The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”
The original meaning of the quote has been lost to the mists of time, but my guest today argues that it’s a great metaphor for classifying two types of leadership strategies.
His name is John Lewis Gaddis and he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, an expert on the Cold War, and a professor of military history at Yale University. Today, Professor Gaddis and I talk about his book, On Grand Strategy, in which he distills insights about strategy from political and military history going all the way back to antiquity.
We begin our conversation discussing what strategy is and what it means to have grand strategy. John then shares the analogy of the fox and the hedgehog, and the benefits and downsides to each approach to thinking and acting. We then discuss why the best strategists combine fox-like and hedgehog-like mindsets, examples from history of great leaders who had both, and how he helps his students see the relationship between principle and practice.
- What is strategy? How is it defined?
- What makes a strategy “grand”?
- Differentiating strategy from tactics
- “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
- Examples of foxes and hedgehogs throughout history
- Lincoln’s compass anecdote
- Great strategic writings throughout history
- Carl von Clausewitz’s idea of strategy
- Why theories and strategies sometimes fall short
- Principle vs. practice
- Finding the TTPs in classic texts
- How and why to be both a hedgehog and a fox, and knowing when to be which
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My interview with Tom Gibbons about the “Stockdale course” at the Naval War College
- The Art of Strategy
- Why You Need to Join the Great Conversation About the Great Books
- The Misunderstood Machiavelli
- The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin
- Herodotus’ Histories
- Lincoln (movie)
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
- Sun Tzu’s Art of War
- Carl von Clausewitz’s On War
- My interview with Robert Coram about John Boyd
- The Tao of Boyd: Mastering the OODA Loop
- Phil Tetlock
- Virgil’s Aeneid
- Gaddis’ syllabus on the classics of strategy
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” The original meaning of the quote has been lost in the midst of time, but my guest today argues that it’s a great metaphor for classifying two types of leadership strategies. His name is John Lewis Gaddis and he’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author, an expert on the Cold War, and a professor of military history at Yale University.
Today, Professor Gaddis and I talk about his book, “On Grand Strategy,” which he distills insights about strategy from political and military history going all the way back to antiquity. We begin our conversation discussing what strategy is and what it means to have grand strategy. John then shares the analogy of the fox and the hedgehog and the benefits and downsides to each approach to thinking and acting. We then discuss why the best strategists combine fox-like and hedgehog-like mindsets, examples from history of great leaders who had both, and how he helps his students see the relationship between principle and practice. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/grandstrategy. All right, professor John Gaddis, welcome to the show.
John Gaddis: Thank you, Brett. Pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: Today we’re going to talk about your book, “On Grand Strategy,” but before we do tell us about the seminar that you teach at Yale University called Studies in Grand Strategy because I think it’s interesting. It’s a class that’s co-taught by a civilian historian, which I imagine as you.
John Gaddis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: Also with a military instructor, and you look at military and political strategy going back all the way to the ancient Greeks. I can see this something that this could be a course at the Naval War College where you taught at. How did a seminar like this end up at Yale University?
John Gaddis: Yeah. Well in fact it was one course at the Naval War College and this is where I first got interested in grand strategy, something, gosh, in the 1970s. A long time ago. And this was Admiral Stansfield Turner who was then the president of the Naval War College who hired me as a very junior instructor along with some others to teach classical text to military officers just back from Vietnam. None of us had any experience with this, we were just thrown into this. I, alongside a Marine colonel, who was my teaching partner. I was pretty spooked by this at first, but became comfortable with it and I’ve been interested ever since in the idea of approaching grand strategy from classical text. I’ve been interested in how to teach it and I’ve been interested in collaborative teaching. That is teaching alongside professorial colleagues but also military colleagues who I think can add quite a bit to the course.
Brett McKay: Who are the type of students at Yale that take a course on grand strategy?
John Gaddis: When we started the course, Brett, which was in the year 2000, we thought that it would only appeal to graduate students because the reading load was daunting. It was an assumption of considerable prior knowledge. That kind of thing. We could not have been more wrong. The graduate students were uncomfortable with the course because it was far too general and not focused in a way that they are used to focusing at the graduate level, but the undergraduates took to it immediately. The undergraduates infiltrated the course, took it over, and it’s been primarily an undergraduate course for sophomores, juniors, and seniors ever since.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. I think that’s really funny how that turned out that way. Let’s talk about grand strategy, but let’s be good Platonists or Socratists. We got to start with definitions.
John Gaddis: Sure.
Brett McKay: Because the word “strategy” gets thrown around a lot. What is strategy?
John Gaddis: Well I would say, and I say in the book, that strategy is the business of linking up aspirations which can be anything that you want them to be. Anything that you can dream about. Aspirations are potentially unlimited, but they always have to be linked up with capabilities because capabilities are never unlimited. That’s the trick. That is what we go through life doing, is linking up limited capabilities with unlimited aspirations. I tell the students that what makes a strategy grand is its level of importance to them. I tell them that going out to get a pizza and deciding where to go is not grand strategy. That’s probably petite strategy.
But life choices, whether it’s choosing a major, or whether it’s choosing someone to fall in love with, or whether it’s choosing a profession, or whether it’s making great decisions within that profession, these are all grand issues to the people who are doing it. That’s my definition, which is admittedly broader than what most experts on this subject would consider appropriate.
Brett McKay: One thing I’ve seen happen a lot is people confuse strategy for tactics.
John Gaddis: Right.
Brett McKay: How does strategy differ from tactics?
John Gaddis: I think there is a no sharp line that divides them. It seems to me that tactics obviously relate more to immediate efforts that you’re making as opposed to long-term planning, but I don’t see any boundary really between these two things. I think one shades into the other because what happens at the tactical level, what happens when you try taking the next hill or crossing the next river can certainly affect your larger objectives. Something as small as that can be the difference between victory and defeat. In the end, I think it’s a gradation between them rather than a sharp line.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. You begin your book, “On Grand Strategy,” by introducing aphorism. I think a lot of people may have heard, maybe not so much young people. It doesn’t get thrown around that much these days, but it’s this, it’s “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Where did that phrase originate from and how does it relate to strategy?
John Gaddis: Well it goes back actually to the ancient Greeks, to somewhat obscured Greek poet Archilochus of Paros, who left it only as a fragment. We have no idea what he meant by it. It’s just something that by accident survived. But the modern inspiration for it comes from Sir Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher at Oxford who loved to go to parties and at a party in Oxford in 1939, someone who was studying classics quoted this aphorism to Berlin. Berlin thought it was really neat and he said, “Let’s play a game. Let’s classify great writers and thinkers as to whether they are foxes or hedgehogs.” That’s how it started out. But Berlin revived it in the 1950s as just the framework and the title for an essay on Tolstoy. The framework, the foxes and the hedgehogs, the animals, quickly overshadowed the subject of the essay which was poor Tolstoy who got left behind. It was the equivalent of going viral back in the early 1950s before there was such a thing as the Internet. It’s been with us ever since.
Brett McKay: How do you connect that to strategy? “Fox knows many things. Hedgehog knows one big thing.”
John Gaddis: Well I think first of all the best connection for it is just a trick of teaching, Brett. If you want people to remember things, turn them into animals, this always works. That’s why Berlin’s aphorism took off, I think. Archilochus’ aphorism. It’s a starting point for the book. It’s also too simple of course because it implies that people are one or the other. In fact, I argue in the book, people have to be both. It’s important to know where you’re going, which could be the one big thing, but it’s important also to know what’s around you and what you’re likely to run into, which is knowing many things. I try to have some case studies in the book of historical figures who were firmly one or the other but could not master whatever the opposite was. Then I have a other case studies of people who I think did for one reason or another, managed to be both. More important, they knew when to be which. If there was a simple one liner as to what the book is about, it’s this, “How can you be both a fox and the hedgehog and know when to be, which?”
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Let’s talk about some of these case studies that show someone who’s clearly just a hedgehog-
John Gaddis: Sure.
Brett McKay: … and someone who’s clearly a fox. The one that I liked, you start off with the book with is Xerxes-
John Gaddis: That’s right.
Brett McKay: … the Persian king, crossing the Hellespont. What can Xerxes teach us about foxes and hedgehogs?
John Gaddis: Well, it’s a great scene to open a book with because it’s in Herodotus. Xerxes, standing on a mountain overlooking the Hellespont, having built pontoon bridges across the Hellespont. This is in 480 BC and crossing a great army into Europe to invade Greece and he’s looking down at this. His uncle, Artabanus, who is an advisor according to Herodotus, tugs at the king’s sleeves and says, looking down, “Sire, are you really sure you want to do this?” It was a little bit late to be asking that question, but they immediately launch into two very typical statements for foxes and hedgehogs.
Artabanus who is a fox says that, “There are all kinds of things that could go wrong along the way before you ever meet the enemy. The armies are just so big that they will drink rivers dry before they cross them. There’s not enough food along the way. There are lions in the mountains who may eat your camels. There are not ports along the way, no ports for the ships and so on. You could be weakened. You could be defeated before you ever begin to meet some patriotic Greeks who will fight back.” Xerxes draws himself up and Artabanus says, “You have to think of everything.”
Xerxes draws himself up and says, “Artabanus, if I had to think of everything, I would never do anything.” He orders the invasion to go forward. Well, what happened was exactly what Artabanus foresaw. All of these things came together so that by the time Xerxes actually got to Athens and was able to capture the city and burn the Acropolis and whatnot, he was in a severely weakened position. The Greeks finally were able to defeat his fleet just outside of Athens in a great battle, the battle of Salamis. But at the same time, if it had been left to Artabanus nothing would have happened. Everybody would have turned around, would have dismantled the bridges and gone home. That was a little bit implausible, too. I pose those as a polarity. It’s a beautiful case study in polarities, but then I try to look at the people who managed for one reason or another or in some way or another to be both; thinking of everything, but at the same time retaining one big thing as a focus.
Brett McKay: Who would be a good example of combining the two?
John Gaddis: Well, I think my best early example is Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, who was designated by Julius Caesar as his heir at the age of 18. This was when Caesar was assassinated. Octavian was 18. He had nothing. He navigated so skillfully among the politics and the rivals of Rome that by age 20 he was one of the triumvirate ruling the city and by age 30 he was ruling the world. It’s a very rapid ascent, it’s a very skillful ascent, and it’s a very good example of starting from weakness and winding up with strength by playing adversaries off against each other. What’s interesting about Octavian is having conquered the world at age 30, he then decided that the empire that he ruled, the Roman Empire itself, was now big enough. There was nothing else left to conquer and he could turn to consolidating and cultivating institutions that would embed the Roman Empire over the longterm for the future.
He shifts from being a fox to a hedgehog, but I think he was always both along the way. He saw that sequence and balanced it magnificently. He’s the first of my combined foxes and hedgehogs, but I have others. I put Queen Elizabeth I in that category for sure. I put the founding fathers of the United States to some extent in that category. Certainly Lincoln falls into this category and certainly Franklin Roosevelt falls into this category as well. All confronting different situations, but all very skillful in their ability to hang onto a big long-term destination while being extremely flexible as to how they got there and what they dealt with.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. The Lincoln example, you talked about this sort of anecdotal story of him talking about compasses and swamps, that sort of anti-capitalist.
John Gaddis: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Tell us about that.
John Gaddis: Well, it’s actually a fake story as far as I can tell perhaps I don’t think it ever happened, but it’s in the Lincoln movie. It’s in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie. Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for this and it’s a scene in the movie toward the end of the movie when Lincoln is trying to get the 13th amendment which abolished slavery once and for all through the House of Representatives. It’s early 1865 and Lincoln is wheeling and dealing, bribing, intimidating, pontificating, and everything you can think of short of murder to twist enough arms to get that vote through the House of Representatives, which would abolish slavery once and for all. Thaddeus Stevens in the movie who’s played by Tommy Lee Jones, asks Lincoln how he can possibly justify in such malodorous methods in the pursuit of such a noble objective.
Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, just points out that as a youth, as a surveyor, he knew the value of having a compass. A compass told him where true north was. He could find the proper direction just by looking down at his compass, but if all he did was to look at the compass and nothing else, he could easily fall off a cliff or stumble into a swamp or starve in a desert or something. He had to be both things. He had to be looking at the compass, but he had to have situational awareness also of what was around him. I think that in a nutshell, exemplifies what leadership is when it combines the attributes of the hedgehog and the fox.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting about all these individuals, even going back to ancient Greece, there weren’t a lot of like text about strategy like we have today.
John Gaddis: Right.
Brett McKay: What are some of the famous strategists who made explicit these implicit ideas that Octavian was using, that Xerxes knew or was using or not using? When did that start happening?
John Gaddis: Well, I think the starting point for writing about this, of course there’s Thucydides and his great history of the Peloponnesian war. This is the war between the Athenians and the Spartans, which breaks out in the late 430s BC. It’s not that Thucydides is putting forward himself some particular grand strategy, but in his extremely detailed history, he is writing about the grand strategies of the belligerents in this war. It’s probably not the case that they actually thought of themselves as having grand strategies because this term was not yet widely known. But the Spartans had traditionally followed the strategy simply of cultivating military power and being more powerful than anybody else in Greece and thereby intimidating all possible opponents. The Athenians concluded that could not possibly compete with these military skills, but they were a maritime power. They were a naval power, something that’s Sparto was not.
They embraced a strategy for simply walling off their city, the city of Athens and the Port of Piraeus from the rest of Attica so that when war came, they could just bring everybody in within the walls, they could rely on their ships and their colonies elsewhere in the Aegean to supply them and they could wear the Spartans down in this way. It’s almost as if the Spartans decided on the grand strategy of a tiger and the Athenians decided on the grand strategy of a shark. Two very different approaches in a common struggle. Nobody articulated that. We can just conclude it from what Thucydides tells us of what happened. But it has become a model for people thinking about grand strategy ever since. In fact, it’s exactly what I was teaching back at the Naval War College long ago in the 1970s that first got me interested in this subject.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you had individuals in the east like Sun Tzu making explicit this idea of you have to be flexible in your military strategy. Then I guess the big treatise on strategies that came out was Clausewitz.
John Gaddis: Yes.
Brett McKay: That was probably the most … Tell us about Clausewitz. What was his idea about grand strategy?
John Gaddis: Well part of the problem, Clausewitz first of all was a Prussian officer who, when Napoleon was defeated Prussia, became disgusted and actually joined the Russians instead. He was on the Russian side in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia. After that was all over, he wrote a great book, which is probably the greatest of all books on grand strategy called “On war.” This was published in 1830 a year after Clausewitz died. He never actually completed this text. It’s incomplete. It’s fragmentary. It’s sometimes repetitive. It has the complication of course of having been written originally in German, so it depends on the quality of the translations if you’re reading it in English. It’s been debated by strategists ever since it came out. But if you read it in a certain way, if you read it, as I say in the book from a high altitude trying to look at the overall picture instead of trying to find consistency of detail in it, it is profoundly sophisticated in its view of brand strategy.
What is I think so sophisticated about it, what is so rewarding about it, is that it’s a work of theory for sure. It’s meant to guide the hand and the mind of future strategies, but at the same time it’s a theory of when not to have a theory. It explains that theories cannot cope with all situations. There are too many uncertainties in the application of theory. Clausewitz himself called it friction and coined the use of the term friction to just to describe what he also calls the fog of war. His point is simply that no theory can predict everything that can possibly go wrong. You could ask the question, “Well, why have a theory in the first place?” Clausewitz says, “Well, it’s a little bit like a military training. Anybody who’s venturing onto a battlefield will bring any officers venturing onto a battlefield, will bring some training to that experience of what the battle will never go in just the way that the training prepared that person for. You have to be willing, you have to be able to respond instantly to situations as they are developing.”
But nobody would say that somebody will fight more effectively on a battlefield for having had no training at all. Training is important in that sense, but it does not predict the future and I think that’s Clausewitz.
Brett McKay: Right. Relying on theories is what a hedgehog would do.
John Gaddis: Well this is where it’s complicated because you cannot quite easily fit Clausewitz into the fox/hedgehog dichotomy. I try to use the fox/hedgehog dichotomy as a starting point. That in fact is how Isaiah Berlin characterized it, only as a starting point for further investigation, but I did not try to cram all the people subsequently who make appearances in the book into one or the other category. I was really more interested in showing how you can be both. I think it’s plausible. It’s more than anyone else who gives us a theory on how you can be both, which is to be skeptical of theory. I know that’s a paradox, but that’s Clausewitz.
Brett McKay: It sounds a lot like … We’ve had Robert Corum on the podcast talk about John Boyd and his OODA loop. Boyd basically just built off of Causewitz, and the whole idea, the OODA loop, is you have the idea of mental models that you you take apart and put back together in different places, and the first person, the competitor can do that the fastest will win the competition.
John Gaddis: Yes, of course, but I would say mental models, John Boyd’s concept, doesn’t quite get what Clausewitz is talking about because I think that makes it sound a little bit too formal. Clausewitz was himself profoundly skeptical of models and he saw them as great oversimplifications. What he trusted, what he sought to incorporate into his thinking, was simply experience. That’s different from a model. Experience is the strength that you need, the stamina that you need, the levelheadedness that you need, the ability to remain calm when bullets are flying around you, but I doubt very much that most people who are on battlefields are thinking about mental models right at that point. They’re thinking at a much more immediate and elemental level. Clausewitz knew this because he was a combat officer. He was drawing on the experience of being at the battle of Borodino when he wrote his great book. I think he knows what combat is like. So did John Boyd of course, but the OODA model, it does seem to me formalizes it a little bit more than Clausewitz would be comfortable with.
The metaphor I like, Brett, is simpler. It’s simply coaching and athletics. If you think about what a coach does, the coach draws on the history and the lure of the game, how it has been well played and it’s been badly played in the past. He makes sure that his young athletes and know this stuff, he puts them through strength building exercises, discipline. He teaches them how to fail and how to recover. All of these things, but when they get out on the playing field, whatever the game is, there’s not much left that the coach can do, but just jump up and down on the sidelines and perhaps destroy a chair or something like that. It’s up to the guys that are playing the game to make the snap instant decisions. I think that’s consistent with OODA, but I think it’s a little bit simpler and maybe even easier to grasp because if you’re teaching students and you put it in these terms, they immediately understand what you’re talking about.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Wasn’t it Clausewitz that talked about a good leader, decision maker, develops like a fingertip? Touch or finger. Is that Napoleon?
John Gaddis: Something like that, yes. The point that he was making, the point that others make is that when you’re in a crisis, you got to have your training either at your fingertips or at whatever the intellectual equivalent of fingertips might be. You’ve got to be able to draw on on this instantly. It’s quick impressions, quick impressions in the sense of sizing up the situation, which is I think what OODA means by observation, but also quick impressions as to how you deal with that. OODA does refer to acting faster than the adversary does and that I think is consistent with Clausewitz. But I just find that it’s easier to explain coaching and athletics to students than it is to explain OODA. OODA requires a PowerPoint slide. Explaining coaching does not require that and that’s an asset in my view.
Brett McKay: One thing you talk about throughout the book is that some of these leaders who were able to encapsulate both hedgehog thinking, fox thinking, they were able to connect that grand vision to the day to day.
John Gaddis: Right.
Brett McKay: The practice. One of the issues that once you’ve gained success, there’s a tendency to become more of a hedgehog. You mentioned Octavian.
John Gaddis: Yeah. Yes.
Brett McKay: Why does that happen? What’s going on there?
John Gaddis: Well, for that one, we actually have social science evidence to confirm it. I’m referring to the political psychologist Phil Tetlock who in the 1980s began a very elaborate study of decision making. Why do some people seem able to predict the future accurately and others don’t. Being a social scientist, what he did was to collect thousands of predictions on public issues from hundreds of public intellectuals and code them and arrange them and categorize them and whatnot, and then revisit them some five years later, 10 years later, 15 years later, and rate them for accuracy. The problem he ran into as he did that he was looking for variables. He was looking for the possibility that liberals might predict the future better than conservatives or maybe men would do it better than women or vice versa, or maybe intellectuals would do it better than practitioners or whatever.
Nothing correlated. Nothing made any sense except that just for fun, he had stuck into his questionnaire that he passed out to everybody also the question, “Do self-identify as a fox or Hedgehog?” He explained Isaiah Berlin’s use of those terms. That’s the only thing that made sense because the record of those who identified as hedgehogs was terrible for prediction. Tetlock says it approximates that have a dart throwing chimpanzee. But those who identified as foxes a actually had much more success. Then Tetlock got interested in why it was that the hedgehogs nonetheless seemed to rise faster and higher in organizations. He decided that it has to do with soundbites in the modern world. Being foxes, having one big idea. Whether they were right or wrong in prediction, they were at least good in interviews like this one. They could do 30 second sound bites.
They were good at PowerPoint slides and all of that. They tended to rise. Whereas the foxes who were accurate in prediction could not quickly and easily and glibly summarize their views. They would get into an interview and say, “Well, on the one hand this and on the other hand that.” And so on, and people would tune out. Ultimately, what rated as what caused success was simply the ability to do sound bites, whether you’re right or wrong, and that’s profoundly disturbing if you think about it because it helps to explain something about leadership in the modern world. Why is it so often wrong or why are bad predictions, lousy predictions actually made? Why do important people do dumb things? All of that is I think, nicely explained by Tetlock’s research.
Brett McKay: People like confidence even if it’s wrong.
John Gaddis: Right. Yes, for sure. Confidence is the name of the game. As long as you’re confident and come across and don’t complicate what you say with qualifications, you’ll do very well. But you’ll be wrong.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, what about Octavian though? He was more fox-like in his … But then he became a hedgehog. Was it just because he was at that point, when you’re in power, you’re playing not to lose?
John Gaddis: Right.
Brett McKay: You, you have to-
John Gaddis: Well first of all, Brett, Octavian did not have to do sound bites.
Brett McKay: Right.
John Gaddis: It was a different age in that period and leadership had very different qualities in that period. Everything happened more slowly than than it does today, so I think it was a very different situation for him. What Octavian did that I think is really quite fascinating is that he was trying to update the Roman republic, turn it into an empire because he thought that would be the way to make it run more efficiently, but he knew that the Romans themselves profoundly distrusted kings.
They had a history of that, and so he did it so gradually that the Romans did not even realize that their republic was being transformed into an empire. One of the very clever things that he did in this respect, he said that any great state, any great empire, needs a national epic. He commissioned one of the great classical texts of all time. This is Virgil’s Aeneid, which is unlike Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in that it was a sponsored product and it was Octavian who is sponsoring it. It was for the purpose of making this transition from the republic to the empire. You might think of the Aeneid as being the ancient equivalent of a modern sound bite. But of course it’s very different in length. It’s very different in eloquence, and it’s very different in the extent to which of course it has lasted and will last.
Brett McKay: As I’m listening to you, I can see why this course would be appealing to undergrads because you have these young people who, they’re probably trying to figure out life. They had these grand visions and I’m sure they’re looking for that one big answer that will solve everything. But this course teaches them well, there’s not one big answer. Well, the big one big answer is there’s not one big answer.
John Gaddis: Exactly. We say that or try to say it in several different ways. That’s part of what I was trying to get across in the book. The book has frustrated some readers who were looking for some kind of big answer at the end of it. I do say there is no one big answer, but the other way that we went at this in teaching this course was to have three professors teaching it, not just one. Paul Kennedy and Charlie Hill and I have always been good friends and still are. But we have very, very different views, different political views, different teaching views, and we actually can get into some pretty significant arguments even about classical texts. We had a lot of fun in teaching this course in doing this and parading our disagreements in front of the students themselves. The students love that. For them, I think it was useful as a lesson in how people can disagree and still like each other, still be civil to each other.
I think it was a useful lesson in the number of things in life that don’t have simple answers where you have to be comfortable with contradictions and you will never completely reconcile the contradictions. And I think in the end it’s a more accurate preparation for life if you don’t try to tell them what they should know, but tell them how they can find out and how they can discover for themselves what will be most useful to them. The very manner in which the course was taught all this time and still is, I think was meant to reinforce that message.
Brett McKay: I imagine the best way to learn how to connect principles to practices is through actually just living, making decisions, but also don’t downplay the role of the example. I think Clausewitz talked about that, right?
John Gaddis: That’s right. Yeah.
Brett McKay: He calls them composites or sketches?
John Gaddis: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: What’s an example of that?
John Gaddis: We had another way of teaching that relationship between principle and practice in the course. The course was and is a full year course which starts in the spring, which has a summer component to it, some individual project. Then a fall semester. The spring is spent on the classics. The fall semester is spent on current policy issues, but in the summer what we do is to send our students out on what we call individual odysseys and for a lot of students that would just be an internship somewhere, but we don’t like internships. We want it to be epic trips. We want it to be things that they can never do again in life because they’ll be too busy or too many responsibilities or whatnot. For example, if they are learning a new language, we will send them to the country that speaks that language.
Russia, China or whatever, and just tell them, “Don’t get a job. Just travel around the country on our budget and talk to people. Speak only Russian. Speak only Chinese. Go to exotic places, get off the tourist path, etc. If you are being trailed by the security police, as has actually happened to several of our students, and you’re on the verge of being thrown into jail, just think of what Machiavelli would have done in a situation like that. They are equipped then for the relationship between principle and practice in a very immediate way. Then they come back and write this all up and then apply it to current situations. We find that that works well. We find that it’s a very effective teaching device and the exotic locale we have most recently chosen for our students, recommended to our students, is America.
We’re just saying, “Most of you don’t know much about America. We will pay for you to take a road trip. Get a jalopy or get a motorcycle or whatnot and just cross the country and do it slowly. Talk to people in small towns and actually see how they live. Get out of the east coast, the west coast, academic bubble and see the rest of the country. That has proven to be quite a popular project for our students as well. I think it’s very healthy to be able to do that.
Brett McKay: Well Professor Gaddis, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
John Gaddis: Well I guess, Brett, if I can, I would recommend the book first of all because I think that’s a useful introduction. What I really meant it to be was a book about teaching, just to sum up at least my own perspective on what we were trying to do in this course. I very deliberately did not try to co-author it with my teaching colleagues, Kennedy and Hill. In fact, I didn’t even show it to them to them until it came out because I knew they would disagree, but they have written their own books in various ways on this subject. I think start with that as just a guide to what to do. Then from that selective reading. It never hurts to go back to the classical texts. If you know what you’re trying to get out of them, if you’re not trying to memorize every detail, but looking for the larger pictures, for the what I call the TTPs, the Timeless Transferable Principles.
It can be immensely rewarding to that. It’s very important to have people that you can talk with about these texts as well. Several, quite a number, of our alumni of this class who are now out in the world and they have jobs and they have families and whatnot, but they also have secrets cells or meetings where they just get together with each other late at night and they pull out their copies of Thucydides or Clausewitz or Machiavelli and they relive the glory days of the grand strategy class because they find it rewarding and refreshing just to come back to these texts periodically in life. I think that’s very important as well. There’s no reason why you have to have had this course to be able to do that for sure.
Brett McKay: Well, John Gaddis, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Gaddis: Thank you, Brett. Enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Lewis Gaddis. He’s the author of the book “On Grand Strategy.” It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/grandstrategy where you can find links to resources, including some suggested readings, some books you can read taken from Professor Gaddis’ book “On Grand Strategy” that you can check out to delve deeper into this topic. Again, that’s aom.is/grand strategy.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, the podcast, you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Itunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think we get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.