The Great Cunctator

Fabius Cunctator

Statue at Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna

← This is Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, a monument to the virtues of positive procrastination. As consul and then Dictator, in the words of the eponymous military blog:

Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC) saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing Rome’s weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho ‘boldness’ to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century Americans.

His controversial tactics earned him the honorific Cunctator, the great Delayer. (His other nickname, ‘Verrucosus’, came from his warty lip—or so claimed Plutarch.) Today he is credited as an inventor of guerrilla warfare and attrition tactics, at least among the US military establishment.

Fabius Maximus would lend his name to the Fabian Society, which became a byword for middle-class gradualism in the transition to socialism. Its colophon is, inevitably, the tortoise. As Fabian Tract No. 1 had it:

For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design (photo: Wikipedia)

Cunctation (to use the rather rude-sounding noun) survived into the twentieth century—and presented itself handily in the context of our conference. Wolfson College is the home of one of our sponsors and the conference dinner/Mañanarama exhibition. Its founder, Isaiah Berlin, was a political philosopher and one of the century’s great public intellectuals. He was also a perennial procrastinator and perfectionist, preferring gossip and academic intrigue to the anxieties of work.

The philosopher’s agents and publishers were left exasperated. His longtime editor Henry Hardy characterizes Berlin’s relationship with Oxford University Press as one of ‘frustration, misunderstanding, tergiversation, indecisiveness, prevarication, unrealistic expectations’.  An internal OUP note sighed in 1962: ‘Isaiah Berlin, the great cunctator, has again put off supplying the preface.’

In honour of the art of cunctation, and with the support of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, we are offering a £50 prize for the best graduate paper of the conference. For more information, see here.

So here’s to the gradual, the noncommittal, the dilatory. Here’s to the tortoises.

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