When A Measure Becomes a Target

We are now just a couple weeks out from the release of Issue Two of […]

Mockingbird / 5.28.14

We are now just a couple weeks out from the release of Issue Two of The Mockingbird. It is the Identity Issue, and you won’t believe what all it has to say about, well, you. If you’re not subscribed yet, subscribe here.

In anticipation for the release, we’ll continue posting a selection of pieces from the first issue, including this essay from Will McDavid on the “Economics of Repentance.” To read the essay in full, go to the magazine’s webpage, here.

“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him….”

—Plutarch, Lives

We hate bad news; we always have. When our failures or fears or impending impasses become tangible, we do all we can to resist. If we can just make the indicators of our failures go away, we will be free of them, living in a bubble of affirmation and flattery, in ignorance of the facts.

Tigranes was a great Armenian king in the first century BC, who cobbled together a huge empire and received praise throughout Asia. He eventually came into conflict with the Roman Republic, which sent an invasion force rapidly to besiege his capital city in Armenia. Unable to believe, after all his conquests, that he was facing a genuine threat, Tigranes simply removed the messenger, perhaps with a subconscious fallacy which suggested that would be dealing with the problem itself. It wasn’t, and, after a devastating loss to the Romans, he ended up losing the majority of all he had conquered.

Tigran_the_Great_illustrationPlutarch isn’t strictly historical; as a writer to Romans, part of his message in this episode must have been to highlight the audacity of Lucullus, a Roman hero. And part of his message may have been to imply the total superiority of the Romans to what were then regarded as uncivilized Eastern kingdoms. Tigranes may have mastered numerous Eastern armies and battles, but the Romans were something else altogether—so fearsome, so above and beyond his ability to account for, that Tigranes’s only response could be shutting his eyes.

It may be too tidy a metaphor, but perhaps we all have our own little kingdoms, domains in which we feel in control and at home, “masters of our domains,” as Jerry Seinfeld once put it. We feel like everything is under control and going our way, ticking neatly on our metronomes—the kids are doing well in school; earnings reports are going up; the retirement fund is looking good; the marriage has never felt better. And then the Romans come—something beyond our reckoning, something abrupt and offensive; things go south with remarkable rapidity. Our control mechanisms are overwhelmed, and what once seemed so secure is now all but dead as the enemy bears down upon us. ‘News from across the sea’—which is often bad news, initially—threatens to undo us.

Everyone responds differently, but some form of burying our heads in the sand is pretty typical. I haven’t killed a messenger over a Roman army’s advance anytime recently, but try telling your friend that her boyfriend’s bad for her, or that his career is turning him into someone impossible to be around. Try telling a mother that her kids need reigning in. In practice, we do tend to remove the bearers of bad news from our lives, usually to surround ourselves with voices telling us everything’s fine.

“Killing the messenger,” of course, is a misguided form of control. It is the belief that if we can change the signals we’re receiving, we can change the reality those signals are expressing. This is a problem for everyone, but especially, it seems, for the religious. Omens, prophecies, rituals of control – they can all serve to mitigate or manipulate those signals that are constantly coming in, signals we will filter and skew and spin. As for Plutarch, he may have seen Tigranes’s panicked attempts to maintain control as barbaric, but the Romans were just more sophisticated with their signal-management. Niccolò Machiavelli says of the Romans: “All the rest of their ceremonies, sacrifices and rites depended on [oracles and soothsayers], for it was easy to believe that the god who can predict your future, be it good or evil, could also bring it about.” Just like Tigranes and his messenger, the Romans took it out on the soothsayers when the hoped-for future did not come to pass.

Why is this still apparent today, that we ‘kill the messenger’ or believe that, in envisioning the future, we can change it? Again, perhaps it is—and always has been—our psychological tendency to assert control in cases in which we have very little of it. Although we moderns have rejected oracles and divination, we certainly have not lost the fundamental element of pagan religion, which is the desire to have control, even at the expense of ignoring the facts in the process.

Those oracles of antiquity promised a way of measuring the success or failure of a military campaign; their influence upon human religion consisted largely in providing a way—albeit an imperfect one—to control those measures artificially. And we moderns implicitly control our own religious measures, perhaps confusing, or better conflating, habits and behaviors with interior states of holiness. As the Romans began believing that they could alter the future by altering the oracle’s prediction so, too, do we implicitly believe in the achievability of our states of grace. We over-identify with our own measures of virtue. Certain changes in behavior—which are properly results of being graced —sometimes mistakenly seem like lights along the path to holiness.

Why do we believe this, though? Why do we often confuse the measure with the target? One starting-point for examining this is through the lens of economics, which offers an emotionally objective window into the problem. It cuts through our tendency to blame the messenger, by revealing the idea of control to be misplaced from the start. In the case of actions and personal virtue, there is no “mediation” per se—it’s just an inner relationship between actions, choice, and character—so blaming it on the oracles won’t work. We have only our pretensions of control to blame, and economics offers a unique lens into that problem.

To read the rest of the essay, visit the magazine webpage here. To subscribe to The Mockingbird, go here

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2 responses to “When A Measure Becomes a Target”

  1. Bennie Mac says:

    Thank you! Thank you ! Thank you! You have not only put into words how many of us feel, but you have reasoned it out in a very thoughtful, methodical way. I realize that those who are still a slave to performance Christianity will have ” find” problems with the reasoning and freedom that comes from it but it is great to see it expressed in such a reasonable way…

  2. […] Sounds like a worthy diversion for the aforementioned property-value obsessed cohort, full of some very familiar themes […]

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