A Crop of Ruin
There are those who can and those who should and often those who can shouldn’t while those who should can’t. Such is the way of things on this fallen orb that many times unworthy individuals exercise power over worthy individuals. Take Xerxes from Aeschylus’s Persians, for example. His hubris leads him to invade Greece. This is such a grievous error that his dead father, Darius, feels it necessary to manifest himself in ghost form just to let it be known that “The heaps of corpses will voicelessly proclaim to the eyes of men, even to the third generation, that one who is a mortal should not think arrogant thoughts: outrage has blossomed, and has produced a crop of ruin, from which it is reaping a harvest of universal sorrow.”
Human nature is not quite immutable but it nearly is, for over a millennia of time has passed between the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Austerlitz and, yet, the same hubris that once struck Xerxes now strikes Emperor Alexander. And the results won’t be that much different.
Consider the scene.
We’re presented with a situation where the combined forces of Austria and Russia are about to do battle with Napoleon’s French army. Reason would dictate, I assume, that the decision making be left to those of a more aged and experienced vintage. Kutuzov knows what he’s doing. He’s been in this game for some time now. In addition, he has the cool and calculating mind of Prince Andrei at his side. Prince Andrei, once again, is looking for his moment to shine. He’s abandoned hope of executing his own plan of attack. It’s too late for that now. So instead he adapts, rapidly running through new contingencies based on his extensive knowledge of the position of the opposing forces. This seems like a duo we should defer to.
Unfortunately, the presumptuousness of youth intercedes. Emperor Alexander rides up and demands to know why Kutuzov isn’t advancing yet. Kutuzov replies that the time is not right. The Emperor insists that Kutuzov advance the troops now. Against his better judgment, Kutuzov issues the orders to advance.
There is no avoiding the Xerxes and Emperor Alexanders of the world. What’s worse is they will often be in positions of power. So, sometimes at least, poor orders must be executed. The trick, it seems, is to not let this dynamic move your own resolve to act properly. Work with what you’re given.
It is your duty to order your life well in every single act; and if every act does its duty, as far as possible, be content; and no one is able to hinder you so that each act shall not do its duty. But something external will stand in the way. Nothing will stand in the way of your acting justly and soberly and considerately.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations