Goats And Diplomats

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read: robert@thebrowser.com

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This week: The greatest humans of all time, and (not mutually exclusive) the greatest diplomat of all time.

I SEE with some embarrassment that weeks have passed since I wrote my last letter before taking a summer break, and that I have still to respond gratefully to correspondents on the matter of Goats — greatest-of-all-timers — in various fields of human rivalry, and on the related question of whether any Goats live currently among us. Allow me to report on these discussions before proceeding to a revised and updated list of Goats.

A first AB, whom I shall identify here as Andrew Bailey, since Andrew is a friend, and since everybody should subscribe to his fine-art newsletter, The Easel, insists that we find a place of honor for Shakespeare, argues that Diego Velazquez deserves precedence over Pablo Picasso among painters, and proposes Grinling Gibbons in the new category of wood-carving.

Of Shakespeare Andrew says:

You may mount a (partial) defence that his category of Goatness is unclear. True. Is he the greatest writer, the greatest thinker or maybe the greatest pragmatist? (I might say in passing that I don’t quite understand why he is not offered up as the Smartest Of All Time, given that the field in which he worked had been heavily tilled for centuries and yet he still managed to be enduringly profound.) Indeed, I will go further and suggest that Shakespeare’s Goat category trumps all others and is thus itself Goat: He is the greatest observer of life.

And of Velazquez:

I am quarrelsome with your inclusion of Picasso. Georges Braque said insightfully of Pablo that he started out a great painter but ended up merely a genius. If the measure of artistic Goatness is the ability to impart emotion to matter, then the prize surely goes to Diego Velazquez. His portrait of Pope Innocent X, which hangs in Galleria Doria Pamphii in central Rome, is a thunderous statement of the truth about a politician/thug masquerading as a churchman. My backup exhibit is Las Meninas, in the Prado, surely the most mind-bending painting ever, and a work that, after 350 years, still generates column inches.

I defer (of course) to Andrew's arguments in their entirety, and I hereby depose Picasso in favour of Velazquez. It would be foolish of me to receive such expert advice and then not act on it. I also agree that Las Meninas has a magical quality which places it in a category of its own. Certainly it fascinated Picasso, who explored its form in dozens of variations.

A second AB, who is not Andrew Bailey, argues that Bernie Madoff should not be regarded as the greatest con-man of all time since he was caught and punished; which I have to concede is a serious objection, but one which I am going to over-rule on the grounds that it was not any of Madoff's victims who exposed him, but the Wall Street Journal, and, had it not been for this interference by third parties, Madoff might well have gone on skimming and stealing until the end of his life and then been left to rest in peace by his embarrassed victims.

AR proposes Tiger Woods among golfers, Alexander the Great among generals, and William Shakespeare among Shakespeares.  

TB seconds the claim of Alexander the Great to Goathood among generals, and wonders about an honourable mention for Ulysses C. Grant.

My reponse: I am going to stick with Napoleon among generals because I see a strong quantitative case for doing so. Of his 43 listed battles, he won 38 and lost 5, overcoming difficult odds in 17 of his victories and commanding inferior forces in all 5 of his losses. The same methodology would favour Julius Caesar as runner-up among all-time generals and greatest of ancient generals.

I readily agree that Alexander the Great is something of a wild card in any ranking of generals because of the brevity of his career. He won every battle, but lived to fight only nine of them. On the other hand, Alexander very probably brought the brevity of his career upon himself either by excessive drinking or by motivating and then allowing a subordinate to poison him, neither of which strikes me as a positive indicator for his later trajectory had he lived to fight more battles.

NS argues that if we are to advance Paul McCartney as a possible Goat in songwriting, we should also consider the rival claims of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. TD seconds the claims of Kern, Porter and Rodgers among songwriters, while favouring Oscar Hammerstein as Rodgers's lyricist and adding the names of George & Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren, Frank Loesser, and Noel Coward.

My response: I shall be silent here, since with songwriting we are in more than usually subjective territory and Paul McCartney is certainly not in a different class from any of these contenders, even if (like me) you consider him a winner on points.  

HK argues that Bill Clinton cannot count as a Goat among retail politicians, since his duplicity (as with Bernie Madoff) was eventually exposed: "By the end of his Presidency he couldn't have been elected local dogcatcher". HK goes on to compare Clinton unfavourably with Barack Obama: Obama inspired admiration and affection among voters at least matching that inspired by Clinton, without subsequently betraying the confidence which voters placed in him.

My response: I find this argument persuasive and sympathetic, and hesitate over it only to the extent that my admiration for Obama is founded more on his personality, broadly defined, than on his political skills considered in isolation. With Clinton, on the other hand, one's admiration is best directed at his political skills in isolation; other aspects of Clinton's personality serve to diminish, rather than to elevate, the man in full.

AM raises the case of men's tennis, which I ducked partly for the reasons which AM invokes. AM writes:

I strongly support your Williams nomination for women, but for the men's side this seems to be more contentious. Your point about the Goat in football is likely true (2 in 5 chances it's a contemporary), but with tennis I think the Goat's three candidates are still alive and have all played against each other. Nadal and Djokovich are tied for grand slam titles and are two ahead of Federer, now retired. Rafa just announced he is on his way out so there is a real chance Nole [Djokovich] might end his career with more titles than anyone else. Why, then, does Federer still 'feel' more Goat than the other two? I say this as a Spaniard, which is extra frustrating. The only way I can reconcile this would be to give Roger the tennist Goat title and Rafa the 'Greatest Spanish Athlete of all time' award (with Iniesta as a runner up). But where does that leave Novak and his (potentially taller) mountain of titles?

My response: I agree in every particular. I too instinctively rank Federer as the Goatissimo of men's tennis, but mainly for what I can only describe as his effortlessness, on and off the court. He seems to achieve his stellar results with much less on-court anguish and off-court turbulence than do either of his rivals.

That said, Serena Williams's relative superiority among women players is greater than Federer's (or Nadal's, or Djokovich's) relatively superiority among men. So, given that our list of Goats skews horribly towards white males, doubtless in large degree because they have received training and opportunities denied to their potential female counterparts, I think it right to maintain Serena Williams's fairly well-founded claim to pre-eminence among all tennis players.

My thanks by the way, to TW, who wrote noting the overwhelmingly Euro-centric bias of my choices, and yet did not berate me for my blinkered view of human achievement, but observed sympathetically that one's hands are tied by the historical facts even when one would wish the history to have been different.

My thanks also to EK, for urging the claims of Lebron James against those of Michael Jordan as to Goatness in basketball. This does, I admit, seem to be a highly arguable case, with James now the all-time leading scorer in NBA history; and I do not want to insist. Perhaps basketball is a field which, by virtue of its recency, may still be testing the limits of its players, and we should wait a few more decades before arguing that one player has outpaced the field to a historically meaningful degree.  

And, finally I salute PP — whom I think I can identify here as Paolo Pascal without betraying any confidences — for his note on the matter of crossword-solving Goats. It was Paolo who lost to Dan Feyer by one second in the 2023 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Paolo's email to me reads, in its entirety:

I'd hate to be that Paolo guy!

... which I think it may well be the most satisfying email I have ever received, not least because it was written by the only person who could possibly have written it.      

Now, on to the revised list of Goatships. I have combined living with defunct Goats, removed some of the more contestable entries, changed "retail politician" to "stump politician", and added a greatest-Goat category to accommodate Goats who slipped through the cracks of the previous list even while deserving the highest positions on it simply because they defied obvious classification:

Greatest Goat of everything and always: Leonardo da Vinci
Runners-up: Aristotle, J.W. von Goethe, G.W. von Leibniz, John von Neumann, Frank Ramsey, William Shakespeare, Socrates.  

Basketball Player: Michael Jordan (in contention, Lebron James)  
Chess Player: Magnus Carlsen
Confidence Trickster: Bernie Madoff
Crossword Solver: Dan Feyer
Darts Thrower: Phil Taylor
Evangelist: St Paul
General: Napoleon
Magazine Editor: Anna Wintour
Mathematician: Leonhard Euler
Mnemonist: Solomon Shereshevsky
Mountaineer: Reinhold Messner
Painter: Diego Velazquez
Percussionist: Evelyn Glennie
Poker Player: Doyle Brunson
Scientist: Galileo Galilei
Singer: Maria Callas
Songwriter: Paul McCartney (in contention, many others)
Steve Jobs: Steve Jobs (in contention, Elon Musk)
Storyteller: J.K. Rowling (in contention, Homer)
Stump Politician: Bill Clinton
Tennis Player: Serena Williams (in contention, Roger Federer)

Before I go on, let me squeeze in a mention of Richard Feynman. I had struggled to find a way of including Feynman in the original list of Goats, but I felt that I could not reasonably co-opt him either for his physics or for his bongo-playing. Probably I should have combined the two and declared Feynman to be the greatest bongo-playing theoretical physicist of all time; and who is to say that such a combination of skills might not count for more than either skill alone? As for which of the skills — physics or percussion — deserved the greater admiration, here is Feynman himself on their perceived relative merits:

It is odd, but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.

AND NOW for something completely unrelated. Tom Stevenson's article on diplomacy in the latest London Review Of Books encouraged me to read Ernest Satow's Guide To Diplomatic Practice at long last, and I am much in Stevenson's debt for the nudge.

The Guide is a joy throughout. If the Japanese thought Satow an exemplary user of the Japanese language, and the Chinese admired both his speech and his calligraphy in Chinese, I will contend here that his English-language skills were every bit as remarkable. The prose-style of the Guide is near-faultless. There is scarcely a misused word or a misplaced comma in all of its 445 pages. Discreet flourishes and hints of irony enliven the narrative without diminishing its seriousness. Maxims and aphorisms abound, adding both to the reader's entertainment and to the ease of recollection.

The 1917 first edition of Satow on diplomacy stands comparison with Fowler on English usage or Mrs Beeton on household management. If now outdated in detail, it remains timeless in spirit. And, if you would like a modern Satow for practical use, other hands have been at work over the past century producing revised and enlarged editions. An Eighth Edition of Diplomatic Practice will appear later this month, and will succeed the 2018 Seventh Edition as the standard work within the profession.

Satow is one of those people about whose life you can only say: "How on earth did he find the time?" He was, by Wikipedia's account, "an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveller, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts on all kinds of subjects". By the time of his death in 1929 his private diary filled 47 volumes.  

Satow wrote and published his Guide after retiring from the British Foreign Office. It was one of twelve books that he wrote within his lifetime, along with papers and essays filling another five volumes. His correspondence while ambassador in Japan (1895-1900) runs to five volumes, not including diplomatic telegrams, and his correspondence while ambassador in China (1900-1906) to six volumes. His scholarly correspondence with other Orientalists fills three volumes. His personal correspondence with family and friends has not, I think, been published, and has been archived in Yokohama. The Foreign Office refused him permission to marry the partner of his choice, Takeda Kane, on the grounds that she was Japanese, but they lived together, nonetheless, with, in time, a short-lived daughter, and two sons.

Both of the best-known definitions of diplomacy originated as jokes. Sir Henry Wotton* wrote in 1604 that "An Ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country". Three centuries later, Will Rogers described diplomacy as "the art of saying 'nice doggy' until you can find a rock".

For a serious definition of diplomacy I doubt that the sentence with which Satow begins the Guide will ever be bettered:

Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states.

And, having quoted Satow once, I find that the urge to continue quoting him is all but irresistible. There is wisdom in his every line.

Here is the Guide on the writing of despatches:

Never place an adjective before a noun, if it can be spared; it only weakens the effect of a plain statement. Above all, do not attempt to be witty. Each despatch must treat of one subject only. It is a good practice to number the paragraphs. To keep a diary of events and of conversations is very useful.

On choosing between the first person and the third person in diplomatic correspondence:

The third person is stiff, cold, formal, and dignified; it is negotiation in court dress, bag wig, sword by side, chapeau de bras, white silk stockings, and patent shoe-buckles. Letters in the first person are negotiations in frock coat, pantaloons, half-boots, and a round hat.

On stonewalling a difficult interlocutor, and other diplomatic niceties:

If, as frequently happens, an indiscreet question, which seems to require a distinct answer, is put to you abruptly by an artful minister, parry it either by treating it as an indiscreet question, or get rid of it by a grave and serious look.
Bribery may be permissible as a weapon of defence; as a means of attack it is disallowed.
It is better to spend money on telegrams than to risk the failure of a negotiation.
In concluding a written agreement with the State to which you are accredited, do not be in too great a hurry to sign.

There are lines as crisp as this on every page.

Part of what makes Satow such as fine stylist, I think, is that he has a sound instinct for knowing when a short sentence will do best and when a long sentence is necessary. Then, when constructing long sentences, he keeps their syntax and sense on a short, tight leash. The result is that, even in a paragraph-length fugue about the wisdom of accommodating naval contingencies in peace treaties, one can hear the harmony of words well chosen, and sense Satow's quiet delight in his mastery of the relevant arcana:

Expeditions at sea requiring preparations of long standing, and depending on navigations which are uncertain, as well as on the concurrence of seasons, in places which are often too distant for orders relative to their execution to be adapted to the common vicissitudes of negotiations, which for the most part are subject to disappointments and delays, and are always fluctuating and precarious: from whence it necessarily results, that the nature of such operations is by no means susceptible, without prejudice to the party who employs them, of any other epochas than those which have reference to the day of signing the treaty of peace.

A generous proportion of Satow's Guide is taken up with what we might broadly call etiquette — titles, styles of address, precedence, protocol and so on. Obviously these things were important then, and they still are now; but the relish with Satow cites some of his more outlandish examples suggests, as with the expeditions at sea, that he was alive to the eccentricities of his profession. Here he is on the titles of sovereigns:  

Certain sovereigns use three sorts of title: the grand titre, the titre moyen and the petit titre. The first of these includes the names of the fictitious as well as of the real dominions. For instance, the grand titre of the Emperor of Austria was “Empereur d’Autriche, roi apostolique de Hongrie, roi de Bohême, de Dalmatie, de Croatie, d’Esclavonie, de Galicie, de Lodomérie et d’Illyrie, roi de Jerusalem, etc., archiduc d’Autriche, grand-duc de Toscane et de Cracovie, duc de Lorraine, de Salzbourg, de Styrie, de Charinthie, de Carniole et de Bukovine, grand prince de Transylvanie, margrave de Moravie, duc de la Haute-Silésie, de la Basse-Silésie, de Modène, de Parme, Plaisance et Guastalla, d’Auschwitz et Zator, de Teschen, Frioul, Raguse et Zara, comte princier de Habsbourg et Tyrol, de Kybourg, Goritz et Gradisca, prince de Trente et Brixen, margrave de la Haute et de la Basse-Lusace et en Istrie, Comte de Hohenembs, Feldkirch, Brigance, Sonnenberg, etc., seigneur de Trieste, de Cattaro et de la Marche Wende, grand voyvode de la voyvodie de Serbia, etc., etc."

The King of Spain’s grand titre includes the two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Corsica, Gibraltar, Austria, Burgundy, Brabant and Milan, Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, all of which are fictitious, one of them, Jerusalem, being also claimed in the grand titre of Austria. Those of the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Russia also were very long. The latter comprised “héritier de Norvège, duc de Slesvig-Holstein, de Stormarn, des Dithmarses et d’Oldenbourg” (but the last four also belong to the grand titre of the King of Denmark, together with sovereignty over the Wends and Goths). Down to 1783 inclusive the sovereigns of England asserted their right to the crown of France in similar fashion. To avoid disputes arising out of this practice, which was sometimes maintained with a show of seriousness in order to protract treaty negotiations, diplomatists discovered the expedient of inserting an article de non preejudicando, that cela ne tire pas à conséquence.

The titre moyen is confined to real facts, and the petit titre, the most generally made use of in these days, is the highest of the whole number — namely, that by which the sovereign is habitually designated. Sovereigns, in addressing each other officially, begin, Monsieur mon Frère, adding the name of any blood relationship that may exist between them. To an empress or queen it is Madame ma Soeur.

When addressing the Pope, always a special case in diplomacy, acceptable styles might include "Most Holy Father; Très Saint Père; Vénérable or Très Vénérable Père; Holiness; Sainteté; or, Béatitude". A Catholic king writing to the Pope would sign himself the Pope's dévoué — or très-dévoué fils. The Pope might salute the sovereign by return as Carissime in Christo Fili, or Dilectissimo in Christo Fili, "even when the text of the letter is in French".

For addressing the Emperor of Japan, Satow advises that the correct style is Tennô. The title Mikado, "by which the emperor is sometimes spoken of by European writers, is antiquated, and its use is not desired.”

That use of "desired" is somehow exquisite, is it not? I do not think that I have seen the words "not desired" used in quite that exact sense anywhere else, and yet it is so obviously the perfect formulation for warning against a faux pas.

Wherever possible Satow goes scampering in the nooks and crannies of diplomatic lore, never quite declaring things absurd but letting his examples hint at that judgement. Here, for example, is his explanation of uti possidetis, a doctrine which holds that when a new state emerges through decolonisation or secession, it inherits the administrative frontiers it enjoyed when it was a colony or region of another state:

While uti possidetis relates to the possession of territory, the status quo may be the previously existing situation in regard to other matters, e.g. to privileges enjoyed by one of the parties at the expense of the other, such as the French privilege of taking and drying fish on a portion of the coast of Newfoundland.

As examples of good form for new diplomats to emulate, Satow cites at length, in their French and German and Latin originals, letters and treaties going back to the Middle Ages, in the course of which he makes a point which had not previously occurred to me, namely, that there are conventions not only as to what is written, but also as to what it is written on:

From the rules of the French Foreign Office: “Letters addressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the representatives of foreign Powers accredited to the French Republic are written on folio paper with gilt edges.”

Gilt edges abounded when Satow was writing his Guide because most nations were still monarchies, and only a relative few — notably the United States Of America — were republics. To adjust those conventions of diplomacy which had developed among monarchies such that they gave no offence to the conduct of diplomacy among republics was largely a matter of improvisation. Monarchs, for example, generally wrote to one another to announce formally the birth of an heir, the death of a reigning king or queen, and the fact of a succession to the throne. The American government declined to follow this practise, explaining itself as follows (in the words of Secretary of State William Seward):

We receive from all monarchical states letters announcing the births and deaths of persons connected nearly with the throne, and we respond to them in the spirit of friendship and in terms of courtesy. On the contrary, on our part, no signal incident or melancholy casualties affecting the Chief Magistrate or other functionaries of the Republic are ever announced by us to foreign states. While we allow the foreign states the unrestrained indulgence of their peculiar tastes, we carefully practice our own. This is nothing more than the courtesy of private life extended into the intercourse of nations.”

The current Seventh Edition of Practice does a generally good job of maintaining the spirit of the original, while covering a lot of new ground. Satow's extensive citations from antique documents have been cut heavily to make room for newer chapters on international institutions, international law, international conferences, public diplomacy, NGOs, and other 20th century inventions. The updated book is not nearly as much fun to read as Satow's original, but it is clear and informative to a degree rarely encountered nowadays in writing of any kind relating to the business of government.

— Robert

*According to Satow, Wotton coined the line when asked to contribute a sentence to a friend's commonplace book. Wotton camouflaged his joke in Latin: Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum Rei publicet causa. But it was too good a joke not to be Englished and repeated until eventually it came to the notice of King James, who was furious, and who only regained his composure after obliging Wotton to produce two apologies, one to the King himself and one to be printed and distributed throughout Europe.


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