Here Be Thy Grave

The Swiss orientalist and explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt crossed the cataracts of the Nile in 1813 and was intending to penetrate into the heart of unknown Nubia.  Near a place called Jebel Lamoule, his Arab guide dismounted from his camel and approached the intrepid European; his intention was to practice on him a time-honored extortion ritual much observed in that region when escorting foreigners.  The ritual was called “preparing the grave for the traveler.”    

The guide scratched together a small mound of pebbles, dirt, and debris in the appearance of a Nubian tomb.  Pointing at it, he then said to Burckhardt, “Here, sir, be thy grave.”  He followed this threatening statement by a request for more money; the consequences of a refusal were of course clear.  Yet Burckhardt, who was a veteran explorer and knew the ways of the Arabs and their culture, was unperturbed.  He understood that they respected courage and wit; but he also knew that their code of honor, while powerfully chivalrous, was extended only to those who in their eyes had earned it.  So what Burckhardt did was this:  he dropped to his knees and assembled a pile of pebbles and dirt in imitation of what his guide had done.  And there the two men stood, facing each other before two mock Nubian tombs.

“Sir, here be thy grave.”

Burckhardt then broke the silence.  He said to the guide, “Sir, here is thy grave.  Since we are brother travelers, it is only right that we should be buried together.”  The implications of this statement were clear, and were likely made clearer when the clear-eyed Swiss began to finger the hilt of his dagger.  After a brief pause the Arab threw back his head and laughed riotously.  “Yes, you speak the truth, sir,” he said with a grin, defusing the situation.  As the two men remounted their camels, the Arab then quoted the Qur’an (31:34) in a more serious tone, saying: 

No human being knows what spot on this Earth where he will find his grave.

The two men continued on their journey, far better friends than before.  We do not know what lies in wait for us around the bends of this winding road; and we do not at what point this merry dance of life will come to an end.  One would think that an awareness of this fact would engender in men a sense of sobriety, humility, and appreciation.  But this reflective attitude seems to be all too rare.  More common is it to find foolishness and recklessness, mixed in equal measure with stupidity and delusion.  We recall Theophrastus’s profile of the stupid man in his treatise Characters:

Stupidity one may define as sluggishness in what a man says or does. The stupid man computes a sum, sets down the total, and then asks his neighbor:  “How much does it all make?”  When he is a defendant in a suit and should go to court, he forgets all about it and puts off to his farm…He forces his children to wrestle and to run until they fall into a fever.  When he is roughing it in the country and himself cooks the vegetables, he puts salt in the pot twice and so makes the dish impossible.  When it rains and others declare that the sky is darker than pitch, he exclaims: “How sweet it is to consider the stars!”

This is what Theophrastus says regarding the stupid man.  But there is a nuance in his description that I think he fails to capture adequately; for it is not just a matter of block-headedness.  It is stupidity mixed with a measure of hubris, a ration of overconfidence, that causes the fool to believe he can do that which is not within his power to do.  There are limits to what a man can know, and there are boundaries that circumscribe with precision that which a man can do.  A failure to appreciate this, a willful blindness is recognizing this, is the ultimate insult to Fortune.  In all things, there must be limits.  It is the same principle articulated by Iamblichus in his Commentary on Nicomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic:

There will not be anything at all that is known, if all things are unlimited.

I have recently been reading Max Hastings’s history of the Vietnam War.  No matter how many Vietnam War histories one reads, there always seems to be room for another.  Each writer brings his own interpretations to the table, and each has something relevant to offer.  A worthy story, like a worthy piece of literature, bears countless interpretations and re-interpretations.  The French military and political management of the November 1953 disaster at Dien Bien Phu leaps out at the reader as a particularly powerful example of this sort of willful blindness.  To begin with, the French fought their war mostly with mercenaries, colonial troops from Africa and Vietnam; to these were added a large number of French Foreign Legion.  The mercenary fights according to his contract; but the Viet Minh were fighting for the independence of their nation.  How can a mercenary ever hope to compete with a man fighting for his very identity? 

The French high command allowed twelve thousand men to be positioned in a valley surrounded by forested hills, into which artillery pieces had been dragged by the Viet Minh with incredible determination.  No one imagined that it was possible for the Viet Minh to move heavy weapons into position around the valley.  And yet they did.  The feat was accomplished through immense sacrifice and suffering, but it was done.  The French commanders, on the other hand, were boastful and contemptuous of their adversaries.  They failed to dig in adequately, failed to fortify their perimeter, and failed to patrol adequately the hills that surrounded them.  But to the French command, none of this mattered.  Their mood was On va leur montrer!, or “We’ll show them!”  What remains so shocking is that the entire disaster might easily have been avoided if pride and blindness had not overridden reason.  Hastings provides a damning indictment:

From December [1953] onward, [the French command] had ample intelligence, shared with their superiors in Paris, to show that they faced the prospect of a full-blooded disaster.  Yet they persevered because a lethal cocktail of pride, fatalism, stupidity, and moral weakness prevented them from acknowledging their blunder.  If the garrison at Dien Bien Phu had been evacuated, nobody outside Vietnam would ever have heard of the place.  There would merely have been merely a local withdrawal of a kind that had become familiar…In a spirit of defiance, they perpetrated one of the least inevitable military fiascos of the twentieth century. 

By such means do men race towards their own ruin.  And lest we Americans should adopt a superior attitude to the performance of the French in Vietnam, the record shows that the same mistakes were made by the US military, to one degree or another, in the 1960s and 1970s.  We have made, and are still making, even more grievous errors in domestic and international affairs. What dark streak of irrationality lurks in the minds of men, that causes them to march heedlessly towards their own ruin?  What laughing deity prepares this fateful concoction of hubris, blindness, and stupidity, and serves it up to man on a tray etched with the flourishes of his own vanity?  We do not know.  What we do know is that we must be forever on guard against these kinds of traps and pitfalls; our only defense is philosophy, the study of which brings a seasoned knowledge of human nature’s limitations.  This is never as easy as it sounds, of course; for as Aelian says (Var. Hist. X.12): 

Archytas used to say, “It is just as difficult to find a fish does not have bones, as a man who does not have something deceitful and prickly about him.”

Yet there is no other alternative.  He who opens the sluices of the passions can expect nothing but misery in the resulting torrents. We either submit to philosophy’s rigorous discipline—and combine this learning with worldly experience—or we will inevitably prepare our own graves, as discussed above in the anecdote about Burckhardt.  “Hence one must strive as far as lies within one’s power,” says Plutarch in his On the Education of Children, “both to participate in public life and to practice philosophy as far as circumstances permit.  This is how Pericles engaged in politics, just like Archytas of Tarentum.” This is the goal to which all worthy men must aspire. For as we have said before, life is a competition between the acquisition of wisdom and the onset of calamity.



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