The Folly of Humankind as Macro-Organism

The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamFor some reason, I found myself reading Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. It’s an odd book to read at this time, because it is primarily an effort to explain the Vietnam War. But even more, I found myself wondering why she was making such a big deal out of the folly of humans. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Humans are awful, even though individual humans are mostly all right. It is the way we work as a system — which has been critical to our success or macro-organism — that allows us to be far more stupid and less humane together than apart.

She starts by asking, “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?” Unfortunately, she really does not discuss the Trojan War. Instead, she provides a short chapter about why the Trojans brought the wooden horse inside the city. If anything were fanciful in Homer, it is that. The real question is why the Greeks started that war. So Menelaus could get his wife Helen back? The women he plans to kill once the Trojans are defeated? Not that I’m suggesting that this is any more true than the wooden horse. But Homer presents the Trojan War as a tragedy for Greeks as well as the Trojans.

I was watching Bettany Hughes’ documentary, The Minotaur’s Island, which is about the Minoans. At one archaeological dig, a human sacrifice seems to have been caught in action. An earthquake destroyed the temple, killing the priest and entombing him with his two victims. It makes me wonder if the temple’s collapse wasn’t the result of an aftershock, and that the human sacrifice wasn’t a reaction to the original earthquake. I’ll admit, I love the irony of that. But regardless, priests didn’t do sacrifices of any kind just to be mean. They did them for a purpose — whether that was to assure a good harvest or calm the earthquakes.

But here is where I think folly is well on display. I’m sure that in various places for short periods of times, priests actually thought that human sacrifices were a really great way to get the gods to give you what you wanted. But I can’t imagine that they didn’t quickly notice that, actually, the human sacrifices were irrelevant. But a priest who realizes this is in a bind for a couple of reasons. First, it would seriously damage his reputation. But second, and I think more important, is the social expectation of the sacrifices.

A leader is every bit as much a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” as is some guy sleeping in the drunk tank in the local jail.

Imagine the priest goes to the people and says, “You know, these sacrifices are not what the gods want.” And then there is a bad harvest or an earthquake. If the priest had done the sacrifice? Well, at least he tried. We all know the gods are fickle. But he didn’t even try! He just made up this story about human sacrifices being unnecessary, and now look at us? We’re starving! That priest is almost certainly going to die very painfully, very soon.

I think most forms of individual human power are illusory. I’ve noted this a lot about the speakership of John Boehner. He had power, but only if he didn’t use it. In the end, he swapped his appearance of power (he lost his speakership) for exercising the tiny bit of the real power he actually had. And that is human social interaction in a broader sense. We are involved in a kind of huge negotiation. A leader is every bit as much a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” as is some guy sleeping in the drunk tank in the local jail.

And I know that some will saw, “Yeah, but the leader does get some measure of power.” But I don’t think that’s true. Leaders become so at the pleasure of the masses. Just like Peter Jennings would never have been allowed to anchor World News Tonight if he didn’t instinctively know what would get him fired, leaders instinctively know what will make the masses literally tear them apart limb by limb. We, as a macro-organism, get the leaders we want. And when they do supremely stupid things, it’s because we are at very least, okay with it — and more likely cheering it on. Because “we” are far more stupid and inhumane than you and I ever will be.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “The Folly of Humankind as Macro-Organism

  1. The priest also has to consider this: He’s already sacrificed dozens of virgins. He’s going to tell their families the sacrifices were in vain? Or will he honor those sacrifices by committing more and more sacrifices?

    • Absolutely. But I think that’s built into the first reason.

      What I really like about your example is how it is exactly why our recent wars have gone on so long: sunk cost fallacy. It’s better to keep killing more virgins than to admit than the previous murders were a mistake.

  2. I don’t quite think that is how the priests viewed it. Most religions, including Christianity, has a history of blood sacrifice to wash away the sins. Using a human just makes it extra super special blood sacrifice.

    But yes, power is limited even if you are the Supreme Dictator General President Head Honcho for Life. At some point someone will rebel against your rule.

    • That’s a good condensation of my argument in the second paragraph.

      But your first paragraph has you now playing the cynic. I truly think that the vast majority of people are decent. And I’ve never met a serious religious person who didn’t have doubts. The only ones without doubts are the ones who don’t actually take the religion seriously. They use it as cultural signifiers.

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