Degrees of Freedom

Today at practice we did pair work with wooden swords. It occurred to me that under normal circumstances, both parties fear death, and this limits the choice of possible movements. If it is possible to strike a fatal blow, but doing so opens one up for a simultaneous fatal blow, one will still not do it. Unless one does not fear death. The one who does not fear death is less restricted.

In the time of Caesar, the warriors of Gaul were willing to burn their cities so that Caesar would not have them. Given the choice of surrender or death, many chose to fight to the death, perhaps better to kill more Romans so that other Gallic tribes would have a chance. One tribe, the Aedui, had a long-standing peace with Rome. Caesar used their capitol, Noviodunum, as a granary and weapons store from which to launch his campaigns to incorporate Gaul into the Empire. By standards of the time, Noviodunum would have been a modern city, complete with political and civic institutions modeled on Rome. To preserve Gallic freedom, the Aedui joined the Gallic coalition against Caesar, and carried away all the all the grain they could, threw the rest in to the river, then evacuated and burned Noviodunum so that the Romans could not have it.

Degrees of freedom emerge from lack of fear, and this is present in circumstances that don’t necessarily involve life or death: whistle-blowers that end their careers in order to satisfy their sense of justice, politicians that negotiate compromises that will cause them to lose their jobs. Where this involves a statement of some kind, it makes the person more trustworthy – the messenger, by putting something at risk, must necessarily believe in the importance of his message.

Unfortunately, this is one of the seductions of IS and suicide bombing, though these are now subject to “reverse attacks” by people who bear-hug suicide bombers to prevent them from detonating explosives in a populated area.

I am looking forward to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s upcoming book Skin in the Game, which is supposed to have related discussion.

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