This article was written by Thomas Flichy de La Neuville, Professor at Saint-Cyr’s military academy in France and Research Professor at IWP.
Indecision, Sovereign of Those Who Have Gone Astray, and Prelude to Swift Collapse
Present times are marked by a striking contrast between tremendous technological acceleration and the paralysis of decision-makers. How can we explain this gap?
Some authors suggest that this phenomenon could be linked to the infinite prolongation of adolescence – time par excellence of indecision. Others bring it closer to the phenomenon of self-victimization that dispossesses the individual from his own destiny. Quantitative studies link indecision to a threshold of paralysis and note that this phenomenon is both contagious and cumulative.
In any case, indecision at the top of the state spawns an invisible rot. It should be noted that the word undecided refers to the action of warriors. This term, which appears in the fifteenth century in French, comes from the Latin indecisus, which means unresolved.
The undecided are therefore those who do not use the sword of their will. In principle, indecision corresponds to a limited time. Sometimes an hour, but little more: “’tis with my mind, as with the tide swell’d up unto its height, that makes a still-stand, running neither way.“1 However, indecision can become a dangerous mania, “it is more natural for fear to consult than to decide.”2
Over time, the image of indecision has changed. However, its historical effects remain the same as ever.
The intoxication of the Enlightenment: Praise of doubt and coronation of indecision
Western tradition praises the spirit of decision. The fathers of the desert warned against an indecision that misled believers on the way to God. It is therefore not surprising that the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius considered decision, and its corollary, commitment for life, as the fundamental act of existence. La Rochefoucauld shows how the effects of imagination upon the heart, the center of the will, can be detected, contained, and controlled.
The praise of firm decisions, however, went into lethargy during the Enlightenment. At that time, a noisy minority began to praise doubt and its corollary, irresolution.
The eighteenth century was a time when undecided leaders triggered the laughter of opinion makers: Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach composed the Irresolute. A warship and a butterfly were baptized with this sweet name. In 1713, Philippe Néricault Destouches composed The irresolute, a comedy in five acts in which indecision is expressly linked to the acquisition of undigested knowledge:
Having acquired too young, too many lights,
He is irresolute on all matters
In 1758, this theme was set into music by Mr. Vadé who composes a comic opera, The Undecided Widow. However, in this concert of lightness, discordant voices are to be heard.
This is the case of Clotaire I, a tragedy published in 1742, putting on stage an irresolute King – Louis 15th accepting to be led by others. This play only announces the tragic consequences of royal indecision.
After the revolution of 1789, the praise of indecision continued within deconstructive circles. For the poet Paul Verlaine, “Nothing is dearer than the gray song where indecision is blended with accuracy.“
For the historian Gabor Demeter – from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – sowing doubt on the malignancy of indecision can blur its boundaries with diplomatic intelligence. One of his articles is entitled: “Hesitations, indecision or cunning, the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary from 1912 to 1913“. This would have deeply interested Châteaubriand, for whom the cowardice and indecision of the anti-hero Honorius (384-423) eventually triumphed over the barbarians, unable to endure his inertia.
The fruits of indecision: from noisy defeat to invisible decay
The revolutionary episode clearly revealed the toxic fruits of indecision. The revolutionary trick simply consisted in paralyzing the harmless flies in power so as to replace them with new elites, who had a program written in advance. This enables us to revisit the historical and well-documented effects of state indecision. These are double.
The first effect is political or military failure. Does not Tacitus impute the Armenian defeats to the indecision of the military leaders of this Nation? Gibbon later attributes the fall of Rome to the unresolved character of the elites. During the revolution of 1789, Robespierre, the undecided leader, who follows the current as much as he inspires it, finally adopts a non-decision, that of exterminating his opponents in order to remain in power. Before pronouncing his murderous diatribes, he would have much gained from reading Henry IV: “You speak as having power to do wrong…” His indecision to choose the common good drove him to the tomb.
As far as the consequences of military indecision are regarded, there are plenty of examples. One remembers the hesitant Admiral Hotham, missing the French fleet twice in 1795. The first time in the Gulf of Genoa, and the second, in front of the islands of Hyères. More recently, the Japanese Admiral Nagumo lost the Battle of Midway because of his hesitation. We can finally mention the generals François Achille Bazaine and Maurice Gamelin, both supremely irresolute, who gave two defeats to France.
The second effect of political irresolution is the increased threat of revolutionary agitation. Professional revolutionaries do not deprive themselves from exploiting the times of irresolution. In 1850, Marx and Engels declare in an Address of the Central Committee to the League of Communists: “It goes without saying that in the bloody imminent conflicts, it is the workers who will have to win the victory, by their courage and resolution. As in the past, petty bourgeois will show themselves hesitant, undecided and inactive.“
Indecision usually generates an invisible rot. For Myriam Revault d’Allones, “the crisis today seems to be marked by the seal of indecision.” Indeed, what we notice today is a formidable concentration of indecision.
The anesthetic praise of indecision has thus dangerous effects. Keeping one’s hand on the handle of the fan will not help. As for the crowds, they are naturally indecisive until they are influenced. This was the impression of Coriolan, who noted that their minds changed every minute. These crowds, who are now atomized, have become the target of personalized suggestions based on the information they emit. A recent study on the mouse trajectory of customers who are shopping online has led to the development of a detector of indecision. An interesting tool, which could be used in the future in order to select tomorrow’s elites.
1. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, London 1842, p. 186
2. Cardinal de Retz, Mémoires, Paris, Librairie Garnier, 1934, p. 115.