The Beneficence of Necessity

All human beings want the good. More precisely, every man wishes to be better than he already is, to become the best version of himself of which he’s capable. Despite this innate drive, we are fickle creatures. We are frequently unable to bring the objects of our desires into being. Why? We lose sight of our clear-sighted view of the good. We become enslaved to our low, unreflective appetites. This shameful lack of willfulness arises whenever we think that things can be otherwise, whenever we tell ourselves, “I don’t have to lift today” or “Why can’t I just spend my time scrolling through social media?” or “There’s no need for me read a serious book.” On the other hand, whenever we clear-sightedly grasp that something cannot be otherwise, we act far more prudently. Whenever it’s necessary for me to wake up at 5:00 in the morning, I do it. No questions asked.

So: use necessity to your advantage. In those moments of clarity when you genuinely see what’s good for you, make it impossible to act otherwise. I’ll provide a more concrete explanation below. But first, three historical examples are in order. I was inspired by three books I’ve been reading recently: Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli, Xenophon’s Anabasis, and Julius Caesar’s Gallic War. I take an example from each work.

In the third chapter of Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss briefly discusses Machiavelli’s praise of what “some moral philosophers have written.” Strauss writes, “The philosophers in question had understood ‘the virtue of necessity’ or they had realized that necessity is the mother of the highest virtue. Their insight agrees with the thesis of the chapter that necessity makes men obstinate and hence excellent fighters. The wise captain or ruler will therefore use every artifice to liberate his enemies from such salutary necessity; he will deceive the enemy populace by making large promises to them and by claiming that he has no quarrel with them but only with the ambitious few in their midst” [1].

Strauss is discussing here Chapter 12 of Book III of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy titled “That a Prudent Captain Ought to Impose every Necessity to Engage in Combat on His Soldiers and Take It Away from Those of Enemies.” As the chapter heading indicates, Machiavelli is drawing a universal conclusion. He solidly grounds that universal on a phenomenon he has observed in both the ancient and the modern world. It is a recurring phenomenon that discloses a permanent truth about human nature. Machiavelli argues that if a captain is going to capture a city, he ought to look at the necessities constraining its inhabitants. If the inhabitants are compelled by necessity to defend themselves, then the captain should know that capture will not be easy. Similarly, if the captain’s own men are constrained by necessity to fight, they will do so; and they will do so with vigor.

As he is wont to do, Strauss divulges an impious conclusion that Machiavelli quietly points to: “The last of [Machiavelli’s examples] shows how the Romans drove the Volsci, led by Messius, into extreme obstinacy. Machiavelli quotes in Latin a part of the speech with which Messius exhorted his soldiers; in the part omitted by him, Messius says: ‘Do you believe that some god will protect you and carry you away from here?’ Here we are meant to see how an enemy of Rome was driven by necessity into ‘operating perfectly’ precisely by his subjective certainty that he and his army will not be saved by any god” [2]. Machiavelli’s impiety is not especially important for my present purposes. What is important is that Messius’s disclosure of the fact that his soldiers were under necessity caused them to operate perfectly. Necessity proscribes imperfection. It makes weakness impossible.

This lesson is not a Straussian or Machiavellian quirk. Machiavelli was right to draw this universal conclusion. For instance, in Book VI, chapter 5 of Xenophon’s Anabasis, Xenophon recounts an episode in which he and his men were running low on provisions and needed to procure some from nearby villages while contending with an enemy. As Xenophon’s army is marching forward, they come to a large ravine that is difficult to cross. Sophaenetus, an older general, tells Xenophon that they should not even discuss crossing the ravine. It would be too dangerous. Moreover, before this episode, the Greeks had struggled to acquire propitious sacrifices. So Sophaenetus is likely also worried that the Greeks have lost the gods’ favor.

Xenophon interrupts the old man’s shameful words with a speech that is worth quoting in part: “Now this is the situation: it is not possible to go away from here without a battle, for if we do not attack the enemy, they will follow us and fall upon us as we retreat. Observe whether it is better to go against these men with our weapons thrust forward or to behold our enemy following us, attacking us from behind, with our weapons facing away from them. You know, certainly, that retreating from enemies is like nothing noble, while following them implants confidence even in the bad…. As for putting a difficult ravine in the rear by crossing over, is this not even a situation worth seizing for those who are going to do battle? It is for the enemy that I would wish every path to seem easily passable—so they retreat! But for us, we need to be taught even by the place itself that there is no salvation unless we are victorious” [3].

In this truly remarkable passage, we find Xenophon putting into practice the very same principle articulated by Machiavelli, and this is not even one of the examples to which Machiavelli referred in the Discourses. Xenophon uses necessity to his advantage. He knows that his men have become too timid and are overly apprehensive about crossing the ravine. They need to have the ravine behind them so that retreat is not an option. Necessity will compel them to fight well. Necessity will make them operate perfectly. The episode concludes in the following way: “The enemy rushed against them, both the horsemen and the line of Bithynians, and they turned the peltasts to flight. But when the phalanx of hoplites, marching quickly, came up to meet them; when the trumpet sounded and they sang the paean and then shouted the war cry; and when at the same time they lowered their spears—then the enemy stood up to them no longer. Instead, they fled. And Timasion pursued them with the horsemen, and they killed as many as they could, though they themselves were few in number. The enemy’s left scattered at once, with the Greek horsemen against it.” The next chapter begins, “After this, the enemy kept busy about their own [affairs], and they took both their households and their possession as far away as they could” [4].

This passage from the Anabasis is an example of a necessity that wasn’t consciously brought about by a human being. Xenophon did not wish for his men to come to a ravine. He simply made the best out of a tricky situation. My final example, however, is a necessity created by human deliberation. In the beginning of Julius Caesar’s Gallic War, he retells the deliberations behind the Helvetii’s decision to leave their homeland behind. They were persuaded to desert their homeland by a man named Orgetorix who told them that they could easily take over the whole of Gaul and rule it themselves. Orgetorix’ efforts at persuasion were facilitated by the inferior geographical position of the Helvetii. As Caesar puts it, their geographical situation “limited their ability to move far and wide and hampered them in attacking their neighbors. This galled them enormously, since they were a people keen to wage war” [5]. The story hitherto would have been sufficient to include this example in my discussion. What Caesar tells us next, however, is utterly incredible. After the Helvetii had resolved to leave their homeland (and after the rhetorically skilled Orgetorix had died), the people guaranteed that they would stick to their plan: “After Orgetorix’ death, the Helvetii did not give up their efforts to realize their intention to migrate from their country. When they thought they were ready to go, they set fire to all their towns, around twelve of them, as well as roughly four hundred villages, and all their other private buildings; furthermore, they burned up all the grain beyond what they were going to carry with them—all this in order to eliminate any hope of returning home, so that they would be more fully committed to undergo all dangers” [6].

The Helvetii knew the nature of human beings. They knew that they would be tempted to return home because the way forward was hard. So they made it impossible for themselves to return home. They used necessity to their advantage. To be sure, Caesar did eventually trounce the Helvetii despite their resoluteness. But that was because he, being a great leader, knew more about necessity than they did.

These insights taken from military history don’t have to be limited to captains on a campaign. You can use necessity to your advantage in everyday life. Do you see things that are likely to drag you away from your goals? Are you constantly tempted to turn away from the merciless path of excellence by trivial distractions? Then burn down your temptations. You don’t have to literally burn them down, but you have to get rid of them. Do you have trouble waking up in the morning? Put your alarm on the other side of your room, or get an app that prevents you from constantly hitting the snooze button. Do you play too many video games? Get rid of your console. Sell it and spend the money on protein powder. Do you spend too much time mindlessly scrolling through useless social media? Delete your Facebook account and read Caesar’s Gallic War. Was that not enough? Get rid of your smart phone. Are you constantly tempted to eat that ice cream in your freezer? Throw it away and celebrate the victory over your slavish desires with vanity lifts. Do you have trouble working out every day? Make a pact with your friend to shame one another whenever one of you fails to lift. (Shame, of course, can be a kind of necessity.) If your friend doesn’t go to the gym with you like he promised, call him what he is: an object worthy of your contempt. If he’s a true friend, he’ll do the same for you when you act like human-shaped pond scum.

Modern man hates necessity because he loves softness, vice, and wretched contentment. Don’t become a victim of the siren-song of modern depravity. Love necessity, virtue, and shame. If you make vice impossible, you have no choice but to pursue virtue, excellence, and beauty. Make excellence a necessity and it will become a habit, i.e., a second nature.


[1] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978)119.

[2] Ibid., 220.

[3] Xenophon, Anabasis, trans. by Wayne Ambler (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008) 6.5.14-18.

[4] Ibid., 6.5.26-28 and 6.6.1.

[5] Julius Caesar, Gallic War, in The Landmark Julius Caesar, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017) 4-5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

One thought on “The Beneficence of Necessity

  1. Real wisdom here, based on self-knowledge. The Delphic Oracle bids all look inside themselves and see what must be—out of necessity for the sake of the Good—burned down and what must be lifted up.

    Liked by 1 person

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