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Book Review – Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher

Zeno, the Tortoise and the Generals: How Western philosophy empowers modern military professionals

A review of Nicholas Fearn’s ‘Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher’

The belief that “there is a lesson in everything” is optimistic but useful. In limiting one’s studies to those fields which are immediately and obviously relevant to a particular context, the capacity for a detailed understanding of a given area is diminished. This is especially the case for the military professional. A thorough understanding of doctrine, and a judicious and discriminate study of military history and strategic theory, is crucial. However, avoidance of topics outside of these impedes a rounded military education. A study of urban design and architectural concepts leads to a greater understanding of urban physical terrain, which in turn improves one’s ability to plan for urban operations. Studying the art, literature, and culture of a society from an anthropological viewpoint, rather than simply from a military perspective, engenders a respect and understanding for a local population, which in turn will greatly enhance the ability of a foreign force to work in, with, or against, that society.

Such examples as these are clearly relevant to the military student despite being not directly related to the military. Yet beyond such literal topics, it is useful to be able to find a lesson in less obvious areas. Watching the conductor of an orchestra, for instance, yields subtle but profound lessons on leadership and control. The manner with which a driver’s pit crew performs a tyre change mid-race demonstrates the value of rehearsals, coordination, and teamwork. Clausewitz, as quoted by Peter Paret, held that “the realm of the military art extends wherever in psychology our intelligence discovers a resource that can serve the soldier” (Paret, 1976, p. 10). It is with this notion in mind that the utility of a book such as Zeno and the Tortoise becomes clear.

Nicholas Fearn’s book is a chronological exploration of western philosophers, from Greek through to European. Each chapter is dedicated to a key teaching of a particular thinker and looks at the context in which the teaching was developed, as well as remarking on its practicality in both its original and modern setting. To a serious student of philosophy, this book serves as little more than a light-hearted compendium of well-known ideas, which offers great breadth of coverage at the expense of depth of scrutiny. To the layperson, or indeed the military professional, it is that aspect that makes this an especially useful book. This usefulness only becomes apparent when the book is taken not as a history of thinkers but rather as a catalogue of their thoughts. A soldier having an intimate knowledge of philosophy does little more than satisfy an intellectual curiosity; however, the soldier who is able to identify and employ the techniques of the philosophers has created a toolbox that enables creativity, detailed analysis, and enhanced problem solving, all of which are vital skills in the military environment. The more ways in which a person is able to frame and analyse a problem, and the more methods they have at their disposal to investigate and analyse divergent and creative solutions, the greater their chance of success.

Although this book is explicit in identifying the fundamental principle espoused by each philosopher, and offers a clever mnemonic for each (Zeno’s “Tortoise”, for example), as the intended readership is not necessarily military, the relevance is not always clear, or indeed present. This not a problem, as there is much to be gained in scrutinising each chapter against a military framework, such as planning or leadership, in order to derive something useful. Regardless of the success, the process in itself challenges the reader’s understanding and knowledge of their trade. In his introduction, Fearn claims that “though works of philosophy are sometimes mysterious and impenetrable, the tools used to create them are often remarkably simple and can be quickly grasped and brought to bear on the readers own thoughts.” (Fearn, 2001, p. xii) Any of the tools contained in this book will be of benefit to a military professional in many aspects of their trade.

Zeno and the Tortoise is a serious study presented in an engaging manner that allows for, in most cases, ease of understanding complex theories. It is a book that deserves to be read and scrutinised closely in order to achieve the greatest results. While it is possible to take the philosophy at face value, the real benefit is in looking at the ideas from a military viewpoint and determining their practical worth. To do this will yield in success an additional means by which to approach a problem, or in failure, mental exercise and increased understanding of military theory.

The first chapter of the book, “Thales’s Well”, is focussed on the idea of reductionism, the notion that “things can be understood by boiling them down to their component parts, or that complex, large-scale process can be understood in terms of simpler ones.” (Fearn, 2001, p. 1). To Thales, the conclusion was that all matter was composed, at it most ‘reduced’ level, of water. While this hypothesis has since been disproven, as a concept reductionism still holds merit and can be a valuable tool during military planning. When faced with a problem that is overwhelming, a reductionist viewpoint encourages the systematic breaking down of the problem into sub-problems that are identifiable and manageable. By isolating, for instance, an enemy’s defensive engineering works from his indirect support capability, and those capabilities from his armoured vehicles, a deliberate attack against a fortified position becomes a series of discrete actions which can be individually planned for and achieved, rather than a single, seemingly insurmountable problem.

In the chapter “Protagoras and the pigs” Fearn discusses the concept of relativism, which holds that “one way of doing things is as valid as any other, and acts are right or wrong only with reference to a particular cultural system.” (Fearn, 2001, p. 10) The extension to this is that each individual or social group is entitled to hold their own opinions and value systems. Although when taken to an extreme this necessarily avows actions which are not universally condoned, such as infanticide (Sparta) or cannibalism (practiced for centuries through parts of Africa and the South Pacific), a degree of cultural relativism is an important attribute in a soldier who is working with or alongside people who hold a different viewpoint or have an opposed concept of “normal practice”. As Fearn asserts, the value of relativism is that “even if we believe that there is a single correct way of doing things… we might be less certain that our own culture is the one that has got it right.” (Fearn, 2001, p. 16). In having a mind that is open to the validity of competing truths a soldier will, for instance, find it far easier to effectively work with foreign forces, because they will see their counterparts’ viewpoints as being different, not as being wrong. This attitude is vital to the creation of a harmonious and productive relationship.

Reading this book will not create a strategic master, but it is not intended to. Rather, when read with strategic concepts in mind, the philosophies it describes will create tools to enable the military professional to approach problems creatively and lead to more effective and worldly solutions. There is not necessarily a lesson in every philosophical concept that is explored, but for this book, the real lesson is in trying to find one.

About the author: Captain Brenton Realph is an Australian Army infantry officer currently deployed to Iraq as part of Task Group Taji VIII.


Fearn, N., 2001. Zeno and The Tortoise: How to think like a philosopher. New York: Grove Press.

Paret, P., 1976. Genesis of On War. In: On War. s.l.:Princeton University Press.

Read the Book: ‘Zeno and The Tortoise: How to think like a philosopher’ is available from the Defence Library Service on this link, (DPN Only) or email:

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