The Key to Civilisation, and Life

The Dow rose 13 points yesterday. Gold jumped $18.40 to settle at $1,201.90.

Nothing to get too excited about. So we return to The Secret of Success.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was either a triumph for Western civilisation or a bloody disaster, depending on how you look at it.

The battle — which pitted British against Zulu — took place on January 22, 1879, in what is now South Africa.

The Zulus vastly outnumbered the British. The Brits had 150 men — including regular troops, colonial troops and some sick men who were in the hospital at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift but who were able to fire a rifle. They faced between 3,000 and 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Did the battle show the world the secret to the West’s success?

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But Sir Garnet Wolseley, commander-in-chief of the British Army, didn’t think it was worth a medal.

It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt, and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save,’ he said, commenting on the many awards given to the survivors.

But American military historian Victor Davis Hanson can hardly stop his chest from swelling when he reads accounts of the battle.

In the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke’s Drift,’ he writes, ‘where a beleaguered force, outnumbered 40 to 1, survived and killed 20 men for every defender lost.

Was that success? Dead Zulus and living white men?

Why the west won

Hanson — along with Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond — has a reputation for speculating about why Western civilisation has been so much more successful than its competitors.

We do not drink the finest wines or eat cheeses imported from the Hindu Kush. We do not listen to chamber music from Borneo. Neither do we model our government after that of Thailand or Tasmania. We have yet to read a distinguished philosopher born and raised in the African bush. And if a Tamil engineer had invented the repeating rifle, we might be wearing a dhoti now rather than a white shirt with a button-down collar.

Diamond believes it was, in part at least, Europe’s navigable rivers that gave it an edge. They made trade easy. This led to many exchanges of ideas and technology – including, importantly, the technology you use for killing people.

Hanson thinks it was a matter of culture. The West was more disciplined…more inventive…more thoughtful…and more lethal. Unlike many others, Western armies fought to win, not just to preen, play or make a point.

As far as we recall, Hanson offers no convincing explanation for where that culture came from or why it developed in the Middle East — between the Tigris and the Euphrates — rather than, say, in the Middle West — between the Mississippi and the Ohio.

And neither Hanson nor Diamond shows much appreciation for the role of <strong>civilisation

The paradox of civilisation

The truth is there are no competing civilisations. There are competing cultures. And rival governments. And adversary nations. Different groups may speak different tongues. But they share a common civilisation.

All civilised communities have the same essential feature: They rely upon persuasion rather than force.

The more force and violence they use, the less civilised they are. The less civilised they are, the less prosperous and technologically advanced they become. And the less advanced they are, the less able they are to exterminate a small group of English-speaking soldiers on the frontiers of civilisation.

That is the paradox of civilisation: The more civilised you are, the more you are capable of doing very uncivilised things.

It was often remarked in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, that Germany was the most civilised country in Europe. That is what made it possible for it to throw its weight around.

Which just goes to show that no matter how civilised you are, you never really get out of that ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. Push the saint too hard; he will turn into a beast.

The West was able to conquer uncivilised peoples but not other civilised ones.

For example, it never brought China and Japan into submission. Colonials almost annihilated the tribes of the Great Plains, the Pampas and the Outback. But civilised peoples were better able to defend themselves against germs, as well as against guns and steel.

The key to life

What is the secret?

Our friend and colleague Porter Stansberry saw it not merely as the foundation of civilisation but as a piece of advice. It was like the owner’s manual for being a successful individual in a modern economy.

He began by quoting your editor: ‘The only way any transaction can take place is when both parties are making a profit.

Porter continues:

‘I didn’t think much about this idea at first…and probably didn’t really understand it either. But over time, I came to understand how and why this idea could explain nearly everything — especially people’s behaviour.

‘I began to learn how understanding any business, any relationship, any transaction — it’s all about understanding the incentives. And that’s what Bill was talking about.

‘In other words, in every situation you simply have to ask: What’s in it for the other guy?

‘As Bill taught me, in every transaction you have to persuade someone. If you want to be successful in life, you do that not by trickery or force, but by offering a fantastic deal.

‘And if you understand that simple fact, and learn how to implement it, you really understand the key to life.’

A few more words on this subject tomorrow. Then we will leave it alone.


Bill Bonner
For Markets and Money

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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