Courage, Caution, and the Weight of Chance

Written by on December 15th, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Ancient History, about Herodotus Greek Persian

|||Herodotus. The Histories. trans Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.|||

Xerxes at the Hellespont Prizes are invariably won, then, by those who are prepared to act, rather than by those who weigh everything up and hesitate. You see how powerful Persia has become. If those who ruled before me shared your point of view… you’d never have seen our country make so much progress. In fact, what they did was run risks—that’s how they brought Persia to its current position of power. p.425-426

Herodotus examines the relationship between daring and prudence in the seventh book of The Histories. The occasion for Herodotus’ examination is the discussion between the Persian Emperor Xerxes and his uncle, Artabanus. Before the outset of his great invasion of Greece, Xerxes is racked with doubts about his undertaking. These doubts are resolved for him by a series of arguments by eminent Persians and a corresponding series of prophetic dreams. While details of these arguments and dreams are the subject of a later discussion, the upshot is that while Xerxes was convinced of his plan to attack Greece by means of flattery and a few dreams, his uncle Artabanus was the only Persian who refused to flatter his nephew, looked at the reality of the situation, and told Xerxes truths he did not want to hear.

On the eve of Xerxes’ undertaking, Artabanus tries to impart wisdom to his nephew. He sees Xerxes weeping while reviewing his grand army and navy, and asks if his tears denote a change of heart about the invasion of Greece. Xerxes replies that he is not having a change of heart but, “…it occurred to me how short the sum total of human life is, which made me feel compassion. Look at all these people—but not one of them will still be alive in a hundred years’ time.”1

Artabanus’ reply begins his attempt to instruct the young king, “That is not the saddest aspect of life.... It’s not just that life is short, but also that there’s no one on earth, including these men, whose happiness is such that he won’t sometimes wish he were dead rather than alive.”2 Artabanus is trying to turn the king’s mind first from the quantitative to the qualitative. Xerxes sees life as a numbers game, as more or less time. Artabanus here is trying to get Xerxes away from considering the simple quantity of life (which the young king just implicitly assumes will be happy, else why wouldn’t you weep for those who will not see the results of his time?) to considering the quality of what one does in life. He is trying to show Xerxes that his sympathy is misplaced-he needs to understand the suffering of man in order to sympathize with his subjects.

In drawing the king’s attention to the suffering of all men, Artabanus also shows by extension that this includes Xerxes himself. The king must see that he is separated from the men he observes as a matter of situation, not of kind. He is as susceptible to the misfortunes and suffering of life as anyone. Like nearly every king in Herodotus before him, Xerxes is unable to place himself properly in the order of the world—he, like they, sees himself as immune to the vicissitudes of τύχη, or fortune. He cannot see that sometimes failure and sadness could make a short span seem an eternity, and that even the most well-armed and planned expeditions can be handed over to ruin, regardless of whether your cloak is rich purple or rough homespun.

Like nearly all other kings, Xerxes is blind to the lesson that is being taught. His reply to Artabanus’ attempts at correction is, “Let’s hear no more about human life, Artabanus; you have described it well. We shouldn’t talk about bad things when involved in good things like our current project.”3 He ignores the implicit warning to consider that his undertaking is as open to disaster, a matter of the natural operation of life and τύχη, as any other. The disaster of other men has no connection for Xerxes to his plans to invade Greece.

Artabanus, rebuffed in his attempt to show Xerxes the natural connection between his royal person and the rest of humanity, decides to try a more practical approach. He says, “…I am still, even now, out of my mind with fear. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main difficulty I see is the presence of precisely those two factors which are your worst enemies.”4 Incredulous, Xerxes demands to know what is in Greece that his army and navy are not large enough to defeat. Artabanus replies that it is their very size that creates the enemies he sees. They are the land and the sea.

The sea is a danger because, “…there is no harbour anywhere, as far as I can tell, with the capacity to shelter this fleet of yours in the event of a storm and so keep your ships safe.... Since there are no adequate harbours, then, it’s important to see that chance controls men rather than men controlling chance.”5 The size of a fleet does not guard it against the fortunes of the weather, and here it is rather counterproductive. Xerxes must not consider his action at sea, proud of his massive and unwieldy fleet, without considering those forces to which all men are subject from the outside.

The danger on land, while similar to that at sea, has a slightly different character, “The land is your enemy in the sense that if you happen to meet with no resistance, the further you advance the more the land becomes your enemy, as you are enticed ever onward. Men can never get enough of success, and…if you meet with no opposition, the chances of starvation are increased the more land you gain and the more time you spend getting it.”6 The enemy here is Xerxes own ambition. Artabanus here sees that there is great danger in allowing pride and ambition to overextend the realistic, practical limits of one’s abilities. The greatest danger lies not in the exterior exigencies of weather or terrain, but in the interior dangers of a leader’s human nature.

Artabanus ends his warning with a saying of great wisdom, “A man of true calibre is one who combines fear when laying his plans, so that he weighs up everything that might happen to him, with courage in carrying out those plans.”7 So the natural complement to courage here is said to be fear. An understanding of the nature of the world, and our precarious place in it, will lead to fear. That fear, when taken in due course and considered properly, can be combined with courage to produce the action worthy of a man of “true calibre”. This is a balanced and prudent view of the intersection of action and caution.

Xerxes, of course, will hear none of it. “This all sounds perfectly reasonable, Artabanus…but you still shouldn’t be afraid of everything or give everything equal weight. If you were to give everything equal weight in every situation you found yourself in, you’d never do anything at all. Prizes are invariably won, then, by those who are prepared to act, rather than by those who weigh everything up and hesitate.”8 Xerxes here is the very image of kings who lead their people to ruin in Herodotus. He is optimistic, positive that the great success of the past is a sure indicator of success in the future. If he can simply put the right number of men in the right place, then there is no doubt of his success. He sends Artabanus back to Persia, away from the invasion, to guard the capital and keep what he sees as timid ideas away from his inevitable victories.

Herodotus gives us, in the tone-deaf responses of Xerxes, the clear impression that Artabanus is right to be concerned: Xerxes does not know, when he uses the word “risk”, what on Earth he is talking about. He does not see, no matter how much Artabanus invites him, how the real world is shaped. He does not see the fragility of human affairs, or that all men, low and high, are ultimately ruled by forces they cannot control, but only manage. Xerxes is bringing the power of Persia, which he sees as the product of blind risks taken in boldness, to the edge of ruin. Luckily for him, without a true view of the world, he won’t worry unduly when the end comes—he won’t even know it is there.

  1. p.424 

  2. ibid 

  3. ibid 

  4. ibid 

  5. p. 425 

  6. ibid 

  7. ibid 

  8. p. 425-426