The Importance Of Knowing What Boundaries Should Not Be Crossed

One of the characteristics of the fool is his inability to comprehend the idea of boundaries.  He has failed to learn what rules of conduct can, and cannot, be broken.  He flaunts his whims and desires without any care as to their consequences; he rates his own judgment above that of all others, and scorns the normative guidelines of social interaction.  He believes that what he wishes to be done, in fact ought to be done, and reverse-engineers whatever rationalizations are needed to vindicate his behavior.

In modern America we are regrettably familiar with this species.  The strutting ass, the arrogant clown, the rich dullard, and other related personality types all exhibit this common behavior trait:  they are contemptuous of the rules of social and political conduct, and believe that these rules do not apply to them.  Once we understand this, their behavior makes some sort of sense.  The Renaissance historian Pietro Bembo describes the following incident in his History of Venice (III.55) where the entourages of two competing diplomats encounter each other in the streets of Tortona in 1497:

An incident took place at Tertona as follows.  Venetian envoys, by chance encountering in the street two Florentine envoys who had come to [Emperor] Maximilian, orally greeted them.  The Florentines continued on in an arrogant and uncouth way, without uttering a single word in response.  They happened to meet them again on the next day, and refused to cede the way to the Venetian envoys; they physically accosted them with their entourage in a haughty manner.  Morosini [one of the Venetian envoys] had a face of great dignity and was a strongly-built man besides; he told the Florentines, “Learn to give way to your betters!” [Disce cedere maioribus!].  He then shoved one of them with such force that he toppled over into the dirt.  [Translation mine]

The Florentine envoys had somehow never learned that the first lesson in diplomacy is respect.  One is expected to behave like a professional even in the most tense of circumstances.  Acting like a spoiled child never advanced the cause of any nation.  In the example above, the Florentine ambassadors (who must have been very poorly trained or led) allowed their emotions to override their professional duties.

Other examples are not difficult to find.  The modern observer of domestic and international politics cannot help but wince as he watches the arrogant histrionics of certain United Nations ambassadors, people who arrogate to themselves the right to dictate the fate of foreign countries.  Such people have no sense of boundaries, respect for others, or restraint.  The spectacle would be shocking, were it not so routine; and as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the price for this behavior will eventually be paid.

Pietro Bembo tells us another anecdote that ties in with this theme.  The year is again 1497.  Venice and France have been engaged in warfare against each other for some time.

As the rumors and fears about Charles grew among the populace, Tristano Savorgnan, one of the leading men of Friuli, the brother of Girolamo and a man utterly devoted to the [Venetian] Republic, approached my father Bernardo Bembo, one of the Heads of the Council of Ten.  He mentioned that he had a friend in Albania, a shrewd man with a very sharp mind who could be given any task with complete confidence.  This man had for a very long time been on close terms with a relative of his who served in the bedchamber of King Charles [of France].

The Albanian ventured that he would leave for France and persuade his relative to do away with the king with poison that he would take with him, or, alternatively, that he would conceal the matter from his relative and kill the king himself, if the Council of Ten was prepared to offer him some reward for a deed of such moment.

Savorgnan hoped and believed that the Albanian could bring the business to a quick conclusion.  Although Bembo knew that such crimes were repellent to the magistrates, in accordance with ancestral custom and usage he nevertheless communicated the matter to the other Heads of the Ten, and they reported it to the Council.

Summoning Tristano to him, Bembo gave him the Council’s decision to the effect that the Republic had never used such schemes against its enemies, although it could often have done so, and was not about to start now.  They feared Almighty God more than they feared the power of men, and, apart from that, those that planned to topple others through crime and sin were themselves brought low by their own wickedness.  [Trans. by R.W. Ulery]

The Venetian authorities wisely decided not to engage in assassination.  To their credit, they knew that this was a line that should not be crossed.  Political murder is relatively easy to carry out; anyone opening the door to this sort of thing can expect it to be attempted against himself.  Even among the jungle of states, armies, and diplomats, there are rules that govern conduct.

Aggression will produce a response, and this response will often take forms that the aggressor cannot predict.  And once the machinery of conflict has been set in motion, no one can predict what trajectory it may take.  The wise man knows this; the fool cares nothing of it.  There are things that should be done, and there are things that should not be done, unless some compelling reasons exist.

As stated above, one of the most alarming and pervasive features of our affairs today is the lack of restraint and moderation with which some conduct themselves.  From the very top of our society to its bottom, there is a celebration of pride and arrogance as if this were some kind of virtue.  But it is not a virtue:  it is exactly the opposite.  We must never forget that the behavior of men and nations should be calibrated to serve the personal or national interest, not undermine it. 


Read more on this and related subjects in Sallust: