In 1985, Barbara Tuchman published The March of Folly, a book about three key moments in Western history. Her definition of folly was the pursuit of policies [by rulers and leaders] contrary to the governments own interests, despite the availability and knowledge of feasible alternatives.
She used the story of the Trojan War as a symbol of folly. Tradition has it that serious voices were raised against allowing the wooden horse of the Greeks within the walls of Troy; yet the decision was taken to allow the horse in, resulting in the loss of the city.
Tuchmans first historical case was the division of Western Christianity under the Renaissance popes. She made it clear that there had been ample warnings about the danger of schism in northern Europe if the policies of the papal court and the behavior of the popes did not change. Yet, these warnings were not heeded. As a result of this folly, half of the Western Church broke with Rome.
The next case was the loss of the American colonies by King George III. Clearly, the American Revolution could have been averted if only the King had heeded the advice of moderates in his government, who were well informed about the conditions and sentiments in the colonies. Their advice was ignored.
The authors third case was the United States futile war in Vietnam. There was a great deal of information available to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that proved the hopelessness of the war, yet it was either the advice of the hawks of the time or a fear, basically, of losing face that drove the war on and on.
I wonder how Barbara Tuchman would describe some of the conflicts of our day: the apparently endless struggle of India and Pakistan over Kashmir the pointless border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia the 52 years of intermittent violence and retaliation between Israel and the Palestinians and, now, the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Are these examples of governments pursuing sound policies or policies contrary to their own long-term interests, in spite of the availability of alternatives?
Folly is not limited to the behavior of governments. There are other kinds at other levels.
For example, as Eastern Catholic immigration to the U.S. increased, the American bishops petitioned the Holy See to forbid married Eastern Catholic priests from ministering there. A consequence of this policy was the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Eastern Catholics to Orthodoxy.
Folly can be found at the family and personal level, too. Many times a family is broken up by the harsh decision of a parent that could have been different.
How many times have we taken personal decisions, knowing of better alternatives, that were against our own long-term best interests? Isnt this one way of describing sin?
The march of folly goes on. Please dont be one of the marchers.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA