A Caution to Prophets

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/February 20, 1887

Perhaps the most unprofitable form of intellectual activity to which the press of this country and Europe is persistently addicted is the prediction of military results in a war between France and Germany. True, Buckle has said that the highest and ripest form of human wisdom is the prediction of consequences; but, we take it, he used the word prediction in a sense distinctly different from conjecture. As examples of true prediction, in its best and highest meaning, the weather forecasts of the Signal Service are illustrations in point. Based upon observed phenomena and the operation of natural laws scientifically ascertained, aggregating isolated probabilities and compelling them to yield the secret of their total significance, and, above all, eliminating the confusing element of personal partiality, these predictions represent a long step toward “the highest and ripest form of human wisdom.” Contrast their method with the guesswork of the military prophets who forecast in the newspapers the result of the great war not yet undertaken. True, there is even here something to build upon, the relative strength of the two armies, the spirit of the peoples, the comparative fitness of the systems of government to bear the strain of war, the obedience, elasticity and magnitude of national resources, possibilities of alliance, and a score of other elements more or less roughly ascertainable, are legitimate and valuable data, so far as they go. If they were all, the man best informed about them could give the closest guess at the outcome. Unluckily for the prophet, there is an absent factor which no ingenuity, no knowledge, no research can supply; and for the lack of it the whole problem is without a possible solution. We do not and cannot know into whose hands the direction of either nation’s military power may eventually fall.

Contrary to popular belief, “the hour” does not always bring “the man.” It did not bring him for France seventeen years ago. In our civil war it brought him for the Confederacy, but a chance bullet took him off. Every defeat of a cause discredits anew the superstition about “the hour and the man.” When the hour strikes, the man may be already present and not hear. The “mute, inglorious” Milton, dying with all his music in him, is no more real a character than the mute, inglorious Caesar trudging along in the ranks, unsuspected by his comrades and unaware of himself. Even if conscious of his own consummate genius, and impressing a sense of it upon others, it is by no means certain that he will come to the contro. An intrigue, the selfish jealousy of some little soul in authority, the caprice of a woman behind the throne, an unfortunate peculiarity of manner in himself, a stumbling horse, a random bullet, any one of ten thousand accidents may deprive his country of the stupendous advantage of his directing hand.

A quarter of a century ago it was the fashion among the school of thinkers of which that really great man, the late John Stuart Mill, was the head, to almost altogether ignore the personal equation in matters of “great pith and moment.” They recognized the trend of tendencies, great currents of energy which apparently had an existence and control quite independent of and apart from human agency. In their view, individual men, so far from guiding the course of events, were borne along by them like chips floating on a river. They taught, by implication if not directly, that the Europe of their day would have been pretty much the same without (for example) the Napoleon of the day before. If writing now they would smile pleasantly at the notion of Bismarck “controlling the destinies” of Europe. They would point out that he does not “guide the whirlwind and direct the storm,” but that he is lifted like a straw and blown along, helpless. The conception of a single dominating mind bending other minds to its will and working stupendous changes, even by its caprices, these philosophers considered altogether too primitive and crude for the world’s manhood, and most of us who were young in their day assisted in the disproof of their theory by reverently accepting it. We have all recovered now; nobody today thinks after that fashion of thought. The importance of the individual will, consciously striving for the attainment of definitive ends, yet subject to all the caprices of chance and accident, is restored in the minds of men to its old reign of reason.

Considering the matter only in the limited view of its relation to military success, we all see, or suppose ourselves to see. that if Marlborough had died of measles when he was John Churchill; if Frederick had burst a blood vessel in one of his blind rages before he became “The Great;” if Carnot had fallen down a cellar stairway when he was a boy; if Napoleon had been knocked over at the bridge of Areola, or Von Moltke had deserted to the French and been given command of the column that was headed for Berlin, the historian of today would have had a Europe to deal with of which it is impossible now even to conceive. Suppose that “the hour” had not brought John Sobieski to confront the victorious Turk a couple of centuries ago. Europe might now be Mohammedan and the word Russia destitute of meaning. Considerations of this character may advantageously be permitted to teach us humility in the matter of prophecy, and particularly with reference to military undertakings, than the result of which nothing is so beset with accident and dependent upon the unknowable and incalculable.

 

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