The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as "the most flagrant of all passions.

Confronted by menace or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, and drefine it.

Everything one has a right to do is not best to be done." Benjamin Franklin

Everything one has a right to do is not best to be done.” This in essence was to be the Burke thesis: that principle does not have to be demonstrated when the demonstration is inexpedient.

Far from a source of suffering, their adopted faith had been a source of power.

Folly is a child of power.

For his son-in-law the Pope suffered no further spasms of morality. Rather, judging from Burchard’s diary, the last inhibitions, if any, dropped away. Two months after Alfonso’s death, the Pope presided over a banquet given by Cesare in the Vatican, famous in the annals of pornography as the Ballet of the Chestnuts. Soberly recorded by Burchard, fifty courtesans danced after dinner with the guests, “at first clothed, then naked.” Chestnuts were then scattered among candelabra placed on the floor, “which the courtesans, crawling on hands and knees among the candelabra, picked up, while the Pope, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia looked on.” Coupling of guests and courtesans followed, with prizes in the form of fine silken tunics and cloaks offered “for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans.” A month later Burchard records a scene in which mares and stallions were driven into a courtyard of the Vatican and equine coupling encouraged while from a balcony the Pope and Lucrezia “watched with loud laughter and much pleasure.” Later they watched again while Cesare shot down a mass of unarmed criminals driven like the horses into the same courtyard.

government, in the words of one of the group, J. K. Galbraith, was rarely more than a choice between “the disastrous and the unpalatable.

Government was rarely more than a choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

Had I known that these legs were to carry a Lord Chancellor, I would have taken better care of them when I was a lad. Duke of Grafton

He never hears the truth about himself by not wishing to hear it." Pope Alexander

He wanted AFFIRMATION rather than INFORMATION.

He was always acting, always enveloping himself in artificiality, perhaps to conceal the volcano within.

If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” lamented Samuel Coleridge. “But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us.” The image is beautiful but

In a dependent relationship, the protégé can always control the protector by threatening to collapse.

is more unfair,” as an English historian has well said, “than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory.

It is worth noting the qualities this historian ascribes to them: they were fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought, astute and pragmatic, unafraid of experiment, and—this is significant—“convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.

Little attention was paid, because the German people, no matter how hungry, remained obedient.

Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.

No one is is sure of his premise as the man who knows too little.

No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.

No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society.

Policy was not reconsidered because the governing group had no habit of purposeful consultation.

Prison does not silence ideas whose time has come.

Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government.

The follies that produced the loss of American virtue following Vietnam begin with continuous overreacting, in the invention of endangered national security, the invention of vital interest, the invention of a commitment which rapidly assumed a life of its own .

The poorest man in his cottage may bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!

The process of gaining power employs means which degrade or brutalize the seeker, who awakes to find that power has been possessed at the cost of virtue or moral purpose lost.

When a pope's election could not be explained rationally, it was attributed to the Holy Ghost.