In StupidityAndConspiracy, the ^zhurnal! entry of 5 February 2001, I quoted a friend's quotation of the aphorism "Never attribute to malevolence what you can explain by simple stupidity." A few days later I received a kind note from Bo Leuf (see, a writer and Wiki Master (more on Wiki, a fascinatingly anarchistic group-mind-tool, another time!). Bo observed that "Translations vary. The likely correct attribution is to Napoleon Bonaparte. (Some attribute it to Clausewitz.) My version is, 'Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.'"

Alas, my further digging has not yet been able to confirm Napoleon as a source of any version of this sentiment. Some trails lead to Robert A. Heinlein, and others to fragments of War and Peace—which reminded me of a striking comment by Leo Tolstoy in Book I, Part 3, Chapter 7. (I'm slowly making progress through the excellent Ann Dunnigan translation of the novel, but still have ~80% to go.) It's hard to tell the truth, especially about complex events. As Tolstoy says:

But Boris noticed that Rostov was on the point of making fun of Berg, and adroitly changed the subject. He asked Rostov to tell them where and how he had received his wound. This pleased Rostov and he began telling them about it, growing more and more impassioned as he talked. He described the Schöngraben action exactly as men who have taken part in battles generally do describe them, that is, as they would like them to have been, as they have heard them described by others, and making them sound more glorious, and quite unlike what they actually were. Rostov was a truthful young man and would on no account have told a deliberate lie. He began with the intention of relating everything exactly as it happened, but imperceptibly, unconsciously, and inevitably, he slipped into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his listeners, who, like himself, had heard numerous stories of cavalry attacks, had formed a definite idea of what an attack was, and were expecting to hear just such a story, either they would not have believed him, or, still worse, they would have thought that Rostov himself was at fault, since what generally happened to those taking part in a cavalry charge had not happened to him. He could not tell them simply that everyone had set out at a trot, that he had fallen from his horse, sprained his arm, and then had run from a Frenchman into the woods as fast as his legs would carry him. Besides, to describe everything as it was, telling only what had really happened, would have required great self-control. To tell the truth is very difficult, and young people are rarely capable of it. His listeners expected to hear how, fired with excitement and beside himself, he had swept down on the enemy's square like a tempest, cut his way in, slashing right and left, and how his saber had tasted blood and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And these are the things he told them.

Sunday, February 11, 2001 at 20:31:57 (EST)

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TopicLiterature - 2001-02-11

(correlates: StupidityAndConspiracy, Bo Leuf, EmersonOnInformationRetrieval, ...)