Saturday, 15 February 2014

Neostoicism and Military Revolution

The name Justus Lipsius is not one on most people’s lips. It is not even one on most philosopher’s lips, nor on military historian’s. I doubt if there are many wargamers who have heard the name, either. As I hope to demonstrate, this is a bit of a shame, and he could probably be usefully more widely known.

As a quick Google search will show you, Lipsius was born in the Low Country in 1547 and died in 1606, having spent his life as a humanist scholar in various institutions, both Catholic and Protestant. Aside from being caught up in the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Dutch Revolt, his main claim to fame is the revival of Stoicism as a viable intellectual approach to the problems of his own day. He also had some influence on the way in which we think about ourselves, which had a knock on effect on the state and how it works.

Of course, Lipsius did not work alone. There was a good deal of intellectual and theological ferment at the time. By the 1590’s, the Dutch (along with other states) had a real problem. The nature of the war against Spain was such that cities needed permanent garrisons and, as these cities were also the paymasters, they needed to get along, more or less, with the civic authorities. This, however, was not the way of life of the usual sorts of mercenaries and adventurers (and, for that matter, the young gentlemen for who a bit of military service was the completion of their education).

The intellectual movement of humanism, and the Renaissance generally, had brought the works of the classical world back into circulation. The Roman army held particular fascination for some humanists, and it was only a matter of time before they started to propose Roman methods for the armed forces. The first writer, apparently, to suggest something specific, at least to Dutch ears, was William Lodewijk, who proposed volley tactics based on Roman methods of javelin throwing.

The use of Roman tactics, however, required a bit of a change in military training. Before this, such training had consisted of individual weapon training, and perhaps the ability to march in assorted directions. What, perhaps, was somewhat lacking was exacting training of the soldiers as a unit. The counter-march method of discharging muskets in the general direction of the enemy required a higher discipline than was generally seen and, along with the issues around fixed garrisons started to demand some degree of standardisation.

This standardisation focussed around weaponry and ammunition, where the Dutch rapidly became suppliers to the world, and also in drills for the troops. Thus we get, for example, the drill books, most notably of Jacob de Gheyn. I am sure you know the one I mean, or at least its illustrations of musket and pike drill. It turns up in all sorts of seventeenth century texts.

Lipsius was a leading scholar in the middle of all this, translating Seneca. His own work draws heavily on Seneca and the Stoics, as well as Tacitus. Lipsius, for example, argued that the Stoics, and Seneca in particular, were practically Christians. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. It has been quite seriously suggested that Seneca and St Paul met when the latter was incarcerated in Rome, and letters between them have been circulated (although they were forgeries, of course). Nevertheless, the Stoics were part of the intellectual Hellenic background against which Seneca and St Paul moved, and some bits of Stoic style thinking have been detected in Acts and some of the letters.

The Stoic doctrine of self-discipline, however, is the most interesting from this point of view. Lipsius argued, via Seneca, that steadfastness is the vital personal quality or virtue required in an age where everything is chaos. This requires the disciplining of the self to treat whatever happens outside the soul as irrelevant, the energy of the self being directed to maintaining peace and tranquillity.  The parallels between this and some of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are reasonably striking.

These cross-currents, therefore, came together in the changes we do see in the Dutch military system in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Discipline was increased, along with more regular payment of troops. There were changes in tactics, although their efficacy could be disputed. However, the reforms were adopted quite widely over the next fifty years or so, as the influence of them spread via Germany to Sweden, although it should be noted that the Spanish troops in the southern Low Countries also had to adapt to similar conditions, and found similar solutions.

So what is the point of all this, and why write about it on a wargaming blog?

Firstly, I think it is important to note that, while Lipsius was not a soldier, his writings did have influence on how soldiers thought about their craft, and also on how rulers considered their state and what it should do. Thus soldiers started to become employees of the state, rather than employees of a mercenary captain who was hired by the state.

Secondly, it starts me wondering about how troops behaved before the sort of discipline described above had these classical underpinnings. While Roman soldiers may well have been bred as Stoics, the intervening thousand years or so was not a hotbed of intellectual activity (although not as intellectually arid as might be thought).

Now, I am sure that the reforms did not happen overnight, and did not spring from nowhere, but I have written before about our toy soldiers being the perfect Stoic warriors, putting themselves on the line time after time, no complaining, no widows and orphans making claims, and so on. I suspect that many of our sets of rules are written in the same vein. This is how we expect troops to behave and react, stoically.

Now this may very well be true, but what happens to our rules and wargames if it is not? We like to speak of units, even when the only unit might be a lance of mixed cavalry and infantry, who may have marched, camped and even trained together, but in battle was split up into single arms units. What if these people were trained, not in Stoic virtues, but in either chivalry or some sort of hierarchical obedience? And what happens if that hierarchy is disrupted?

I am not saying that our rules, our views of medieval battle and armies are necessarily wrong, but maybe we have been looking at them through Stoic glasses.


  1. This makes a lot of sense to me. I have often thought that our automatic assumption of unit-based armies is a function of our upbringing with that tradition. I had not traced it back further than the eighteenth century before though. It certainly explains resistance to ideas about Anglo-Saxon cavalry and the idea that the best warriors might fight on foot or mounted as needed and could be trained in both traditions. Perhaps we need more wargame models rooted in cognitive theory to produce rules that reflect the gestalt of earlier periods better ...

    1. I suspect that the modern mindset of categorising everything means that it is harder to deal with objects in the world that defy our categories. Cavalry should stick to riding, infantry to foot slogging and getting slaughtered.

      Wargame models rooted in cognitive theory? Nice idea, but I've no idea how to achieve it...

    2. I've no idea how to write a rules set rooted in cognitive theory either, and then there is the choice of which branch of that theory to work with. Still, a bit of trial and error could certainly start the ball rolling and it might be fun to try. I wonder how a cognitive poetic reading of WRG 7th edition would work? :)

    3. So we can start off with perception - I see a group of dangerous men on the horizon. I process that perception and take a reaction test: Run Away!
      All scientifically grounded, of course!

    4. I just laughed out loud at that, although it would certainly be a way to deal with individuals. I presume that group perception would be different and we might actually want to start with a test to decide if we consider these men on the horizon to be dangerous. "Oh, it's just the army of Bad Reinigung. They are inferior to us in every way and we do not fear them." I think that a look at how cognitive theory addresses crowd perceptions might be a good start rather than individual perceptions. I also wonder if the result of these rules would be a set where the two armies stand off from each other and yell insults / fire mostly ineffective volleys at each other for most of the game. Actually, with my dice rolling, that is pretty much how most of my games work anyway.

  2. Xenephon provides some good examples of the contrast in training, drill and discipline between the Spartans and other citizen and mercenary hoplites. When describing his own experiences in Asia, one of the prime concerns is hoplites getting excited and leaving the ranks which tends to effect others and opens the door to panic. An observation that can be traced in other writings.

    Coming closer, the Swiss supposedly held training sessions in pike drill in the late 15th early 16thC much as the English had archery competetions. I'm not sure exactly what it consisted of but when you get a few thousand guys with long pointy sticks in close proximity one can picture an unholy mess if they try to go in separate directions and certainly having someone leave the ranks would put the whole at risk. An interesting question is what motivated them before they became mercenaries. In the early mercenary days they seem to have operated as shareholders in a collective rather than ad employees like condotta and landsknechts or walloons and the like fighting for Spain or later Swiss fighting for France. Before that it seems to be that sane tribal sense of duty to family and neighbors that crops up again and again, even to 18/19th C highlanders who were supposedly feared having their name published in the kirk at home more than being flogged.

    Of course many medieval armies were not composed of professionals serving a contractor but if men serving their landlord whether king or some small knight and failure to serve wad equivalent to not paying the mortgage, surely a different motivation and a weaker on than either of the others.

    Looking back at the long pointy stick issue, most medieval Scots armies do not seem to have carried out drill and whether or not there was any patriotic fervor most were probably there by compulsion. Such masses of undrilled men were gathered into bodies nicely fitting the war game concept of unit for practical purposes but not in any other sense and utterly incapable of even basic manouvers as an organized body prior to tge 14thC. Bruce's Bannockburn force seems to gave been a change from earlier armies, not raised the usual way and together ling enough to be capable of maneuvering effectively in the face of the enemy. If any one has ever studied how that was accomplished, I'd love to see it. The legacy seens to have survived to dome extent with 15th c armies able to advance in bodies at least but still in all these cases these are temporary bodies or formations of troops not units in either the Roman or modern sense of a permanent or at least long term organization off the battlefield as well as on it.

    However the use of a different word in a game for a long term unit vs a battlefield formation merely adds complexity without meaning as long as the rules provide for adequate properties, classifications etc for each so that they have appropriate capabilities and behavior.

    1. I suppose that the question underlying this is 'how long does it take to create and impose an effective chain of command?' I'm not that well up on Scots or Swiss, but mostly they seem to have simply launched themselves at a non-cavalry enemy. It is unclear to me exactly what sort of formation hit the enemy (assuming that it got there). The viewf rom the enemy ranks of these dangerous looking nutters bearing down upon you might be frightening enough for them to win without actual contact.

      I suppose that these differences can, in the main, be included either at the C & C level, or in a level of training. Phil Sabin, in Lost Battles argues that veterans are about 9 time as effective as trained troops, which are 9 times as effective at raw levies. I forget his exact argument, but I doubt there are many rule sets which implement this.

    2. Fascinating stuff.
      If the traditional view of Bannockburn is right, I'm not sure it called for much manoeuvring, but it can't have been easy to stop the rear ranks from pushing before the front ranks fell in the burn. That might have taken a degree of control. I suspect any deviation from an attack launched straight ahead was largely accidental.

      Can stoic warriors be equated to veterans? That is, troops who know that their interests are better served by sticking together, doing as they are told and trusting their mates to do the same? Subordinating their individual needs and inclinations to the needs of the whole unit, because experience dictates that's the best and safest thing to do. Stoicism as a side effect rather than a motivation?

      Your comments set me off up the usual tangent. I was musing on the likelihood of, say, an individual English yeoman practising with his bow in his back yard because the Statute of Winchester said he had to, following his lord to France as a trained archer as part of an indenture because the lord told him he had to, and joining a free company as a experienced soldier, because it was a good career move, thus passing through the stages of raw, trained and veteran and changing his role as he did so. Just gathering wool.

    3. I suppose the point is that even to get a bunch of spearmen pointing in the right direction takes a wee bit of organisation. How long does that take? Brig. Young in one of his books reckoned a matter of days to train a pikeman, but made no comment about a unit thereof.

      I guess there is a bit of disconnect between the view of the state as their soldiers as stoic warriors, and the view of the troops themselves, but quite possibly, in an otherwise well run army, veterans would exhibit more of the stoic virtues (and, potentially pass them on to new recruits). Cause and effect here might be a little moot, of course.

      I guess your trajectory of a yeoman is quite possible. It depends if he wanted to go home again, although I'm not sure of the effectiveness of the Statue of Winchester. Lords were quite picky as to who they took, as well, at least in the early days of recruitment. But I don't know enough to comment further at the moment.

  3. >So what is the point of all this, and why write about it on a wargaming blog?
    I never think of this question when visiting your blog. It always goes somewhere interesting.

    I wish I could add to Ross' comments, but I can't, in the main. From what I recall of writers like Froissart, medieval armies for honour (for those at the top) and out of compulsion (those at the bottom) and for loot (everyone). There may have been some nascent sense of national pride (we're English and we like beating up the French or whomever) comparable to what motivates some kinds of football/soccer violence, or just the pleasure of inflicting violence and acting outside of the usual constraints of social discipline. I suspect that when a lance or a host or whatever broke into its various troop types for battle, there was some degree of social cohesion, so toffs fought with toffs on horses, and the lower classes fought on foot together, drawing strength from regional, village, or other type of affinities.

    What may be relevant here is phenomenon of ancient and medieval battles often ending catastrophically for one side or another, perhaps because when a battle was visibly lost, there was not enough cohesion and discipline among the various troop types to keep them from routing as a mass of panicked individuals. I am not suggesting that armies did not also rout in the modern era as well, but perhaps training and discipline (and the revival of stoicism), thanks to Lipsius, had something to do with it?
    I did not know the possible connection between Seneca and Paul, thanks for that.

    1. I suspect, although I don't know, that a lot of this actually relates to different world views from today's. Honour and compulsion were, more or less I imagine, simply the way the world was. It is not like that today, so we have to imagine ourselves back into that world and use concepts like compulsion which would not particularly have occurred to the originals. 'I'm compelled to follow my lord' or 'I follow my lord because he is my lord and he is who I follow'?

      I also suspect there is also a sense of adventure. When all you usually see is the rear of ploughing oxen, going to war might look a lot more interesting.

      But the issue of cohesion, its relation to training both at an individual level and at the 'unit' level (whatever that might be) could be interesting and enlightening.

      As for Paul and the Stoics, I think it was quite popular as an idea about 100 years ago. It still appears on and off, but the connection is presumed to be via Hellenistic culture rather than direct these days.