would have been humiliating for a king and a tremendous check upon his power. Whatever the king's emotions must have been in regards to the decision, the ephors' decision held firm. So when the Spartan-lead alliance headed off from Tegea to Mantinea, the king was surrounded.

To avoid too much detail, the battle ended in Spartan victory. Multiple times within the execution of the battle Agis was saved by the decision making of the xymbouloi - including both prior to the battle beginning and after the battle was finished. In a nutshell, Agis (and Sparta!) were saved by not only the brilliant fighting ability of the elite Spartan warriors, but by the solid decision making of the men giving advice to the king. Although the battle did not guarantee anything for the future, it was absolutely critical to Sparta and would have a significant impact upon the Athenians and power of democracy within ancient Greece. Advice saved the day.

It is in these moments of history that I truly see the wisdom of Solomon come alive. As he wrote in Proverbs 11:14, "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure." How easy it is to be like Agis and simply continue forward in my own stupidity and ways of thinking. Trapped in my own inabilities, I make the same mistakes repeatedly which then prevent my future success. Pride refuses to allow me to see those blind spots and I stumble forward into a wavering future. And yet the answer lies in front of me much like it did for Agis. Advisers. Do I have people in my life that are consistently checking my power and decision making? Am I humble enough to see the need for my own set of xymbouli - who could very well be the determining factor in how bright my future might be? They mattered to Agis and the Spartan empire as a whole - the question now becomes can I learn from that situation and apply it to my own life.