am 18. September 2000
In the "March of Folly", historian Barbara Tuchman surveys four episodes in history - disparate in culture, chronlogy and geography but otherwise united in folly by the ruling leadership. Tuchman defines folly as the pursuit policy contraryr to self-interest. Self-interest is not to be confused with selfihsness, can be understood as the course that gives those who follow it the greatest benefit, whether the benefit is perceived as such. The Trojans fail to heed the warning of Greeks bearing gifts; The renaissance papacy provokes a protest; the British lose America and America loses Vietnam. In each of Tuchman's episodes, man's leadership not only trails his advances in science and the arts, but is actually inverse in relation. Tuchman's prose is always crisp and inviting and her analysis rarely lacks any power. Unfortunately, her thesis is not flawless - folly is meant to represent self-inflicted harm by government policy. This is meant to be uncomplicated by moral decisions which, given the actors involved, is not to be expected. Governments are expected to act in ways that benefit themselves. Nevertheless, self-interest is not selfishness, which, when coupled with greed or blind ambition, does more harm than benefit. (Often, a government's self-interest is to act morally, not based on any innate good, but merely because this legitmizes its rule over the people who prefer to see themselves on a moral high-ground.) The problem lies in Tuchman's equating any lack of good government with active self-harming policy, even the two shouldn't share an equal footing. Active, if ill-informed policy-making mires America in Vietnam, while the Trojans all but knock down their walls to make way for that Greek horse. On the flip side, British policy in the colonies seems clumsy, indicating that those for or against the colonies were incapable of formulating a cogent policy - the bane of a purely parliamentary system. Most lamentable, but also the most absorbing, is the case of the renaissance popes. Being at once the product of the college of cardinals and also the architect of its new generation, the renassance popes can do no more than prolong a corrupted system that bestowed upon them the papal tiara. Of the six popes cited, three actively pursue policy - while the remaining can do no more than continually tax christendom (especially the disunited German states), pursue confused alliances, arrange for lavish parties and deplete papal reserves. Under Tuchman's definition, self-harming policy is too inclusive of leadership incapable of forming policy. The corruption that bred the renaissance papacy was clearly endemic to the church of that era - with greed and manipulation of religion hardly limited to the seat of St. Peter - so it's hard to fault the popes. Tuchman clearly understands when recounting the reproach given to the future Leo X, that, were the Cardinals better men, they'd elect better popes, and all men would be better for it. Unfortunately, as Tuchman notes, the Renaissance Cardinals could not be better men because they were chosen by the poor popes to begin with, while the Popes are stymied by the fact that they were chosen by an earlier generation of imperfect cardinals. How Rome broke this cycle, vindicating Tuchman by proving the papacy capable of doing so, gets too little shrift. In fact, the renaissance papacy, while corrupt, was also remarkably tolerant, and the reformation that it bred held dire consequences in terms of war and religious persecution of the Jews, every bit as painful as the machivellian schemeing of the pre-protestant papacy. It's all exasperating, heart-breaking and entertaining, but one wonders whether these episodes should have gotten their own book.