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A View on Grand Strategy


A View on Grand Strategy

Tom Goldenberg delivers an article on strategy informed by wisdoms from the past.

John Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy synthesizes the great theories and histories of strategy. I enjoyed reading about the lessons learned from Xirxes, Pericles, Napoleon, and Lincoln. Woven into these histories are the ideas of great writers: Tolstoy, Sun Tzu, St Augustine, and so on.

Yet I sensed an absence in the narrative — that of Indian Sanskrit literature. Having studied and taught the subject, I felt that the ideas of Sanskrit writers completed some of the thinking of Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy.

My inquiry led me to rethink my own thinking and consult with experts, including Professor Gaddis! The professor engaged me in a thought-provoking discussion at his home in New Haven, CT.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

Chapter 4 of On Grand Strategy, like much of the book, meditates on the balance of pragmatism and idealism. Gaddis contrasts the self-denial of St Augustine with the self-interested scheming of Machiavelli. To highlight the difference in thinking between these two thinkers, here are two quotes from the book:

“Without Caesars, Augustine replies, there’d be no Christians, and that can’t be God’s will.”¹ 

“God does not want to do everything.” — Machiavelli²

Gaddis uses the terminology of foxes and hedgehogs to highlight these polar ends. So goes the quote; “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”³ In essence, St Augustine is a hedgehog, blind to everything except a singular ideal, and Machiavelli is a fox, skillful but lacking a higher direction.

The Mahabharata, perhaps the world’s oldest epic, elegantly balances these opposites. In one famous discourse, between the blind king Dhritarashtra and his wise advisor, the king is instructed:

“Know the self by the self, with mind, intellect, and senses restrained. The self is the only friend of the self, and the self indeed is the only foe of the self.”⁴”


Key points include:

  • Exploring other views
  • Insight into free will
  • The interplay of two forces

Read the full article, What the Mahabharata can teach us about Grand Strategy, on LinkedIn.