Crisis and Confrontation
Throughout his works, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne steadily reflected on situations where two people, one powerful and the other not, confronted each other and risked everything. Drawing upon historical records and his own personal experiences, he imagined how the events could have unfolded if the people had acted differently.
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great laid siege to the city of Gaza. The commander of the fortress, known as Batis, refused to surrender. When Gaza was finally taken, Batis continued to fight alone in a final display of defiance and courage. Alexander initially admired this, but when Batis refused to kneel and kept staring at Alexander with contempt, his fate was sealed. Alexander had Batis’ ankles pierced, then had a rope pulled through his bleeding holes, and Batis was dragged alive by a chariot beneath the walls of the city.
Take another incident, which occurred during Montaigne’s youth: when the French King Henri II imposed a salt-tax on Bordeaux in 1548, the city became the scene of widespread revolt, and violent mobs roamed the streets setting fire to tax collectors’ houses. Then the houses of anyone who looked rich were also set ablaze, and the revolt threatened to turn into a general peasant uprising. The king’s official representative, Tristan de Moneins, locked himself up in the citadel. Crowds gathered outside and howled for him to come out. The poor man thought that he could earn their respect by going out and facing up to them. But once he saw the angered crowd, he lost his confidence and acted with deference. He was beaten to death.
Sarah Bakewell sums up Montaigne’s obsession in the following way:
Is it wiser to face up to your enemy and challenge him, or should you curry favor by showing submission? Should you throw yourself on the aggressor’s mercy and hope that his sense of humanity will make him spare you? Or is that foolhardy?
The problem is that each response brings its own dangers. Defiance might impress the other, but it might also infuriate him. Submission might inspire pity, but it is just as likely to draw your enemy’s contempt, so that he wipes you out with no more thought than he would give to stamping on an insect. As for appealing to his humanity, how can you be sure that he has one?
However many confrontations Montaigne restaged in his mind’s eye, they all seemed to suggest different interpretations and different answers. This is why they fascinated him. In each case the defeated party must make a decision, but so must the victor, for things can go badly wrong for him if he misjudges the situation. If he spares someone who interprets his generosity as weakness, he may be [attacked] in turn. If he is too harsh, he will attract rebellion and revenge.
History shows that people are capable of much generosity toward their fellow human beings; but they are also capable of extreme cruelty. Circumstances play a definitive role in shaping people’s behavior. Depending on the evolving context, people can be driven into all sorts of surprising and unexpected behaviors.
The fickle and unpredictable nature of men, coupled with changing and uncertain circumstances, means that there are no universal laws for dealing with power games. Each new situation presents its own specificities, and although one can learn much from past examples, political games are often best dealt with through contextually grounded, creative, and adapted solutions.
One can, at best, cultivate a set of general ‘political’ qualities, as my next article “The Politically Skilled Manager” explains.