So much has been written on the subject of self-confidence that a few more observations are unlikely to draw an objection. It seems to me that self-confidence rests on four pillars: (1) one must accurately and honestly assess one’s value; (2) self-confidence should never veer into the territory of arrogance or insolence; (3) self-confidence must be buttressed by demonstrated experience; and (4) while all can improve in self-confidence, it is essentially a character trait that comes easier to some than to others.
Assessing one’s value amounts to taking an objective look at one’s level of experience, knowledge, and capability. It is not true that all men are of equal value in all things. Some men, by virtue of their training, experience, and inclinations, will perform more successfully in certain areas. But honest appraisals are often difficult, because pride and sensitivity are offended by blunt truths. Those who are able to step outside themselves and engage in critical self-examination will improve. Those who cannot, will never advance.
The border between self-confidence and arrogance is a hazy one, but it exists. The two qualities are clearly distinguishable to others. Humility and prudence are the brakes in the vehicle; without them, the car will inevitably drive itself off the road into a ditch. As for experience, there can be no meaningful self-confidence without it. He who has done little or nothing has no business opening his mouth and lecturing others. We see far too much of this these days, as insolent dunces mount the social media rostrum day after day, proclaiming their infallible edicts to thirsty and clueless mobs. It will not do: no one who does not have a verifiable history of experience should be accepted as an oracle. And finally, it must be said that the study of self-confidence shows that it comes naturally to some, and unnaturally to others. This does not mean that improvement is impossible, of course. What it means is that self-confidence is a character trait, in the same way that musical, athletic, or literary ability is a character trait.
We will provide some examples, both ancient and modern, that illustrate these points. When Scipio landed in Africa to fight the armies of Carthage, he learned that Hannibal’s spies had infiltrated his camp. Instead of punishing or expelling them, he treated them courteously; he led them around his units, and showed them the might of Roman forces. He then fed them and released them. He knew that word of this incident would find its way back to Carthage, and that his display of self-confidence would deeply unsettle the enemy. This anecdote is found in Livy (XXXVIII.55).
I believe that General Douglas MacArthur had something similar in mind when he first strode into Japan at the head of the American occupying forces in 1945. The general, who was completely unarmed, saw one member of his party strapping on a .45 pistol as a sidearm. He told the man to take it off. He said something along these lines: “Nothing will better communicate to them [the Japanese] that they are beaten, than if we can walk around Tokyo unarmed in broad daylight.” General MacArthur, like Scipio in the example above, had correctly judged the psychological dimensions of the situation.
Scipio Africanus was a truly great man, and there are many stories told of his exemplary virtue. One time, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus (the younger brother of Scipio Africanus) was subjected to a hostile financial audit by the Roman senate. He had received sums of money (four million sesterces) from King Antiochus in Asia, and the senate demanded an accounting. Asiaticus had recorded every sesterce, and produced records and ledgers to prove it; but his brother Africanus tore up the books, angry that his brother’s judgment should be called into question. He himself had already supervised his younger brother’s finances and knew that nothing was amiss. Africanus essentially told the senate as follows:
Conscript Fathers, I am not going to provide you an accounting of four million sesterces. I myself already verified the source of the funds, and there are no problems. I myself made your treasury richer by two hundred million sesterces [from the Carthage campaign]. When I brought Africa under the control of Rome, I did not bring anything back for myself except a surname [i.e., Africanus]. Punic money did not make me greedy, and neither did Asian money make my brother greedy. Both of us are now richer in envy than in money.
The thrust of Africanus’s words were: “You did not question my integrity, or my brother’s integrity, when we conquered Africa and Syria for you. And now you feel compelled to quibble about finances?” Thus was the matter closed. This anecdote is found in Valerius Maximus (III.7).
Indeed the whole lineage of the Scipio family contains examples of self-confidence born of demonstrated valor. We are told that Scipio Aemilianus was once laying siege to a city. His goal was to capture the city and its population with a minimum of physical damage. One of his advisors suggested that he place caltrops (pointed spikes) around the city walls, and lay down other anti-personnel weapons along the approaches to the city. This Aemilianus refused to do. He said, “the same person [i.e., himself] should not want to capture people, and at the same time, fear them.”
The great playwright Euripides once wrote something that offended some people in Athens. They demanded that he delete the allegedly offensive words from the play’s text. He declined. He told them, “My purpose in writing plays is to teach you, not to learn from you.” (Val. Max. III.7). Euripides could get away with saying this because he was Euripides. Had he no demonstrable achievements to his credit, he would not have had the self-confidence to put the mob in its place. Another anecdote makes this same point. Euripides was once complaining to the poet Alcestis that he, Euripides, was experiencing some difficulties in writing. “In the past three days,” said the playwright, “I’ve only been able to compose three verses, despite working very hard.”
Alcestis gave Euripides a very smug response. “Well,” he snorted, “I myself have written a hundred lines very easily in the same time.” Euripides stung him with this response: “Maybe so, sir, but there is a difference. Your verses are good only for a few days. Mine will last for all time.” And this turned out to be true. Cicero, in his work On Divination (II.52), relates the following story. When Hannibal was in exile, he was hired as an advisor to King Prusias. The general told the king to commence an attack, but the king declined, saying that a recent sacrifice shows that the time was not auspicious. Hannibal, angry at the king’s foolishness, said: “Who would you rather trust? A piece of meat [i.e., the sacrificed animal], or a general with proven experience?”
When Charles de Gaulle left France in 1940 in the wake of France’s military defeat, he had nothing but the clothes on his back, his name, and an unshakeable will that he, and he alone, was the agent of France’s national redemption. He had to create his command, his staff, and his army from literally nothing; and this is precisely what he proceeded to do. He simply willed himself into success. Greater examples of brilliant self-confidence are difficult to find. He once said, “Dominating oneself ought to become a sort of habit, a moral reflex acquired by a constant gymnastic of the will especially in the tiniest things: dress, conversation, the way one thinks.” He could be, of course, obstreperous, and unreasonable; but these traits were perhaps necessary tools. His words about this were, “They think perhaps that I am not someone easy to work with. But if I were, I would today be in Petain’s [i.e., the puppet leader of Vichy France] General Staff.”
Yet in his biography of Pelopidas, the Roman historian Cornelius Nepos says, in his Lives of the Great Commanders, “An overabundance of confidence is often attended by a terrible calamity.” And this turned out to be true in the case of the ill-fated Maximilian I, the “emperor of Mexico.” At the same time the United States was undergoing its great civil war in the early 1860s, Mexico itself was also convulsed in civil war. Britain, Spain, and France decided to dispatch a military force to Mexico to enforce payment on defaulted debts. Spain and Britain soon withdrew after settlement arrangements.
Napoleon III in France, however, kept 35,000 men in the country; he sought to restore France’s power in the Americas by installing a compliant Austrian puppet in 1864 who took the name Maximilian I. The legitimate Mexican president, Benito Juárez, was ousted. While this episode of foreign intervention seems somewhat ridiculous today, it was a cause of deep concern for the Lincoln administration in Washington. Especially worrying for Lincoln’s cabinet was the possibility that Maximilian’s regime would provide support to the Confederate states. But Maximilian’s own delusional arrogance sealed his fate. He understood neither his own capabilities, nor the capabilities of the proud Mexican people over whom he condescended to rule. Popular support for his government, which was never strong, collapsed when his benefactor Napoleon abandoned him. He was captured by Mexican forces in 1867 and executed by firing squad.
Read more on the attributes of leadership under duress in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha: