He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

While visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver finds himself “little regarded,” because of his unimpressive mathematical and musical abilities:

On the other side, after having seen all the curiosities of the island, I was very desirous to leave it, being heartily weary of those people. They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions. I conversed only with women, tradesmen, flappers, and court-pages, during two months of my abode there; by which, at last, I rendered myself extremely contemptible; yet these were the only people from whom I could ever receive a reasonable answer.

I had obtained, by hard study, a good degree of knowledge in their language: I was weary of being confined to an island where I received so little countenance, and resolved to leave it with the first opportunity.

There was a great lord at court, nearly related to the king, and for that reason alone used with respect. He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them. He had performed many eminent services for the crown, had great natural and acquired parts, adorned with integrity and honour; but so ill an ear for music, that his detractors reported, “he had been often known to beat time in the wrong place;” neither could his tutors, without extreme difficulty, teach him to demonstrate the most easy proposition in the mathematics. He was pleased to show me many marks of favour, often did me the honour of a visit, desired to be informed in the affairs of Europe, the laws and customs, the manners and learning of the several countries where I had travelled. He listened to me with great attention, and made very wise observations on all I spoke. He had two flappers attending him for state, but never made use of them, except at court and in visits of ceremony, and would always command them to withdraw, when we were alone together.

I entreated this illustrious person, to intercede in my behalf with his majesty, for leave to depart; which he accordingly did, as he was pleased to tell me, with regret: for indeed he had made me several offers very advantageous, which, however, I refused, with expressions of the highest acknowledgment.

On the 16th of February I took leave of his majesty and the court. The king made me a present to the value of about two hundred pounds English, and my protector, his kinsman, as much more, together with a letter of recommendation to a friend of his in Lagado, the metropolis. The island being then hovering over a mountain about two miles from it, I was let down from the lowest gallery, in the same manner as I had been taken up.

The continent, as far as it is subject to the monarch of the flying island, passes under the general name of Balnibarbi; and the metropolis, as I said before, is called Lagado. I felt some little satisfaction in finding myself on firm ground. I walked to the city without any concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them. I soon found out the person’s house to whom I was recommended, presented my letter from his friend the grandee in the island, and was received with much kindness. This great lord, whose name was Munodi, ordered me an apartment in his own house, where I continued during my stay, and was entertained in a most hospitable manner.

The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

This lord Munodi was a person of the first rank, and had been some years governor of Lagado; but, by a cabal of ministers, was discharged for insufficiency. However, the king treated him with tenderness, as a well-meaning man, but of a low contemptible understanding.

When I gave that free censure of the country and its inhabitants, he made no further answer than by telling me, “that I had not been long enough among them to form a judgment; and that the different nations of the world had different customs;” with other common topics to the same purpose. But, when we returned to his palace, he asked me “how I liked the building, what absurdities I observed, and what quarrel I had with the dress or looks of his domestics?” This he might safely do; because every thing about him was magnificent, regular, and polite. I answered, “that his excellency’s prudence, quality, and fortune, had exempted him from those defects, which folly and beggary had produced in others.” He said, “if I would go with him to his country-house, about twenty miles distant, where his estate lay, there would be more leisure for this kind of conversation.” I told his excellency “that I was entirely at his disposal;” and accordingly we set out next morning.

During our journey he made me observe the several methods used by farmers in managing their lands, which to me were wholly unaccountable; for, except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass. But, in three hours travelling, the scene was wholly altered; we came into a most beautiful country; farmers’ houses, at small distances, neatly built; the fields enclosed, containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows. Neither do I remember to have seen a more delightful prospect. His excellency observed my countenance to clear up; he told me, with a sigh, “that there his estate began, and would continue the same, till we should come to his house: that his countrymen ridiculed and despised him, for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom; which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself.”

We came at length to the house, which was indeed a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture. The fountains, gardens, walks, avenues, and groves, were all disposed with exact judgment and taste. I gave due praises to every thing I saw, whereof his excellency took not the least notice till after supper; when, there being no third companion, he told me with a very melancholy air “that he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form as modern usage required, and give the same directions to all his tenants, unless he would submit to incur the censure of pride, singularity, affectation, ignorance, caprice, and perhaps increase his majesty’s displeasure; that the admiration I appeared to be under would cease or diminish, when he had informed me of some particulars which, probably, I never heard of at court, the people there being too much taken up in their own speculations, to have regard to what passed here below.”

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

His lordship added, “That he would not, by any further particulars, prevent the pleasure I should certainly take in viewing the grand academy, whither he was resolved I should go.” He only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: “That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family, as well as a great number of his tenants; that about seven years ago, a club of those projectors came to him with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut, for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because the water, descending down a declivity, would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level.” He said, “that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, as well as equal disappointment.”

In a few days we came back to town; and his excellency, considering the bad character he had in the academy, would not go with me himself, but recommended me to a friend of his, to bear me company thither. My lord was pleased to represent me as a great admirer of projects, and a person of much curiosity and easy belief; which, indeed, was not without truth; for I had myself been a sort of projector in my younger days.


  1. Graham says:

    These passages strike me as a caution to everyone of every persuasion.

    On one hand, his satire or projectors proved wrong on many if not all counts- England was on the cusp of an agricultural and industrial revolution including in some of the more basic practices and tools of farming. So this has something of the flavour of sarcastic critique that ultimately proves merely Luddite.

    On the other hand, the part where every normal procedure is put on hold or cancelled for untested theories, all at once, in every aspect of every activity, sounds an awful lot like the mentality of plenty of transformationalists in many fields of endeavour today. The US military could probably have used less of it.

  2. Kirk says:

    Chesterton’s Fence is an idea that Swift should have been exposed to. Much of what was going on around him was bad and nasty, but it was a transitional period of history, and most of it eventually evened out.

    With regards to the reformation of institutions, my take is that the best way to go about it is just eliminate the damn things, and then see what functions are truly required via the expediency of watching what people immediately rebuild in terms of functionality. If they need it, that functionality will be addressed. If not, well… Ya don’t need it.

    Yes, that violates that Chesterton’s Fence idea, but the root of that is the necessity to understand something before you try to change or fix it. The difficulty with that is that a lot of institutions have grown so complex and intertwined with other things that they’ve passed beyond really understanding–So, cut the Gordian Knot, treat them like kudzu and then see what grows back.

    Of course, you don’t do this in the midst of crisis, either. Unless, I suppose said that if said institution is dysfunctional enough to destroy your chances of victory, then you might have do it anyway.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Every age of history over the past few centuries has been, in retrospect, transitional.

    Chesterton was in the ballpark, but he didn’t get it over the plate. Most of the time, the reasons for things are obscure because they are shamefully without merit. Often, no one remember the reasons, and no one ever bothered to write them down. Sometimes there are no reasons for things.

    Instead of asking why a thing was made, I ask why it still exists. And to that end I observe all that it does here and now. Cui bono? I think that’s a more useful guide as to what to do with it. And how, if necessary, to change or even destroy it.

  4. Graham says:

    Chesterton’s Fence and the Gordian Knot are metaphors that can really induce rage in some quarters, and/or produce novel interpretations.

    With regard to the knot, I always took the until recently seemingly universal interpretations-

    1.the Knot and its prophecy that he who untangled it would be Lord of Asia represented superstition to be cut through by a go getter who went on to prove it right by his own actions. Pragmatism over superstition or ritual or prophecy. Cutting through the bullshit.

    2. more substantially, the Knot represented the complexities of Asia on the one hand, of conquest and rule on the other. Alexander demonstrated symbolically that often as not complexity actually can be overcome by action, and conquest can be done.

    Of course, rule was indeed harder, but he managed it while he lived, even so. Complexity overwhelmed his successors only once chance removed Alexander himself from the board, and even then the successors themselves were all of the complexity. Nobody rose against rule by Greek generals for a long time. So it’s not as though the Mystic Complexity of Asia arose as one to undo Alexander’s work. Hardly.

    And even then, much of what Alexander claimed he wanted to create was left behind him in the admittedly divided Hellenistic world, and his chief personal goal of being remembered has been fulfilled for nearly 25 centuries now. In assessing means, you have to remember what were the ends to which they were applied.

    So all in all, I took the Gordian Knot to be a positive tale of cutting through the crap.

    SO when a few years ago for the first time I was struck by an academic who took the opposite tack, it stayed with me. Save the author. Can’t recall. His take was that the story of the Knot was purely negative, and showed Alexander’s disregard for Complexity. Which was a worship word in some quarters at one time. More than a guide to intellectual humility, more of a totem to forestall action and substitute for analysis.

    Now my first thought is always, yes but Alexander did conquer Asia. Cut through it not unlike he cut through the not. In a world like his, you really can’t hold being struck down by disease against him, or a world like ours, and with a man who wants to go out in flames like Achilles, one might argue he got all he wanted even if he drank himself to death.

    But all in all there was something to it. It’s actually the application of Chesterton’s Fence to the Gordian Knot.

    The one is the conservative instinct to preserve, or at least to understand before cutting down, the other is the radical instinct to make anew, forge a new path. I do not mean these terms in their political senses either- the two instincts may define the right and left loosely, but not entirely in any time or place. Plus, they apply to personal life strategies, aims, ambitions, that define humanity far beyond politics or society. What was Alexander in left-right terms? An authoritarian monarchist raised to take counsel with peer companions and fight in the front line who sought to become a god king by absorbing the cultures of conquered peoples and suppressing the democratic institutions of his own and their ‘nationalist’ prejudices. Conqueror, soldier, lawgiver, spreader of Hellenism, Despot, Builder of Diversity, subverter of Hellenic rights, Globalizer, Cultural egalitarian, Cultural genocidaire, imperialist, unifier? All.

    But I digress.

    Chesterton’s Fence, both views of the Gordian Knot, Look before you leap, he who hesitates is lost. They’re all true. Pick your poison.

    I’m even sympathetic, or not unsympathetic to Harry Jones’ last point. It’s just that some things are hanging around not doing anything in current or recent times because they’re there for contingencies that haven’t happened in a while.

    Sometimes you can tear them down because they really have outlived themselves. Sometimes doing that will get your collective ass kicked down the road. I see that as Chesterton’s point.

    Or, as I tweeted earlier this afternoon, one can resort to Kipling’s The Gods of the Copybook Headings for the gist in a form half poetic, half kick in the nads.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Give Alexander due credit. He understood knots perfectly well. What he did worked.

    Contingencies have a shelf life. If something hasn’t happened in a while, there may be a reason it hasn’t happened – and why it will probably never happen again.

    I used to plan for all sorts of contingencies. Have more than one way to succeed. The trouble is, I planned for the contingencies I was told to worry about. And those things never happened. Instead I was blindsided by things no one told me to worry about.

    Now I have a new approach to contingencies that takes the black swans and known unknowns into account: I keep a moderate sized collection of random junk around so I can Macguyver something when I have to.

    And remember: complexity itself entails risks. A complex system has many failure modes. Every needless piece is one more thing to go wrong.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Oops, meant to say unknown unknowns.

  7. Graham says:

    I can appreciate that- though I don’t always think of it as a “system” with too many needless parts, which indeed can go wrong.

    Sometimes that’s the case and they need to be pruned, because they have gone wrong, or they could go wrong and serve contingencies that haven’t happened or can logically be assessed as very unlikely to happen.

    Sometimes they are just things that are just there. They don’t play much role day to day, their contingencies aren’t that likely, they may or may not cost much to keep around, but by being passive they don’t really foul the mechanisms of anything else. We too often have a mentality that tells us to prune these things anyway, whether because they’re outdated or for cost savings, depending on your political flavour.

    Then there’s the contingencies that haven’t happened in a while but we have mis-evaluated the possibilities of them happening again. Or, even, we have a good idea they will but we have too many more immediate priorities.

    Some of the black swans aren’t that black.

    Of course, in practice, I work in an organization whose mechanisms of information delivery and communications are, at one and the same time, too complicated and not complicated enough to encompass obvious contingencies, built on multiple jury-rigged platforms each of which was a radical innovation to use some new tool the IT industry had cooked up.

    I genuinely can’t say definitively whether this represents a failure of too much innovation, or not enough, or too much complexity in the tools or not enough complexity in imagined scenarios. Or just a standard issue bumblef*ck.

    In my day to day life, though, I’m right with you. I could probably reduce my most common complaints about work tools, new or old, to the idea they are too complex and have too many failure modes.

  8. Kirk says:

    A lot of the problem comes from man’s desire to impose order on chaos. Man proposes; God (or, nature, as you like…) disposes.

    Even nature can’t manage lasting victory against the forces of chaos and entropy; what nature does is far more effective, using those forces against themselves to create order in the universe. Observe the difference between what man achieves using tools with what nature does with its anti-entropic efforts. You want to tear down mountains? Allow nature her means, and while she’ll take time on a geologic scale, she’ll manage it far more neatly than man ever will. Witness the hills of the Eastern US; once, they rivalled or surpassed the Rockies. Now? They’re low, rolling hills swathed with the plant life that helped wear them down to nubs.

    There’s a lesson there, if you’re smart enough to see it. Rather than try to wrap your arms around chaos, girdling it with splints and trusses, you would do far better to dance with it dynamically, using it the way nature uses falling water to wear away stone.

    It is our natural tendency to want to build lasting things, but in doing so, we often miss the fact that “building for the ages” merely places stone beneath the water’s path. Far better to build the underpinnings for organizational success into the roots of your culture than to try to build lasting successful organizations. Breed cooperation and mindfulness into your people, and let them deal with change adaptively on an ad-hoc basis, organically creating the structures they need to cope with specific current conditions, and then go back into readiness after having abandoned those structures of the mind in the absence of necessity for them.

    In the end, it’s not the Legion that matters, but the small elements of which it is composed, the maniples and the men making them up. So long as those are sturdy and reliable, things will work out on the larger scale.

    Old boss of mine had a mantra: “Good squads will pull the worst plan out of the shit; poor squads will drive the best plan in the world into the ground and keep it there…”.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    The way to pull a bad plan out of the shit is to fix the plan. This only works if management is willing to admit it screwed up.

    Good workers may up and quit if you give them a bad enough plan and insist on it. In practice, that depends on the economy and the options they have.

    I once stayed at a job where the management was toxic – both stupid and evil. I stayed because I was overspecialized in an economic downturn. I came to regret it bitterly. Then I popped the stack and decided to regret bitterly having become overspecialized.

    A good man is always ready to move on from a bad situation. That entails having somewhere to move on to.

  10. CVLR says:

    Harry, what’s your experience with overspecialization? How did you unwind?

  11. Harry Jones says:

    I did hard real time embedded systems. For a while I was making really good money although the office politics could be disconcerting. (R&D tends to attract evil people in the management ranks.) Then they stopped hiring Americans over thirty. Very sudden. Just stopped cold. There was a fad for people from India. The whole business is driven by fads.

    Nowadays I make a lot less money doing random freelance jobs over the Internet, and I’m much happier and less stressed. This social distancing B.S. barely affects me. There are a lot of horrible clients out there, but it doesn’t matter is long as you keep everything small and short term. No big commitments, ever. One night stands are the only safe sex, so to speak.

  12. Kirk says:


    I fear you missed the point of that truism my old boss subscribed to: It’s not that he meant to shortchange the planning in lieu of abusing the troops, but that he wanted men on the ground who could make things work in the absence of plan, knowing only intent.

    Military planning is a lot less predictable than it is in other spheres–You go in with a set of assumptions and intents, not knowing what the enemy is going to do, not knowing what’s going to happen. In business or government conditions, it is much more predictable and you generally don’t have your competitors out laying landmines along your trucking routes. So, the planning environment is inherently chaotic in the military. There was one commander who made the point during the delivery of his oral Operations Order that the plan was going to be the first casualty; he had a copy of the main body of the OPORD ceremonially dropped into the shredder they wheeled into the conference room where he was giving it, which I suppose he meant to represent it being “killed in action”. I’m not sure everyone got that point out of it all, but he still made it.

    It also illustrates the fact that if you don’t pay attention to fundamentals, it doesn’t matter how good everything else might be. Dyson, British Leyland, and Mabey-Johnson are representatives of British industry that I’ve personally experienced dropping the ball between product design, and the minutia of getting that superior product out the door and supporting it. From what I’ve been able to discover, most of that stems from a break between mid-level management and the people working the shipping docks and factory lines–The Brits have issues at that point, across a lot of their industrial core. It’s notable that the same bunch of workers who couldn’t keep British Leyland solvent are churning out much higher quality product under Japanese management, and sometimes out of the same plant.

    There’s a lot to be said for good planning, but when the plan is going to be administered and performed by the sub-par? It doesn’t matter how good it might be. With good people executing it, you can occasionally get away with a bad plan; however, absent those good people at the execution level, ain’t no amount of “quality planning” going to help you pull it off.

  13. Harry Jones says:

    R&D is neither of those things. There’s too much change for there too be fundamentals, so it’s all just fads. (Plus, a resistance to documenting things, which I can’t account for.) And there’s too much ego for management to give engineers the autonomy they need.

    The only thing that’s predictable is that management will screw up and then blame the engineers.

    In business and (I presume) the military, those in charge read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. The only thing analogous to that for software is a collection of essays (somewhat outdated now) by Donald Knuth plus a blog by Eric Raymond. I’ve yet to meet a manager who had heard of either of these.

  14. Kirk says:

    Management, sadly, is often where people wind up when they “fail upward”. Which is why I have always held that the Prussian model of carefully selected leadership based on the “four types” is critical–The energetic and smart need to be out front, the smart and lazy need to be doing the planning, the stupid and lazy can safely be left in charge of the routine, but the stupid and energetic need to be gotten rid of as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

    The problem with all too many of our organizations and institutions is that the tendency is for the stupid and energetic to rise to the top and accumulate others of their type. You let one idiot into the upper ranks, and before you can say “WTF?”, they’ve proliferated and taken over the place.

    The really astonishing thing I’ve noted, too, is how little real education about management and leadership a lot of these sorts of guys get. You almost never see them reading, and if you ever try to engage with them about things like the Peter Principle, you get stares of bewilderment.

    But, boy howdy… Can they set themselves up for the multitudinous seminar circuit, following the latest management fad of the day.

  15. Harry Jones says:

    The stupid and energetic are enormously popular. This combination of traits is known as charisma.

    People are very bad at identifying who is worthy of power.

  16. Kirk says:

    Harry, cynicism noted. In all too many cases, you’re probably right about charismatics.

    It’s not always true, though–I’ve known a couple of them who somehow slipped through the cracks, and to this day, all it would take to get me on a plane, no questions asked, would be a phone call from either of them. The funny thing is, though, they were entirely unaware of their own charisma. The “bad charismatics” I’ve experienced, though? All too aware.

    I don’t think that it’s necessarily that people are bad at identifying who shouldn’t have power, but that the system prevents us from doing anything at all effective about it. In the military, we always knew who the bad commanders were, and you’d be astonished at how quickly and how decisively people will take action to avoid working for them. I remember being in a unit that got word a specific senior leader was slated for command over us, and within a week, the senior NCO cadre had put in retirement paperwork, called in favors for transfer, or dropped extension requests that were contingent on new assignments in theater. Before that guy ever stepped foot on the Kaserne, two-thirds of the NCO cadre had taken steps to ensure they wouldn’t be working for him, and the remaining third was drinking heavily.

    Root problem isn’t that we can’t identify these assholes, it’s that we set up systems that straight-jacket us into having to work for them. Which goes right to my long-held contention that we’re really, really bad at organization, and need to back off from creating these inevitably-captured-by-idiots-and-scum social structures.

  17. Harry Jones says:

    Perhaps charisma is in the eye of the beholder, but most people find self confident and enthusiastic morons to be charismatic. And most people, taken as a group, outvote everyone else.

    I had to make a major upheaval of my approach to life to escape the straitjacket. I was so reluctant to make that scary leap that it took a disaster to push me to it.

    I never loved the system. I wasn’t quite as stupid as that. It’s just that I didn’t hate it as much as I should have. I thought I could make an arrangement with the powers that be. I wanted peace in my time – as do most people – but then I had my Hitler-in-Poland moment.

    It seems to me that the best structure is a small structure. Peter Gabriel has a song about that.

  18. CVLR says:

    Thanks, Harry.

    It does sort of seem like webshit (or dumb generic whatever) is, with maximal irony, the least crummy field, for the rationally self-interested individual.

    What does your funnel look like? Mostly word of mouth?

  19. CVLR says:

    The problem with the modern military is that it attracts slave personalities.

    The problem with middle management is that its purpose is to buffer the children (employees) from the adults (executives).

    These are very different problems.

  20. Harry Jones says:

    I don’t trust word of mouth. It’s led me wrong too many times.

    I try everything that looks low commitment with low expectations. Whatever works, I do it again, repeatedly until it stops working. Then I stop doing it promptly. The key is freedom: no commitment, no trust, always ready to move on at the drop of a hat. A sort of hobo ethic.

    It’s nearly the opposite of the way I was raised. I was born high IQ but raised stupid. In retrospect, my parents’ and teachers’ lack of success ought to have been a warning to me.

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