I once read a tweet, article or blog post where Philippe Silberman recommended his readers or followers to read three books.
Unfortunately, I happened to mislay my note about this and was unable to locate it ever since (Perhaps it was merely a mental one.).

I remembered one title only: ‘The Grand Strategy of Philip II’.
To my surprise and delight, I managed to find it in the online catalogue of my local library. Upon visiting the library I discovered it was not a much sought for publication: it resided in the archives. These past few years I have already experienced this a few times, so nowadays I feel fully comfortable in the knowledge that my book choice is rather unusual, at least in Bruges that is.

For those who don’t know who Philippe Silberzahn is: Shame on you! But don’t worry. Not all is lost.

Just read the following books:

  • A Manager’s Guide to Disruptive Innovation: Why Great Companies Fail in the Face of Disruption and How to Make Sure Your Company Doesn’t.

  • Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947–2001.

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And take his new MOOC (starting March 20, 2017):

But let’s get back to the book I was writing about earlier on:’The Grand Strategy of Philip II’.

Since I’m a Belgian citizen, to most of you it won’t come as a surprise that I already knew some things about Philip II from my history classes in primary and secondary school.
For Belgians (and Dutch people alike), the name Philip II rings a bell, but the connotation is not a pleasant one, quite on the contrary.
For us, even centuries later, Philip II equals enemy.
So before starting to read – as I usually do – I lined out the facts and opinions about him that I knew by heart. In such a way, it becomes easier for me to focus on the new and interesting stuff I encounter on my journey through the pages.

It turned out to be quite a lot:

  1. He was the son of Charles V.
  2. Who were his grandparents? Were they Philip & Isabella? In that case, the timing is well after 1492, so around 1560?
  3. He was the heir to an empire where the sun never set.
  4. He was also the monarch of Spain.
  5. He sent the duke of Alva (Dutch) – Alba (English) to the Netherlands. He lost the Netherlands. He was pitted against against William of Nassau.
  6. He was marked by a religious fever, he was a zealot for Roman Catholicism.
  7. He built the Armada to fight the heretic England of Queen Elisabeth I.
  8. He lived like a hermit, secluded in his palace in Spain: what was the name of the palace again? Escorial. (Wow, I remembered that!!)
  9. Did he have any brothers or sisters? Was Margaretha of Parma family? She ruled the Netherlands for a while.
  10. I still remembered the specific helmets of the Spanish soldiers from that period.
  11. What about the fight for Ostend, my birth town. What did I remember of that struggle? Only some weird folk stories linger on.
  12. Didn’t he do something special for South or Middle America?
  13. Wasn’t he involved in certain specific laws that endured for a very long time?
  14. Was his lifetime the period of El Greco? Or that of any other famous artist?
  15. What kind of music was in vogue back then?
  16. What was happening in the rest of the world? Africa? Asia?
    1. Japan: still a bit before the Tokugawas, wasn’t it? (Correct!)
    2. China: was it already Ming? (Yes, late Ming!)

With all of this in mind, I confronted the hefty volume (472p, 1.6 pounds).

My first impression was: This truly is a grand oeuvre!! It clearly contained detailed knowledge in fine prose with an original view on the issues Philip II had to face as a manager. Suddenly, the archetypal enemy became a human being I could relate to. His problems sounded very modern indeed.

Already in the introduction, I learned about his ideas, his vision on how to deal with Asia, specifically China and Indonesia.
I read how he made reforms for a more modern system of taxes.
He organised ‘visita’ (like audits) to make sure his administrations would be more alike across the regions in his realm.

And yes, he was far too centralistic in the way he ruled the empire. This of course is the criticism about his rule which most historians still adhere to, and which they hold to be the main reason why he squandered his global inheritance. Many historians have catalogued Philip II with the misfits and the failures. They think of him as a micromanager without any vision.

Maybe they are right to do so. But far to often they do it for the wrong reasons and based on insufficient knowledge.
This is a mistake Professor Parker certainly has not made.

Philip II, just like the rest of us, appears to have been drowning in an overflow of information from which he never managed to rescue himself.

I don’t remember how far I got exactly. I read a lot of pages, without counting, but I must confess: I did not reach the end.
A lack of time (and willpower?) prohibited that, just like it thwarted so many of Philip’s dreams, in pursuit of his strategic vision.

Long before I could reach the final pages, I brought this magnificent book back to the library.
There it will have to rest, until our next encounter.
I’m already looking forward to it.

Want to read it yourself?

The Grand Strategy of Philip II (Professor Geoffrey Parker – Yale University Press, 2000)


Yale University Press


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