Clausewitz On the Modern Condition

So, don’t ask me why, but I fell into Clausewitz this morning.  From the Ubiquipedia: Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier and military theorist who stressed the moral (in modern terms, “psychological”) and political aspects of war. His most notable work, Vom Kriege (On War), was unfinished at his death (1831).

This has been called a “product of the Enlightenment” as Clausewitz eschewed “the past” by being self-educated and focusing on the inter-related “sciences” of the day.  He ignored authors like Cicero and Thucydides, etc., and instead read up in engineering, and philosophy and such–paying close attention to the “mind of the times” as well as the more recent wars in order to write his notes on War.  If you read them (you can do it–they’re not difficult) you will see they are a kind of work-in-progress; a kind of thinking done by a man whose primary canvas both historically and personally was framed by war–by its politics, geography, economics, psychology.  In the main, though, you might think in this manner on nearly any topic.  How do we think within certain frames?  How do our frames affect our thinking?  Chicken-egg stuff.  But useful as thinking exercise.  As it’s been said, how do we know what we think till we hear what we say (see what we write)?

Also, though, we might think of this work in terms it simply being a “social” document.  How can we think about our role in the greater whole?

To me the following sections could be read in light of our commercialism and consumerism; our geopolitics of terror and war; our attacks on public systems like education; our worship of military leaders; our blind trust of technology; our confusion of the CEO and the General.  We are unthinking.  Try to use the below to think about any of those topics.

Especially think on sections 14 and 15 and our continuing drive to mechanize the mind–to reduce all things to the quantifiable and forgo the moral.



All these attempts at theory are only to be considered in their analytical part as progress in the province of truth, but in their synthetical part, in their precepts and rules, they are quite unserviceable.

They strive after determinate quantities, whilst in War all is undetermined, and the calculation has always to be made with varying quantities.

They direct the attention only upon material forces, while the whole military action is penetrated throughout by intelligent forces and their effects.

They only pay regard to activity on one side, whilst War is a constant state of reciprocal action, the effects of which are mutual.


All that was not attainable by such miserable philosophy, the offspring of partial views, lay outside the precincts of science—and was the field of genius, which RAISES ITSELF ABOVE RULES.

Pity the warrior who is contented to crawl about in this beggardom of rules, which are too bad for genius, over which it can set itself superior, over which it can perchance make merry! What genius does must be the best of all rules, and theory cannot do better than to show how and why it is so.

Pity the theory which sets itself in opposition to the mind! It cannot repair this contradiction by any humility, and the humbler it is so much the sooner will ridicule and contempt drive it out of real life

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Every theory becomes infinitely more difficult from the moment that it touches on the province of moral quantities. Architecture and painting know quite well what they are about as long as they have only to do with matter; there is no dispute about mechanical or optical construction. But as soon as the moral activities begin their work, as soon as moral impressions and feelings are produced, the whole set of rules dissolves into vague ideas.

The science of medicine is chiefly engaged with bodily phenomena only; its business is with the animal organism, which, liable to perpetual change, is never exactly the same for two moments. This makes its practice very difficult, and places the judgment of the physician above his science; but how much more difficult is the case if a moral effect is added, and how much higher must we place the physician of the mind?


But now the activity in War is never directed solely against matter; it is always at the same time directed against the intelligent force which gives life to this matter, and to separate the two from each other is impossible.

But the intelligent forces are only visible to the inner eye, and this is different in each person, and often different in the same person at different times.

As danger is the general element in which everything moves in War, it is also chiefly by courage, the feeling of one’s own power, that the judgment is differently influenced. It is to a certain extent the crystalline lens through which all appearances pass before reaching the understanding.

And yet we cannot doubt that these things acquire a certain objective value simply through experience.

Every one knows the moral effect of a surprise, of an attack in flank or rear. Every one thinks less of the enemy’s courage as soon as he turns his back, and ventures much more in pursuit than when pursued. Every one judges of the enemy’s General by his reputed talents, by his age and experience, and shapes his course accordingly. Every one casts a scrutinising glance at the spirit and feeling of his own and the enemy’s troops. All these and similar effects in the province of the moral nature of man have established themselves by experience, are perpetually recurring, and therefore warrant our reckoning them as real quantities of their kind. What could we do with any theory which should leave them out of consideration?

Certainly experience is an indispensable title for these truths. With psychological and philosophical sophistries no theory, no General, should meddle.


In order to comprehend clearly the difficulty of the proposition which is contained in a theory for the conduct of War, and thence to deduce the necessary characteristics of such a theory, we must take a closer view of the chief particulars which make up the nature of activity in War.


The first of these specialities consists in the moral forces and effects.

The combat is, in its origin, the expression of HOSTILE FEELING, but in our great combats, which we call Wars, the hostile feeling frequently resolves itself into merely a hostile VIEW, and there is usually no innate hostile feeling residing in individual against individual. Nevertheless, the combat never passes off without such feelings being brought into activity. National hatred, which is seldom wanting in our Wars, is a substitute for personal hostility in the breast of individual opposed to individual. But where this also is wanting, and at first no animosity of feeling subsists, a hostile feeling is kindled by the combat itself; for an act of violence which any one commits upon us by order of his superior, will excite in us a desire to retaliate and be revenged on him, sooner than on the superior power at whose command the act was done. This is human, or animal if we will; still it is so. We are very apt to regard the combat in theory as an abstract trial of strength, without any participation on the part of the feelings, and that is one of the thousand errors which theorists deliberately commit, because they do not see its consequences.

Besides that excitation of feelings naturally arising from the combat itself, there are others also which do not essentially belong to it, but which, on account of their relationship, easily unite with it—ambition, love of power, enthusiasm of every kind, &c. &c.


A point I failed to make above was that in a sense we are all only reading “the moderns”–we fail to read beyond the moment.  Clausewitz too seemed to be thinking in the Industrial moment.  Industrial war and industrial capital require that machinery overpower history.


photo credit: Wikipedia

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