Le Fil de l’épée

BOOK REVIEWS

Le Fil de l’épée

Charles de Gaulle’s masterpiece on leadership—and himself

by Nicholas Dungan

In the concise canon of genuinely ingenious books on leadership—of which Machiavelli’s The Prince is perhaps the most celebrated and the most cited—Charles de Gaulle’s Le Fil de l’épée [The Edge of the Sword1] can rightly claim pride of place. The work has often been described as 1 the handbook on  leadership which the younger scholar-soldier Charles wrote for the later politician-statesman de Gaulle. (The General was wont, like Julius Cæsar in The Gallic War, to refer to himself in the third person).

De Gaulle is to France as Churchill is to Britain

In the English-speaking world, the personage Charles de Gaulle was widely misconstrued in his time as a gratuitously irascible character embodying all the tetchiness and pretentiousness that those who do not know French society from the inside so often associate with the personality of French people. Happily, more than one recent biography in English has served to rectify that misconception. In France, on the other hand, the towering figure of de Gaulle has become as unjustifiably idealised, and as unjustly vilified, as Winston Churchill in America or Britain.

The relationship between the two, during the Second World War, was characterised by intense admiration and incandescent irritation, leading Churchill, according to legend, to quip: ‘the heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine’, which was the symbol of the Free French led by de Gaulle. But for all their similarity as acolytes of History and each one’s conviction that he would become—as each one clearly did become—a man of destiny and thereafter a man of letters, they were nonetheless products of different personal backgrounds and professional vocations.

Charles becomes de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890 in Lille to a traditional Roman Catholic family. His father was a professor of history and literature. De Gaulle was educated in Paris and then admitted to the St Cyr military academy in 1909. He served in the First World War, much of his time as a German prisoner of war despite five escape attempts, and thereafter held command positions in the 1920s in Poland, in the French-occupied Rhineland and later in France’s League of Nations mandate of Lebanon and Syria.

De Gaulle goes on stage at the École de Guerre

From the mid-1920s onwards de Gaulle became a protégé of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the ‘Lion of Verdun’ and victor of the Great War (who, later, in his dotage and to his shame, would be the chief of state of Vichy France under Nazi domination). In April 1927, Captain de Gaulle, introduced by Pétain in person and himself clad in full uniform including sabre, delivered three set-piece lectures to senior officers at the École de Guerre staff college in Paris. These three lectures—‘The Conduct of War’, ‘Of Character’ and ‘Of Prestige’—were to constitute the core of Le Fil de l’épée. Five years later, in 1932, the book was published with the addition of a revised version of a previous article which became the fourth chapter, ‘Of Doctrine’, as well as a new, fifth and final, chapter, ‘Of Politics and the Solider’.

Throughout the work, de Gaulle repudiates the melancholia of the then- beleaguered French army and issues a clarion call to return to its glory days of yore. In a stance both philosophical but also highly practical in military terms, he stresses, especially in ‘The Conduct of War’ and ‘Of Doctrine’, the necessity to shape military strategy and tactics based on circumstances and reality, not theory or dogma; he cites Henri Bergson on the need ‘to achieve direct contact with reality’ and to train one’s mind to ‘acquire intuition by combining instinct with intelligence’. In this, de Gaulle is in uncanny parallel with Sir Isaiah Berlin’s later—and otherwise unrelated—essays, ‘The Sense of Reality’ and ‘Political Judgement’. (See CogitoPraxis book review of Berlin’s The Sense of Reality.)

Portrait of a leader

Above all, however, the significance of Le Fil de l’épée lies in its lessons on leadership, chiefly contained in ‘Of Character’ and ‘Of Prestige’. Indeed, today, we would translate de Gaulle’s prestige in French as ‘leadership’ in English.

In ‘Of Character’ after a lament at the loss of will of the French armed forces throughout much of the 19th century, de Gaulle describes the ‘Man of Character’ who will reverse this ill fortune. In still more uplifting and near-poetic prose in ‘Of Prestige’, de Gaulle identifies and elaborates upon the ingredients of successful leadership: natural aptitude, innate talent, giftedness honed by practice, mystery, reserve both in gesture and word, the power of silence, a capacity for decision-making, ardour and, again, character. De Gaulle sums up the ‘conditions of leadership’ as ‘réserve, caractère, grandeur’ which in today’s English we would render as self-possession, character and vision.

Le Fil de l’épée contains profound, powerful, permanent wisdom through its incomparable insights into the shaping of oneself in preparation for great events and great achievements; the development of character through the disciplined acquisition of courage and skill; and the adoption of a long-term, big-picture, history-making ambition. Twice in his subsequent career, at the fall of France in 1940 and at the brink of insurrection in 1958, Charles de Gaulle saved his beloved motherland by applying the lessons he himself had taught in Le Fil de l’épée.


1. The book was translated into English by the translator and novelist Gerard Hopkins, nephew of the poet Gerard Manley 1 Hopkins, and was published as The Edge of the Sword in 1960. It was reviewed in the New York Times by Sir Denis Brogan. Contemporary readers will, however, find the translation largely unavailable and would best read the tempus edition in French, published by Perrin with a thorough foreword by Hervé Gaymard.

The Sense of Reality

BOOK REVIEWS

The Sense of Reality

Isaiah Berlin brings a philosophical perspective to practical leadership

by Nicholas Dungan

The intellectual production of Sir Isaiah Berlin constitutes so vast and so varied an œuvre that it is not surprising to find, in the compilation of discrete writings gathered together in the book entitled The Sense of Reality, a wide diversity of subjects and ideas. Yet its first two essays, ‘The Sense of Reality’ and ‘Political Judgement’, offer an uncanny insight into a sine qua non of  authentic leadership and influence : the willingness, and the ability, to see the facts for what they are.

Berlin became the 20th century’s great historian of ideas

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, now the capital of Latvia and then a city in the Russian Empire, in 1909, into a wealthy Jewish family of timber merchants. As a child, when he and his parents had moved to Petrograd (today St Petersburg), he witnessed the violence and upheaval of the Russian Revolution firsthand. The family emigrated to England where Berlin attended St Paul’s School in London before going up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He received a prize fellowship at All Souls at the age of 23 and spent the rest of his career in Oxford, save during the Second World War when he worked for the British government in New York, Washington DC and Moscow. In the 1960s, when he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, Berlin was one of the founders and the first president of the new Wolfson College, Oxford. He was president of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He received his knighthood in 1957, and was named to the Order of Merit in 1971. He died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88.

Berlin is probably best known for his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and the distinction he drew between negative liberty, the freedom from oppression or obligation, and positive liberty, the freedom to develop oneself and to make one’s own choices. He became, also, the exponent of ‘value pluralism’, arguing that human values are many and can and do conflict with other values without diminishing the worthiness of individual values themselves. Berlin’s intellectual prowess stretches well beyond these two core philosophical elements, making him, in the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an ‘historian of ideas, political theorist, educator, public intellectual and moralist, and essayist. He was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence of liberalism and pluralism, his opposition to political extremism and intellectual fanaticism, and his accessible, coruscating writings on people and ideas.’

Much of Berlin’s work might have been lost were it not for Henry Hardy, who has devoted a great deal of his professional career to the painstaking unearthing of Berlin’s formidable output, often dispersed or forgotten—a virtually lifelong vocation which Hardy recounts in his charming and illuminating In Search of Isaiah Berlin. Without Hardy, more than a million words of Berlin’s would almost certainly have remained unfound, uncatalogued and unpublished.

The book The Sense of Reality roams through a wide field of knowledge

Henry Hardy compiled and edited The Sense of Reality, first published in 1996, and in it he decided to include, in addition to the two opening essays, writings by Berlin on ‘Philosophy and Government Repression’, socialism and Marxism, Kant, the Russian legacy of artistic commitment and ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’. Also among the essays is ‘The Romantic Revolution: A Crisis in the History of Modern Thought’, originally a lecture delivered in Rome in 1960 and a precursor to Berlin’s brilliant and revelatory book The Roots of Romanticism, from the Mellon Lectures of 1965.

The essays ‘The Sense of Reality’ and ‘Political Judgement’ give lessons on leadership

In ‘The Sense of Reality’ essay, derived from a lecture delivered at Smith College in October 1953, Berlin takes issue with the ‘system-builders’ who seek to explain human behaviour in scientific or quasi-scientific terms, or those who wish to duplicate some idealised past. Acknowledging that
‘[p]lans for human improvement…assume some degree of understanding of the way in which social life occurs’, Berlin castigates ‘the view that answers…can be provided by formulating general laws, from which the past and future of individuals and societies can be successfully predicted’ and instead argues in favour of ‘the only method by which anything is ever achieved in practice, whether good or bad, the only method of discovery, the answer to the questions which are proper to historians, namely: What do men do and suffer, and why and how?’

It was in a BBC radio broadcast almost four years later, in June 1957, that Berlin defined the sense of reality more vividly; that broadcast is the text of the essay ‘Political Judgement’. ‘The gift we mean entails, above all, a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labelled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data (those identified by scientific knowledge as well as by direct perception) as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically—that is, in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you. To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see, to be given a kind of direct, almost sensuous contact with the relevant data, and not merely to recognise their general characteristics, to classify them or reason about them, or analyse them, or reach conclusions and formulate theories about them.’

He goes on: ‘Above all, this is an acute sense of what fits with what, what springs from what, what leads to what…. It is a sense for what is qualitative rather than quantitative, for what is specific rather than general; it is a species of direct acquaintance’ with the facts at hand and a feeling for how they fit together and what their implications are. This quality, ‘that special understanding … which successful statesmen have’ is in fact an essential prerequisite to any form of leadership or influence. Along with respect fo the truth and an understanding of ‘the other’, there is no substitute for the sense of reality.

Diplomacy

BOOK REVIEWS

Diplomacy

Harold Nicolson reveals the principles of professionalism

by Nicholas Dungan

Sir Harold George Nicolson KCVO CMG was the product of a patrician Victorian and Edwardian background and upbringing. The son of a future ambassador and the grandson of an admiral, he was born in Persia, where his father, later The Lord Carnock, was chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy.

Nicolson spent his childhood, inter alia, in Tehran, Budapest, Constantinople and Tangiers. He went away to school in England and attended Wellington College before going up to Oxford to study at Balliol, from which he graduated in 1907. Two years later he entered the Foreign Office and after the Great War was a member of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles and became the subject of his book Peacemaking 1919.

During twenty years as a diplomat, then as a journalist and member of Parliament, he wrote prolifically throughout his whole life, including the official biography of King George V, which earned him his knighthood. He was married to the outrée and aristocratic Vita Sackville-West—both Harold and Vita engaged in affairs but Vita’s were legend—and, despite the ups and downs of their marriage, they remained intensely devoted to and supportive of each other, as recorded in their quotidian correspondence and in their son Nigel’s Portrait of a Marriage. They also created together the splendid gardens at Sissinghurst.

The diplomat writes Diplomacy

In 1939, Harold Nicolson published a short, highly readable, immensely informative and impressively authoritative review of the practice of international affairs, entitled simply Diplomacy. The book makes manifest Nicolson’s colossal cultural capital—across history, literature and diplomacy itself—enthralling and edifying the reader.

Nicolson begins with an examination of the ‘Origins of Organized Diplomacy’, taking care to scrutinise the diverging and sometimes casual definitions of diplomacy, opting above all for the most official, ‘the management of international relations by negotiation’. This initial chapter traces the history of diplomacy from ancient Greece and Rome through to modern times.

In a second chapter, ‘The Development of Diplomatic Theory’, Nicolson looks at diplomacy from the perspectives of international law, the influence of commerce, the role of morality. He continues this approach in ‘The Transition from the Old Diplomacy to the New’, incorporating the concept of a community of nations expressed initially in the Concert of Europe, the increasing importance of public opinion and the acceleration in means of communication. Not unnaturally, this gives way to a focus on ‘Democratic Diplomacy’, including its defects owing to divergent constitutional arrangements and its difficulties resulting from disorganised decision-making processes or the intrusive role of the media.

In the latter half of the book, as opposed to surveying properties of diplomacy as a whole, Nicolson treats distinct topics related to the diplomatic profession: ‘Types of European Diplomacy’, ‘Recent Changes in Diplomatic Practice’, ‘Points of Diplomatic Procedure’, ‘The Foreign Service’ and ‘Diplomatic Language’.

A pivotal position for the ideal diplomatist

Between these two halves, Nicolson inserts a chapter which belongs to neither and to both: the characteristics of the ‘ideal diplomatist’, a detailed description of the perfect practitioner of the diplomatic profession. In this portrait he stresses that the characteristics he singles out also constitute those of an ideal diplomacy, in other words an effective foreign policy. Nicolson echoes the admonitions of the primogenitor of the explication of diplomacy, François de Callières, whose De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, Nicolson says, ‘contains many wise and righteous precepts’ (see CogitoPraxis book review of Callières).

Emphasising that the effectiveness of the diplomatist and of a diplomatic policy must be adapted appropriately to time and place, Nicolson identifies a handful of characteristics which apply at all times and in all places. First and foremost of these is truthfulness: contrary to legend, the diplomat’s reliability and credibility depend on eschewing falsehood. Next is precision, both in speech and in writing; Nicolson underscores that much diplomatic communication is in written form, and the professional diplomat must be sure that his mode of expression is clear. After this Nicolson focuses on personal traits, the first of which is calm, unexcitedness, citing Talleyrand’s exhortation ‘Pas trop de zèle’ and extrapolating from that two ways in which calm manifests itself: good temper and patience. To all these Nicolson adds modesty, for one needs, says Nicolson quoting Callières, the ability to read the personality of the other. And lastly, Nicolson lists loyalty, adherence to one’s bearings.

Life lessons from Diplomacy

It will quickly be appreciated that these attributes of a diplomat and a diplomatic policy apply not only to the conduct of international relations but to all professional practice and all professional behaviour in all professional situations. Nicolson appears to realise this, for, in ending his chapter on the ideal diplomatist, he writes: ‘These, then, are the qualities of my ideal diplomatist. Truth, accuracy, calm, patience, good temper, modesty and loyalty. They are also the qualities of an ideal diplomacy. But, the reader may object, you have forgotten intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and even tact. I have not forgotten them. I have taken them for granted.’