Clausewitz, On War: Book 3: Boldness

Chapter 6 of Book 3 is one of Clausewitz’s gems. He strikes that middle ground that he so often aims for and frequently misses, balancing the rational and nonrational, outlining the pitfalls and long reach of this quality.

My interest in Clausewitz goes beyond the military applications of his thought. My first substantive introduction to him was by a mentor who was partial to military thought (Sun Tzu as well) as a model for organizational strategy.

I’ve never suffered from a deficiency of boldness, but that is a mixed blessing for a woman; was more than is. I recall springing up a flight of stairs in a college dormitory not my own, whistling. I was feeling good. “Women who whistle, and hens that crow,” came the word from a suddenly appearing housemother. (Yes, it was that long ago!) My boldness extended a poisonous look.

I’ve often thought that what successes I have had owed much to chutzpah, a form of boldness; but I have also been known to push things too far. That Clausewitzian mentor helped me to learn the uses of boldness, although I have continued to be on the bolder side of his advice.


Boldness will be at a disadvantage only in an encounter with deliberate caution, which may be considered bold in its own right, and is certainly just as powerful and effective.

Clausewitz considers boldness at the various levels of the military chain of command and observes that

boldness grows less common in the higher ranks. (emphasis his)

He attributes this to an overabundance of thought, which may be part of it, or it may be the increasing desire to hold on to one’s career gains, or simply the Peter Principle, of which Clausewitz supplies an early version.

Tel brille au second qui s’éclipse au premier.
The same man who shines at the second level is eclipsed at the top.

But boldness works well with thought and analysis:

This kind of boldness does not consist in defying the natural order of things and in crudely offending the laws of probability; it is rather a matter of energetically supporting that higher form of analysis by which genius arrives at a decision…

That summarizes the balance between boldness and thought.

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War: Book 3: Boldness”

  1. Clausewitz is very much in the classical tradition, defining a virtue as the middle ground between two extremes, e.g. courage as the middle ground between cowardice and recklessness.

    If I can disentangle myself from my primary life obligations I will have something to say, inter alia about Clausewitz’s discussion of boldness.

  2. Alexander the Great was bold. Robert E. Lee was bold. Field Marshall Montgomery was cautious. Both styles can work and both can lead to failure whe used improperly.

    Boldnes, however, often means a seizure of the initiative which in itself is a great advantage, if it can be exploited.

    Recklessness, which is not the same thing as boldness, can also pay dividends. Hitler was a reckless gambler who knew the Allied statesmen and military leaders of 1936-1939 facing him were not only cautious but unimaginative and uncertain as well. He took advantage with a daring assault on France in 1940 when the Allies held not only numerical but often qualitative advantages over the Wehrmacht and crushed France in six weeks.

    The same spirit of recklessness led Hitler into forcing *all* the great powers except Japan into the war as Nazi Germany’s enemies, and undercutting his own strategic plans with many ill-considered diversions of resources like invading the Balkans and embarking on industrial genocide on a continental scale.

  3. “L’audace, encore l’audace et toujours l’audace.”

    Danton was, as we know, guillotined. Other statesmen, and commanders, who lived by similar mottoes have tended not to die in their own beds.

    Moderation even in boldness — a sign of great strength of character and clarity of thought.

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