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The March of Folly

October 23, 2016

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson is one of my favourite plays and the RSC production I went to see recently did it proud.

Written over 400 years ago, it still has much to say about human folly and our willingness, as a species, to deceive others and ourselves. The plot revolves around a trio of rascals:  Subtle, Face and Dol who use the absence of the Master of the House, Lovewit, during an outbreak of the plague in London to set up a number of outrageous scams to defraud their fellow citizens.

The play is no less harsh on the victims of the fraud as it is on its perpetrators. A series of characters are displayed who through their vanity or plain stupidity are easily lulled into going along with the promises and deceits of the three villains.  In the end their villainy catches up with them when Lovewit unexpectedly returns to the house but that is of little consolation to the victims.

The play got me thinking about the nature of human stupidity which once Einstein supposedly described as being, with the Universe, the only thing that was genuinely infinite (although he had his doubts about the Universe). For a species distinguished by its cleverness and ingenuity it is striking how frequently our individual and collective history is coloured by episodes of folly.

From a historical perspective there are a number of distinct “types” of stupidity.

The first is what I would call the “free lunch” syndrome, the idea that there is an effortless path to wealth or success. For Sir Epicurus Mammon in the Alchemist it is the belief that the Alchemist can turn the base metal of his kitchenware into gold but how much more stupid is that belief than that which encouraged investment into sub-prime mortgages before the 2008 Financial Crash.

The second type is more subtle and relates to “cognitive dissonance”. First identified as a phenomenon looking at radar operators during the Second World War it relates to our inability to accept new pieces of information which undermine our fixed beliefs.

If cognitive dissonance is an essence a process of the unconscious there are cases of more deliberate stupidity when we chose explicitly to ignore facts or arguments which are inimical to our beliefs, values or interests. In this case we are prepared to deny rational argument or give unthinking support to those who provide an argument which is better aligned to what we want to believe.

There are times too when, privately, we can accept that the facts have changed but, in public, there we lose too much face in accepting that we were wrong and that we must change a course of action. Politicians and Governments find this particularly difficult where admitting a mistake or false belief is seen as a particular sign of weakness.

As a social species collective beliefs and behaviours are crucial in defining acts of stupidity. Peer pressure and group think play an enormous role in what we think and how we behave.  It is much easier to adhere to a majority belief than to be a lone voice opposing the group position.  The fate of the Trojan princess Cassandra sums it up entirely; the horror of being always right but never believed.

While education should be a protection against acts of stupidity, sadly this is not always the case. Indeed from my experience there is nothing worse than seeing a clever person, especially in a position of leadership, trapped in a position of stupidity.  Their intellect and education can give them an armoury of arguments with which they can defend their views to themselves and others.  At the end of the day, however, they are still wrong.

So how can we guard ourselves against being the victims or perpetrators of folly? There are no perfect answers but there are some things which might help.

The first is history and our sense of belonging to it. When things go wrong professionally or personally it is always amazing how easily a sense of hindsight can tell you what you should have done differently in a way which would have been almost impossible to determine at the time.  History is our collective sense of hindsight and history is littered with the signs of folly. Indeed one of my favourite books is the American historian Barbara Tuchman’s  ”The March of Folly” which analyses a series of historical episodes from the Fall of Troy to the Vietnam War to demonstrate how much stupidity has determined the course of events.

This is one of the reasons why a lack of respect for history in modern times so saddens me. Just because we have i-phones does not mean that we have disconnected ourselves from the patterns of events and behaviours which have repeated themselves over the generations.  Recent political events in Europe and the USA only confirm the point.

The second protective factor is inquisitiveness. However much we know we should always be looking for new information and insights, including, challengingly, those which may be at variance with our beliefs.  Sometimes, when we are least expecting it, we can see the “pearl of great price” which the poet R.S. Thomas refers to in his beautiful poem “The Bright Field”  which provides real insight into what is happening and can force us to change our minds.

The final quality required to guard against stupidity is humility. It is never easy to admit we are wrong, to back track from long held beliefs and to change our course of action. It is particularly difficult to do so in positions of leadership and, sometimes, one cannot expect to do so without personal cost.  The dictum of J.M. Keynes must be right though “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

So all in all, Ben Jonson’s drama of human folly set in London in 1610 is all too relevant in London in 2016. The March of Folly continues but perhaps there are some things we can do to slow it down.


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