A student of history at Oxford, of Arabic and history in Syria, and of archaeology in Israel, Sweet brings his extensive educational background to bear on the past in order to prove his thesis that sometimes might is right. “Fighting itself is neither moral nor immoral; only its object can be said to be so,” Sweet says, offering an all-too-current situation as an example. “The Ukrainians fighting to evict the Russians from their country is an example of a moral object.”
But the battlefield isn’t the only setting Sweet examines. Among other settings ripe for conflict are politics and business, and he chose some of history’s most influential individuals to guide the journey, including Julius Caesar, Cardinal Richelieu, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Bill Gates.
Two of these five, Napoleon and the French diplomat Talleyrand, were contemporaries who feature in Sweet’s signature presentation on Life Fighting. The author says he’s shared these ideas at university, social, and country clubs, including the Princeton Club of New York, the Wharton Club of New York, the University Club and City Club of Washington, D.C., and the Nassau Club in Princeton, N.J.
“In the presentation, I tell the story of how Talleyrand fought Napoleon once the latter insisted on imposing his dictatorship upon Europe,” Sweet says. “To Talleyrand, civilization was all; leaders such as Napoleon were simply ‘intermittencies.’ If a leader ruled well, Talleyrand would support him; if a leader ruled poorly, Talleyrand would oppose him, which is why, for instance, he also opposed the Bourbons.”
Napoleon also shows up as a major influence in Bill Gates’s life. “Gates pored over biographies of Napoleon while at Harvard and once went to a costume party dressed as Napoleon,” Sweet says. “The similarity of Gates’s strategies and tactics to Napoleon’s is uncanny: he was clearly emulating his hero and clearly viewed himself as the Napoleon of business.”
But it’s not all about personal gain. In some cases, the aim is higher. For example, Sweet says that Caesar’s disruption of the oligarchy of the late Roman Republic was aimed at serving the greater society.
Sweet spent more than seven years writing Life Fighting. The book is divided into chapters with illustrative stories, such as “Strike in Combination” featuring Bill Gates, “Create or Expose a Vital Point” featuring Napoleon, “Formulate and Pursue a Sensible Object” featuring Richelieu, and “Strike Swiftly at the Critical Time,” using all five men as examples.
Other chapters examine strategies like studying and surprising the opponent, parrying strikes, and the ironically titled “Fight as Little as Possible.”
As for research, Sweet says he “selected the best works on each of these men and periods—for instance, the volume on Caesar in Theodor Mommsen’s magnificent History of Rome.” He also quotes famous thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Pushkin, Edith Wharton, and many more to explore his ideas.
A recent review of Life Fighting on BookLife notes that Sweet draws on the work of evolutionary biologists and that his theories encompass both self-help and history. What would the author like his readers to take away from his well-researched study? He cites Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature to illustrate his point: “Many moral advances have consisted not of eschewing force across the board, but of applying it in carefully measured doses.”
“If we truly wish to make the world a better place,” Sweet says, “we should sometimes fight.”