The Power of Stupidity

Other books
(a short “bibliography”)

A supplement to The Power of Stupidity

by Giancarlo Livraghi –

In all the history of human thinking there is a scarcity of studies on stupidity. But that doesn’t mean that there are no books on this subject (the most relevant are quoted in the first chapter of my book.)

Over the years, I have been doing my best to find (and, when possible, to read) as many as possible. Here is a list, with some comments. It has no pretence of being a complete bibliography, but I trust it collects most of the relevant examples.

Many can be defined as “stupidaria.” Collections of events, statements, anecdotes or behaviors that, in the author’s opinion, are to be considered stupid.

For instance Unusually Stupid Americans (2003) and The Lexicon of Stupidity (2005) by Kathryn and Ross Petras are collections of stupid or grotesque episodes, news and comments. The same authors have published ten other “stupidaria.”

Also Uncle John’s Book of the Dumb by John Scalzi (2003) is an anthology of stupidities and misunderstandings – more depressing than amusing. Book of the Dumb 2 was published in 2004.

Duh! by Bob Fernster (2000) defines itself The Stupid History of the Human Race. But it isn’t history – or a book on human stupidity. It’s merely a collection of circumstances and behaviors, at different times and in different places, that are more or less silly, unusual or strange. More of the same was added in Well, Duh! in 2004.

An earlier “stupidarium” was Dictionnaire de la bêtise (1965) by Guy Bechtel and Jean-Claude Carrière.

De Encyclopedie van de Domheid by Matthijs van Boxsel (2002) isn’t an encyclopedia, but a collection comments, ironies, anecdotes and quotations about examples of silly behavior, from mythology and fables to recent events.

There are several other books (and online collections) if the same sort, adding to the clutter of stupidaria while offering no relevant contribution to the study of the problem. (See the list in Italian for more examples.) Recent growth of this clutter may suggest that there is some awareness of stupidity, combined with a desire to dismiss it as “funny” rater than trying to understand it.

There are some books that have a more interesting approach, looking into the causes and effects of human stupidity.

An example is How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History: The Hinge Factor by Eric Durschsmied (1998.) It examins 17 historical cases, from the Trojan horse to the Gulf War.

I must confess that I haven’t read The March of Folly – from Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman (1984) and On the Psychology of Military Incompetence di Norman Dixon (1994) and therefore I can’t comment on their contribution to historical studies on the stupidity of war.

Another catalogue of catastrophical mistakes caused by stupidity is History’s Worst Decisions – an Encyclopedia Idiotica (2005) by Stephen Weir. It isn’t an encyclopedia, but a collection of fifty historical or legendary examples, from Adam and Eve to recent events, inspired by George Santayana’s comment. «Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.»

Essai sur la bêtise by Michel Adam (1975) is a “psycho-moral” dissertation on the decay of ethics. It makes no great contribution to the understanding of stupidity – though it contains some interesting comments on the philosophical value of doubt, the clumsiness of self-satisfaction, the dangers of prejudice.

Rather than a study of stupidity, La bêtise by André Gluksmann (1985) is a political essay developing an analysis of how it’s omnipresent in a variety of historical, social and cutural situations and how it can appear under a variety of discuises. Gluksmann comments that «maybe violent wickedness can be decapitated, but stupidity has too many heads.»

An exception in the general scarcity of academic work on this subject is Stupidity by Avital Ronell (University of Illinois – 2003.) She confirms a basic fact: stupidity is hard to define and poorly understood. «Essentially linked to the inexhaustible, stupidity is also that which fatigues knowledge and wears down history.» And it is a serious problem. «Neither a pathology nor an index as such of moral default, stupidity is nonetheless linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor.»

The Talent for Stupidity by Edmund Bergler (published posthumously in 1998) is defined as “The Psychology of the Bungler, the Incompetent, and the Ineffectual.” It’s meant to be a manual for psychiatrists, considering “the mechanism of stupidity“ to be “a subdivision of masochistic neurosis.”

Isaac Asimov’s brilliant novel The Gods Themselves (1972) can be seen as a study of stupidity and its dangerous consequences. Starting with the titles of the book’s three parts Against Stupidity... The Gods Themselves... Contend in Vain? he explores the possibility that the power of stupidity may extend beyond human dimensions. This concept is inspired by Friedrich Schiller – «Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.»

Another science fiction story is The Marching Morons (1951) by Cyril Kornbluth. It’s about an obnoxious character who wakes up from cryostasis in a future where, because of birth control in the more evolved population and exaggerated reproduction of the underprivileged, a minority of “intelligent” people rules over a multitude of fools. He offers to the élite a solution to reduce the overpopulation problem: offer sexy holidays on Venus and lose the tourists in space. At the end he falls victim to his own scheme.

The title is derived from “The Marching Chinamen” paradox. The entire population of China lines up and files through a gate, but the marching never ends because of the birth of new children.

An unpleasant book was written ninety years ago. L’homme stupide (1919) by Charles Richet. It may be interesting as an example of a cultural period and environment, but it’s boring – and irritating for some of its content, including explicit racism. It’s more acceptable in other parts, such as the condemnation of violence, credulity and superstition. It isn’t a study of stupidity, but an invective against the errors, horrors and monstrosities of human behavior.

Le stupide XIX siècle by Léon Daudet (1922) is probably the stupidest book ever written on this subject. A violent and incoherent polemic against all cultural, social and political developments since the end of the Middle Ages.

If we go back to the eighteenth century... Gustave Flaubert was obsessed with human stupidity. For many years he collected thousands of examples, hoping that he would be able to put them together in an Encyclopédie de la bêtise. But he was defeated by the immensity of the task. Later he tried to deal with this subject in a novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, but it remained unfinished (it was published incomplete, after his death, in 1881.) His concern and dismay with “cultural stupidity” is a thread also in other books, including the gallery of mean and dumb characters that lead Emma Bovary to despair. (More on this subject in Embarrassing or Obsessive?chapter 28 of The Power of Stupidity.)

It is reported that also Jorge Luis Borges, in 1934, started writing a Historia Universal de la Infamia – but gave up when he found that the task was too big for a lifetime.

In 1937) Robert Musil, in his short lecture On Stupidity, noted how scarcely studied was «the shameful domination that stupidity has on us» – and commented dismally that he had found «unbelievably few predecessors in dealing with this subject.»

Some interesting observations on The Genesis of Stupidity are at the end of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by Max Horkheimer e Theodor Adorno. Quotations and comments are in chapter 30 of The Power of Stupidity.

The Natural Science of Stupidity by Paul Tabori (1959) contains some comments on stupidity, but most of this interesting and well written book is about something else. It’s a collection of unusual and intriguing (but not necessarily stupid) situations and events at different historic times and in different parts of the world.

In his bright introduction to Paul Tabori’s book, Richard Armour observed that «If we cannot define stupidity, at least we can trace most human misfortunes and weaknesses to it. Its manifestations are legion, its symptoms are endless.»

Also Max Kemmerich, half a century earlier, spent many years collecting peculiarities and anomalies in the history of human cultures. His book Aus der Geschichte der menschlichen Dummheit (1912) is an aggressive critique of dogmas, churches and religions.

In Über die Dummheit (1909) Leopold Löwenfeld deals with stupidity as an illness. His purpose is to “categorize” different sorts of misbehavior rather than look into the problem of stupidity.

Three volumes by a Hungarian author, Istvá Ráth-Véigh, are titled Cultural History of Human Stupidity (1952) followed by New Stupidities in the General History of Humanity and (somewhat too optimistically) The End of Human Stupidity. Also these are not studies of stupidity, but collections of more or less “famous” examples of human foolishness.

An even vaster collection, in seven volumes, Geschichte der menschlichen Narrheit was published by Johann Christian Adelung in 1785. This too isn’t about history or stupidity – it consists of biographies of impostors, braggers and fanatics.

A famous book, five hundred years ago, was Narrenschiff, a “funny” story by Sebastian Brant. It was published in German in 1494, in Latin as Stultifera navis in 1497. It was translated into English, and expanded, by Alexander Barclay as The Shyp of Foyls in 1508. An imaginary ship sailing to Narragonia (the land of fools) carried a bunch of variously unpleasant characters. The same concept was developed, a few years later, by Thomas Murner in Narrensbenschwörung and Schelmenzunft – satiric galleries of priests, monks, nuns, robber barons and mean rich.

A recent book (2001) on the same subject is The Ship of Fools by Gregory Norminton, developing the story from a picture by Hieronymus Bosch.

This theme has had, over the centuries, several developments in literature and painting. But they are ironies on habits and behaviors that are considered foolish, crazy or unpleasant – not studies on the problem of stupidity.

Sometimes the famous Moriae Encomium (1509) by Erasmus of Rotterdam is quoted as a book on this subject. But that is questionable, because the “folly” that he ironically praised is not the same as stupidity.

Two books were particularly relevant in my work on The Power of Stupidity. One, as mentioned in chapter 1, is A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932) by Walter Pitkin. The other, as explained in chapter 7, is the short, but brilliant, essay by Carlo Cipolla The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, that was written in English in the early Seventies, but wasn’t formally published until it appeared in a book (in Italian) in 1988.

Good as they are, there is a problem with both these books (as well as the majority of comments on stupidity by almost everyone, at all times and in all cultures.) The fool is always “someone else” (see chapter 9.)

One of the best studies ever published on this subject, with a clear perception of how we can all be stupid, is Understanding Stupidity by James Welles (1986) that I quoted in chapters 1, 2, 27 and 28 of The Power of Stupidity. He also wrote The Story of Stupidity (1988) that isn’t a general history of human stupidity, but a series of short and interesting descriptions of stupidity at different times and in different cultures, from ancient Greece to America in the twentieth century. (Both books are combined in the same website.)

Chapters 5 and 6 of The Power of Stupidity are about two basic “modern classics” on a closely related subject – “why things go wrong.” Parkinson’s Law (1957) by Cyril Northcote Parkinson and The Peter Principle (1969) by Laurence Peter.

Another interesting book is The Dilbert Future – Thriving on Business Stupidity in the 21st Century (1997) by Scott Adams. It isn’t an essay on stupidity (nor a “prophecy” on the twentyfirst century.) Like other books by the same author (and many of his famous cartoons) it’s a sharply satirical analysis of the cultural and structural decay in business enterprises. It includes this ironic forecast: «Scientists will eventually stop flailing around with solar power and focus their efforts on harnessing the only truly unlimited source of energy on the planet: stupidity.»

A catastrophical view of the situation is offered by René Delavy in Macht x Dummheit = Selbstzerstörung (2005) “Power x Stupidity = Self Destruction.” (On the stupidity of power see chapter 10 of The Power of Stupidity.) According to this book we are beyond “the point of no return” and – while we are lulled and confused by “stupitainment” – collapse becomes unavoidable.

I was attracted by the title, but disappointed by the content, of La inteligencia fracasada – teoria y pratica de la estupidez (2005) by José Antonio Marina. In spite of its subtitle, it offers scarce contributions to the understanding of human stupidity. With an abundance of examples and digressions (sometimes relevant or amusing, but often dispersive) it lists the factors that can cause a “failure of intelligence” – such as prejudice, superstition, fanaticism, etcetera.

A strange book is Why So Stupid? (2003) by a Maltese psychologist, Edward de Bono. While making no contribution to understanding stupidity, it states that all humankind is totally deprived of intelligence and people can become intelligent only by attending the author’s lessons – and any study of history, philosophy, science or culture is to be considered useless, actually harmful.

Panfleto contra la estupidez contempránea (2007) by Gabriel Sala is an aggressive criticism of social, economic and political degeneration in “western cultures” – specifically of the information industry being warped by entetanimiento (based on tittytainment as defined by Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1995.)

Bréviaire de la bêtise by Alain Roger (2008) is mostly about French and other literature telling stories that can be seen as examples of stupidity or otherwise relating to the subject. Also this author observes that «stupidity has never been studied systematically and its definition remains obscure and confused.»

The Cure for Corporate Stupidity by Larry Bloom (2012) isn’t about stupidity. It’s a neuro-psychological essay on how to «avoid the mind-bugs that cause smart people to make bad decisions» in business management. Four of the 176 items in its extended bigliography are books about stupidity. I am pleased to find that one is The Power of Stupidity. The other three are Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter Pitkin, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo Cipolla and Understanding Stupidity by James Welles. (As I have explained – these are, also in my opinion, the three best books I ever read on this subject.)

Also Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw by William Bouffard (2012) is about mismanagement. «A guide to dysfunctional management and the evil workplace environments they create». It contains several quotations from The Power of Stupidity. An interesting additional article by Bill Bouffard is The Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome – and some of his comments are in The stupid pitfalls of rudeness.

There was a movie produced in Canada in 2004. Stupidity – The Documentary (directed by Albert Nerenberg.) It’s a somewhat confusing and disorderly collection of somehow related subjects, with some interesting observations and several not particularly enlightening examples. But, in any case, it must be credited with the fact that it’s the only of its kind, with a unique commitment to discussing a rarely studied subject. It includes interviews with Noam Chomsky, Giancarlo Livraghi, Avital Ronell and James Welles.

Another movie, Idiocracy, produced in the United States in 2006, is totally useless. A boring and clumsily “funny” story of a hypothetical future in which “intelligence is extinct” and all humanity is stupid. It’s partly based on The Marching Morons that Cyril Kornbluth had published in 1951.

I must confess that I haven’t seen Le dîner des cons (The Dinner Game) – a successful play by Francis Veber (1994) that became a movie in 1998. A competition among a group of friends to see who can find the stupidest person to bring to dinner. People who have seen it say that it’s bright and amusing. But it’s more a “comedy of errors” than an irony on stupidity.

Another movie that I haven’t seen is The Stupids (1996.) According to reviews, it isn’t about stupidity. It’s just another “funny” story of awkward or bizarre events in a family of clumsy people.

There are recent books that somehow include “stupidity” in the title, but have nothing to do with this subject. Some are reprints of books that were called something else, but are commercially renamed to make them seem “new.” Obviously they are not worth listing here.

There are some books in Italian. Most of them are “stupidaria” – or otherwise irrelevant. A few offer some insights on stupidity. They are listed and explained in the Italian version of this bibliography.

All books (or otherwise reading) can be useful.
Including those that are not about stupidity, but often
(in one way or another) show its ubiquitous presence.
I shall continue to read and to learn. But so far I have found
more confirmation than doubt on the concepts
that I have tried to summarize in The Power of Stupidity.
A very short book compared to the size of the problem.