Visible stupidity

As we pass through this life, we learn to judge by deed, not word. Our best friends, for example, remain as such because they are at our side during times of need. When the road gets rough they offer their presence and companionship, rather than empty rhetoric. This is as true for the average person as it is for a king. Neal Stephenson describes this in The Confusion:

“Every man at Court professes his loyalty to the King, indeed does little else but prate about it from from sunup to sundown, which pleases the King well enough in times of peace. But in time of war, each and every man must go out and demonstrate his loyalty with deeds.”

But how? What type of deed can a man or woman undertake to demonstrate their commitment to their king?

“On a battlefield, a Cavalier may attire himself in magnificent armor and ride forth on a brilliant steed to engage the foe in single combat; and what is better, he does so in full view of many others like him, so that those who survive the day can get together in their tent when it is all over and agree on what happened. But on the sea all is different, for our dashing fop is lumped together with all of the other men on the ship, who are mostly common sailors; he lives with them, and cannot move from place to place, or engage a foe, without their assistance. To order a gang of swabbies, ‘charge your cannon and fire it in the general direction of yonder dot on the horizon,’ is altogether different from galloping up to a Dutchman on a rampart and swinging your sword-blade at his neck.”

For a courtier seeking the approval of the King, the visible but stupid deed is preferable to the invisible and wise. The only thing a courtier cares for is his esteem in the eyes of the powerful. Putting himself in mortal danger and nearly dying will yield more renown than mitigating risk and engineering an easy win, so the former is what he does.

​This methodology has survived beyond the times of kings, nobles, peasants and seemingly glorious wars. In today’s world, the most celebrated CEOs are those who plunge into the abyss and manage to rescue themselves and their company from certain death. The CEO who avoids calamity altogether, who steers away from conflict and avoids the spotlight, who keeps himself and his organisation on a slow and steady upwards trajectory? He or she is passed over by the majority. After all, to be consistently good is considered less of an achievement—and less entertaining—than to undulate endlessly between trial and triumph. 

Of course, for anyone seeking status points, the visible and wise action is most preferable. But the opportunity to do something virtuous and have everyone know we’ve done it is rare—and perhaps, virtue is incompatible with visibility? Which means that we are left to choose between visible stupidity and invisible wisdom. And we can only choose the latter if our position in the hierarchy matters less than the fact that we do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.