Hannibal and Me

This is a curious book.

Andreas Kluth uses the story of the Carthaginian general Hannibal to think about how to give one’s life meaning – a story which he then interprets and illuminates with the tales of other historical personages ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Paul Cezanne to Meriwether Lewis to Albert Einstein to Pablo Picasso and beyond. He then connects this inquiry to his own life, intertwining it and the story of his father’s lifelong friend and mentor Ludwig Erhard (who also happens to have been Chancellor of West Germany from 1963 to 1966), with discussions of the “hero’s quest”, the “wanderer persona” and Jung’s 12 archetypes.

Like we said, a curious book.

So let’s unpack it a bit, and start with Hannibal, the brilliant general who attacked Rome (Carthage’s sworn enemy) in about 218 BC. Now, the conventional wisdom for attacking Rome was to do it from the sea, because Rome is on a peninsula and surrounded by water on three sides. And the fourth side? That’s protected by the Alps. Impenetrable. Unpassable. A fortress.

So Hannibal decides to go through the Alps. With elephants. And 40,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 horseman. In winter. When he was 29. Crazy, right?

But what’s even crazier is, he did it. He got his troops (well, 20,000 of them) across and therefore basically in through the back door of Rome’s defenses and to within striking distance of the eternal city. Whereupon the Romans panic because disaster appeared imminent for them, and victory inevitable for Hannibal.

Which is remarkable, but, according to Kluth explainable:

Young heroes who go on a quest – the dreamers such as Hannibal and Meriwether Lewis – tend to think outside the proverbial box because, being young, they have spent so much less time inside that box. Their inexperience is an asset because they do not yet know enough not to try something bold that older, more experienced people would find harebrained.

Which makes sense. But here’s the thing Hannibal never sacks Rome. He executes some brilliant battles (the strategies and tactics of which are still studied in war colleges everywhere), but he never achieves the goal of taking Rome and therefore destroying the enemy of his people.

Why? Clearly he was brilliant – the things he accomplished are literally legendary – I mean, he brought elephants across the Alps in Winter for crying out loud. So why did he fail?

Because, according to Kluth, he wasn’t asking himself the right questions:

Was Hannibal winning the right battles? Did his victories advance his goals? Or were his triumphs imposters? Should he have done something other than take his army over the Alps to invade Italy? Now that he was here, what should he do next?

This is the launching point for Kluth – driving him to other historical characters for answers. Like the aforementioned Meriwether Lewis, the American example non plus ultra of brilliant early success and ultimate tragic failure. Was he too not asking the right questions, ultimately not winning the right battles? And why?

To find an answer, Kluth tries flipping the script by looking at people who did not have the meteoric rise of a Hannibal or Lewis, who seemed to spend much of their youths drifting aimlessly. People who, nevertheless, somehow managed to triumph. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. Albert Einstein. Paul Cezanne. And the American archetype of this example, Harry Truman.

And the study of them reveals this to Kluth:

Whereas the young heroes often start having a hard time after their early successes as they enter middle age, the wanderers only really come into their own around that time. In contrast to the young heroes, they thrive on nuance, subtlety and complexity. The wanderers may not achieve one big success, but they are quite likely to score many incremental ones, as Truman and Erhard did, that add up to a legacy of success.

Their disadvantage is that they often have to suffer through many years of frustration and self-doubt. Their advantage is that they can continue their trajectory indefinitely, possibly until the very end of their lives.

Because the thing about wanderers, which Kluth doesn’t say but clearly implies, is that they learn to learn and they learn to adapt. Whereas a Hannibal is taught by life that the way he thinks is the right way, the wanderer uses failure to accumulate knowledge, and to learn perhaps the best lesson of all, to keep paying attention. A Hannibal is taught that he can and should impose his will on the world – because when he did, he succeeded. Until he does not and then he is literally left without a plan B. Or as Korzybski might say, a Hannibal finds the world to be the nail he thought it would be and becomes imprisoned by his imagination when it is not. A wanderer learns that the world is many things; occasionally it is nail shaped.

Now, of course, that could just be the bias of this reviewer, who still holds hope that he’s a wanderer awaiting payday and not merely your garden variety failure. Or it could be the bias of Kluth himself who favors the wanderer side, as his personal journey makes clear in the book.

Or maybe it’s the bias, and to an extent the point, of life. To learn how to ask yourself the right questions. A skill wanderers acquire through years of frustration, uncertainty and doubt and which heroes like Hannibals generally do not. And remember, not just any questions. The right questions. But which are they? And how can you identify them? Your only hope is to constantly challenge yourself, your tactics, your strategies and your goals. To become comfortable with the uncertainty and doubt that wanderers spend much of their lives learning to swim in. By constantly paying attention to what is going on around you, and constantly learning and evaluating and adapting.

Which means really, this is not just a curious book.

It is a book about being curious.

Hannibal and Me by Andreas Kluth was published by Riverhead Books on 01/05/2012 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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