Heroes and History

Stocks bounced after a big drop on Monday. Gold shot up, coming to rest well over the $1,600 mark. Whatever was ailing the yellow metal seems to have gone away like a winter cold. We wait to see what happens next!

It’s entertainment to us. We are out of US stocks. They are too expensive and too dangerous for our tastes. But we are in gold. Even there, whether it goes up or down hardly matters. We hold it as a store of value, not a speculation. In fact, we hope it drops below $1,000 – so we can buy more!

Meanwhile, yesterday, we did not say, like Henry Ford, that ‘history is bunk’. It is not bunk. It often carries useful warnings. History tells us things that are true. But history never tells the whole truth. And since a historical narrative excludes more than it includes, it may actually take the reader further away from the truth than closer to it.

From the earliest days of human existence – history was also a heroic narrative. The hero faced a challenge. The outcome was in doubt. And then, he managed to overcome it…and win the battle (girl…respect…money…whatever).

This is also the most common formula for all storytelling and also all advertising. It works for everything from piano lessons to Ben-Hur. Confronting a problem…dandruff, thirst, dirty dishes, whatever…the hero of the story (who is the customer in advertising messages) emerges victorious.

In advertising messages he meets the challenge by buying the product. He is a real man (Marlboro). He can please his wife (Viagra). He is successful (the Wall Street Journal). He gets rich. He drives a nice car. His grey hair is gone. His stomach has turned into rippled muscles. He finds Christ.

Of course, there is also the tragic hero, undone by his own character weakness…or by the gods…but that’s another story!

Historical narratives follow the same basic form. They tell the tale of battles, wars, revolutions. This is the history they teach in schools. This is the history that people learn and repeat. And it needs people. Good guys and bad buys. Heroes and villains, winners and losers, protagonists and antagonists.

The hero is usually the leader of a group.

We humans are products of the Paleolithic period. Our brains were formed by many millennia in tribal, hunter-gatherer groups.

In pre-civilised tribal societies, it was possible to ‘know’ things from personal experience and direct, first-person testimony. If a fellow tribesman told you there was an enemy tribe approaching the camp, you were in a fairly good position to judge the veracity and importance of the news.

Nuances of voice, facial expression, tone, gesture…as well as the context, recent history, reputation and so forth…gave you the means to master the information in a reasonably reliable way. You looked for leadership. Fight? Run? The leader set the pace.

Then, sitting around the campfire, perhaps men told tales of great leaders they had known or had heard tell of. They must have drawn inspiration and instruction from these tales, as we do today.

But come to the extended order of modern civilisations and the historical fact that the French army approached Brescia in 1512 is as empty of real information as a blank CD. It is a ‘fact’ but without enough context to make any sense of it.

And even if you studied it more closely, following one of the many roots of the war to the siege and sacking of the town, your real knowledge of the event would probably take the usual form – with a hero, an antagonist, a decisive battle and a resolution.

Emotionally and aesthetically, the hero story is satisfying, like a good bout of sex or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Pianissimo, fortissimo, crescendo, descrescendo… Like sex, the hero story begins with two people…one pressing the attack, the other receiving it…a lot of moving around getting into position…the heat of battle…a climax…and a resolution.

But the historical accounts don’t usually tell us much about what really goes on. For those nuances, we are better off reading the diaries and letters from people who saw the action first hand and reported what they saw.

Niccolo Tartaglia was one of the 16th century’s most brilliant mathematicians. He was born into such a modest family. He had no family name, just a Christian name, Niccolo. He had a total of 14 days of schooling, in which he learned to read. The door open, he went through on his own. Among his other achievements, he was the first to translate Euclid’s Elements into the Italian vernacular.

He was also a victim of the zombie wars of the 1450-1700 period. Those wars have more in common with today’s wars against terror than with the world wars of the 20th century.

They were extremely costly; they transferred wealth, power and status from the people who earned it to the military units that took it from them. Leaders waged wars for their own reasons – hoping to carry off loot by the wagon-load. They were pointless and destructive from every other point of view.

Tartaglia describes what happened when he, his mother and his sister, took refuge in the cathedral of Brescia, when the city was sacked by French, German and Swiss mercenaries under the leadership of Gaston de Foix.

‘In my mother’s presence, I was dealt five very grave wounds, three on the head, in each of which you could see my brain, and two on the face, such that if my beard failed to hide them now, I would seem a monster. One [blow] passed through by mouth and teeth, splitting the jawbone and the upper palate in two, and the same in the lower jaw.

‘Because of this wound, not only could I not talk, except deep down in my throat like a magpie, I also could not eat, inasmuch as I could not in the least move my mouth or my jaws, everything there being shattered. I had to be fed with liquid foods only and with great labour. But more serious still was the fact that not having the money to buy the needed unguents, not to mention calling in a doctor, my mother had to tend and treat me with her own hands, and not with ointments but just by keeping my wounds constantly clean.

‘She copied the example of dogs, which, when they are wounded, heal themselves by licking their wounds clean with their tongues. With this care and prudence my wounds healed after a few months.’

This experience also served to get Niccolo a last name. With so much damage done to his mouth, he found it hard to speak. Other children gave him a nickname ‘tartaglia’, which means ‘stammerer’. He later took it as a surname.


Bill Bonner
for Markets and Money

Join Markets and Money on Google+
From the Archives…

High Tide on Main Street?
22-02-13 – Bill Bonner

The Fed’s Funny Money is Losing its Mojo
21-02-13 – Dan Denning

Resurrecting BHP, the ‘Big Australian’
20-02-13 – Dan Denning

End of the Australian Boom?
19-02-13 – Satyajit Das

Bond Guru Still Likes the Unthinkable: US Treasuries
18-02-13 – Chris Mayer

Markets and Money offers an independent and critical perspective on the Australian and global investment markets. Slightly offbeat and far from institutional, Markets and Money delivers you straight-forward, humorous, and useful investment insights from a world wide network of analysts, contrarians, and successful investors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Markets & Money