The review is long overdue as I have been reading and rereading the book during
the past three years. It in my opinion delivers the most insightful reflections
on the modern work life at a critical turning point, better known as mid-life. I
am compelled to write down how I feel about the book before sending it to a
The main theme was the Second Punic War (around the Chinese Qin Dynasty)
where the fates of two rival civilizations across the Mediterranean Sea, Rome
and Carthage, were to be settled. Rome's early crushing defeats at the hands
of Hannibal, the charismatic Carthaginian general, were total. Any direct
confrontation with the military genius whose strategies have been studied (like
The Art of War) till this day ended in utter ruin for the Romans. Mighty Rome
was reduced to a wailing funeral after every major battle. But for the strong
city walls, the lack of effective ways to break them, and some people behind
them, the state could have surrendered, or it could have been captured, burnt to
the ground, and blotted out from the map and history.
One of the Roman senators, Fabius Maximus, the elected dictator, accepted the
military superiority of Hannibal and took a different strategy. Basically, amid
all the voices on the other side, he proposed to do nothing and delayed action.
By not actively engaging the enemy, he did the worst damage to the Carthaginians
who had to survive and keep winning on a hostile foreign land.
A decade passed, Hannibal aged and Fabius died. Rome's nomadic enemy grew old
and weary but a new generation of Romans rose from the ruins where their fathers
had fallen. Among them was Scipio, the star general that learnt from and
eclipsed the great Hannibal, who led the Romans in their revenge all the way to
Africa. Hannibal was routed and it was Carthage that was eventually erased.
The dynamics between Hannibal and Fabius (and later Scipio) evolved in a pattern
easily related to the stages of a person's life. Just as Hannibal might have,
many of us in middle age start to question: "If I have achieved success, why do
I have to continue to win?" Or as Fabius might have, we could ask "Should I pay
less attention to winning? Could 'not losing' be good enough?"
Stories of many people, including the author's, weaved into the main thread,
validated and amplified its signifcance by their sheer number and diversity.
Politicians (ancient and modern), adventurers, scientists, artists, etc., all went
through a Hannibal or Fabius-Scipio process. Early successes can become a
burden and hang on one's neck the rest of his days as in the case of Meriwether
Lewis and Ernest Shackleton. And yet many abide, see through the mask of
failures, and transcend themselves, e.g., Carl Jung and Paul Cezanne.
The concluding lesson came in the form of Krishna's advice to Arjuna in the
Indian tale of the Bhagavad Gita. The god urged the prince to "let go of all
results, good or bad, and focus on the action alone." The Tao Te Ching said
something similar: 聖人之道, 為而不爭. Epictetus proposed to treat life as a
banquet. I don't know about others, but when I see ancient texts from different
civilizations agree on something, I take special notice.
Kluth is a master storyteller and the book is more engaging than fiction. It's a
bit wordy at times but overall, a must-read.
Inspiring Trivia from the Book:
- The author, a German American, to get good at English, read a dictionary. He
reached the letter L.
- The two generals, Scipio whose mother tongue was Latin, and Hannibal who spoke
Punic, chatted in Greek when they finally met.