The book defines folly by examining the first case, letting the Trojan Horse into Troy. In the case of the Trojan Horse, the latter role is played by Laocoon, a blind priest, who chastises Trojan leadership the moment the wooden equine is found. Tuchman moves on to examine the Renaissance Popes, showing them to be pretty much as corrupt and venal a group as has ever been nominated as a symbol of religious purity. Her time period here is the reign of ten consecutive popes, which covers parties in the Vatican with one prostitute per guest, the reign of the infamous Borgia pope, and ends during the year when an unknown cleric named Martin Luther tacks ten resolutions for the reform of the church on a door in Germany. The third section of the book is entitled The British Loss of North America and treats the American revolution from a rarely-seen perspective: that of an avoidable and silly loss of valuable colonies occurring primarily due to stiff British necks upper lips being of no service.

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Turned out to be a great hunch. Do I need to mention the Yes-Men that surround them? Tuchman takes up a panoramic view of human history and exposes these decisions, and wonders with us how much Folly it took to make these disastrous calls. Surely common-sense would not have allowed these? But we can extrapolate them into any number of follies that we are familiar with in our own countries and see how leaders make the stupid mistakes over and over again, and incomprehensible mistakes at that.

It is quite a powerful argument and one we would dearly love to embrace - it gives us the possibility of a future where we can side-step such follies, by avoiding these very decision making practices. And that is very very important too. However, I think there is one more angle to be considered here.

But there are times in history when this normal course of action fails. There are times when the circumstances are too inter-dependent or too much at the edge-of-the-cliff that no-one, not even common-sense, could have anticipated the fall that was coming by taking the steps that should have been matter-of-course at any other point. These are the points when good practices suddenly seem like Follies. So the March of Folly could well be as unstoppable as it sounds to those leaders as well, especially in the short term when history rushed in on them.

This is not of course! That sort of thinking only allows us to make the same mistakes again, precisely because common-sense would allow it!


Barbara W. Tuchman, Folly and the Stream of History

Barbara W. Tuchman, Folly and the Stream of History Credit Erik Carter By Jon Meacham March 14, The passage, from a book read three decades back, came to mind not long ago. A tweet-driven tumult was, as usual, roiling Washington. Shifting between cable news and my own Twitter feed, I recalled the historian Barbara W. How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What government needs is great askers.


The March of Folly

Engaging, informative and wonderfully delivered. It must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. From Troy to Vietnam. I appreciate your dedication to keeping it real. Her hope is that wisdom among leaders could overcome these choices. View all 5 comments.


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