The Philosopher Who Flunked Life and Other Great Lessons from History
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Historical anecdotes coupled with nostrums for the business-as-warfare crowd. Drawing on George Santayana’s by now tired saw that those who cannot remember the past will necessarily repeat it, the authors (Allison is a magazine publisher, while Adams and Hambly are history professors) offer a sturdy assemblage of historical oddments that in themselves make for entertaining little studies. One, for instance, concerns the Roman senator Gaius Popillius Laenas, who singly faced down a Syrian army that was poised to invade Egypt; Laenas sternly told the Syrian satrap that although he may have been alone, he had the whole might of the Roman empire backing him. Another recounts the fabulous wealth that fledgling financier Nathan Rothschild made by speculating on the British bond market at the time of Waterloo; Rothschild had employed a network of private spies who followed Wellington and Napoleon into the field, and armed with the information these spies provided, Rothschild was able to predict the outcome of that great battle and to manipulate the market accordingly. Still another relates the medieval European belief that in the far corners of Asia lay a fabulous realm whose Christian king, Prester John, awaited the arrival of fellow believers on whom he would shower wealth and titles. The morals the authors append to these little studies are less entertaining. When they are not immediately transparent—and the authors seem utterly convinced that theirs is the only possible interpretation of events—these preachy lessons are sometimes even vaguely creepy. They view the world of commerce as a battleground, competitors as conspiratorial enemies whose aim is to keep the righteous, namely readers of this book, from their rightful riches. Thus the lesson of Laenas’s bravery is “A bluff works only when it is believed,” of Rothschild’s cunning that it’s a good thing to cultivate reliable sources, of the quest for Prester John, “Your hopes are not reality”—hardly surprising conclusions. Readers who like their Machiavellian theory dumbed down will find this book of value.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-85951-6
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998