Monthly Archives: August 2013

Heraclitus and the Backwards Bending Bow

It has been an age since the last post. This is because I found myself a job for the coming academic year and as a result have been working flat out to prepare a slate of lectures and make sure I’m really on top of the material. I’m really looking forward to getting back to teaching though, especially as the topics I’ll be covering are democratisation, empire and globalisation – three areas where I can draw on the rich scholarship of historical sociology.

Since the last post I made, the situation in Egypt has deteriorated further. The revolution seems to be witnessing its Thermidor, although order looks like it is a long way from being restored.

Luttwak’s name keeps cropping up everywhere I look. Here’s some intriguing comments he made a few years ago about everyone’s favourite pre-socratic philosopher, Heraclitus:

“Men do not understand . . . [the coincidence of opposites]: there is a ‘back-stretched connection’ like that of the bow.” Thus Herakleitos or Heraclitus of Ephesus, thought very obscure by the ancients, but for us entirely transparent after the experience of the paradoxes of nuclear deterrence, whereby the peaceful had to be constantly ready to attack in retaliation, aggressors had to be meekly prudent, and nuclear weapons could be useful only if they were not used. Deterrence unveiled for all to see the paradoxical logic of strategy with its apparent contradictions, turning the “back-stretched” connection that unites opposites into a commonplace, except for those incurable innocents who fail to see that safety could be the sturdy child of terror.

With that, Herakleitos, the first Western strategic thinker… was finally vindicated, though long before him many a cunning fighter had won by instinctively applying the paradoxical logic to surprise his enemy, a thing possible only when the better ways of fighting, hence the expected ways, are deliberately renounced.

From The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Did Heraclitus really anticipate mixed strategy Nash equilibria? I’m not entirely sure. My favourite fragment from Heraclitus is ‘The sun will not overstep his bounds, for if he does, the Erinyes, helpers of justice, will find him out’. The arresting image of the furies exacting retribution on the sun hints, I think, at the hidden relationship between our notions of causal necessity and moral obligation.

More blogging soon.

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