There’s a remarkable and disturbing sculpture on display in the Vatican. It’s called “Laocoon and His Sons.” I’ve been thinking about that sculpture lately. It portrays a man desperately battling enormous serpents that are encircling him and his two sons. Even if we don’t know the story, we can tell by the fear and desperation on the faces of the man and his children that their struggle is useless. The man and his heirs are bound to be overcome. This battle will end in death. The serpents will win.
If we know the back story, we know that the only way Laocoon could have saved himself and his sons was to keep his mouth shut and watch passively as his city collapsed in disaster. This sad tale is a case study in folly. Here’s what I mean.
Everyone remembers the story of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks had besieged Troy for 10 years and were on the verge of giving up and sailing home when the crafty Odysseus came up with a plan. The Trojans could be overthrown if they could be persuaded to voluntarily invite their enemies into the city and bypass the strong walls that had so capably protected the Trojan people for so many years.
Easy to say. But how do you persuade the people to voluntarily welcome the very enemy that intended their destruction? Simple. Disguise the truth. Make it appear to be something innocuous — or better yet, make it look like a blessing. So the Greeks constructed a hollow horse; pleasing to look at, but filled with enemy warriors.
When the Trojans found the Greeks gone and the horse left behind, the debate began. What is to be done with this remarkable creation?
Naturally, the first thing that should be done is a thorough inspection. This thing was left behind by men who meant to destroy the city. It should have been looked over to determine just exactly what it was. We know, of course, there was no such inspection. Folly.
But the folly doesn’t stop there. Laocoon, a Trojan priest, suspected that the Greeks had some devious motive in leaving the thing behind. He warned his countrymen not to bring the device into the city. He urged the Trojans to burn it to be sure it wasn’t a trick. That’s when Athena, a goddess who favored the Greeks, sent the serpent to destroy Laocoon and his sons. His warnings had to be silenced in order for the plan to succeed.
The Trojans could have viewed Laocoon’s destruction in one of two ways; (1.) He was being punished for being impious, (2.) His warnings were true and some malevolent force wanted to shut him up. Evidently, the Trojans gave no serious thought to the latter possibility. Still, no close inspection. Folly.
But the Trojans had two more chances. Cassandra, a Trojan princess, had the gift of prophecy. She predicted that the city would be destroyed if the Trojans brought the horse within the gates. Her prophecy was ignored. Still, no close inspection. Folly.
The horse was pulled past the strong walls of Troy. According to one version of the tale, the gates were too narrow to accommodate the giant horse and part of the wall had to be destroyed to get the thing inside. Folly.
Still, one more opportunity to avoid destruction. Inside the city, another debate erupted. Some Trojans argued that this horse was built by enemies and should not be kept inside the city. Their counsel was ignored. Folly. Others said the whole deal was fishy and the horse should be burned. This too was ignored. Folly.
Finally, with full knowledge of Laocoon’s warning, Cassandra’s prophecy and the differing opinions among the people, the Trojans still failed to make a careful inspection. Folly.
Once the decision was made, no one thought to put a guard on the thing. All warnings and apprehensions were cast aside and the Trojans gave themselves over to a night of wild drinking and wild celebration. Final folly.
At the prearranged signal, the hidden Greeks slipped out of the horse, killed the guards and signaled the army. The Trojans suffered the awful consequences of their numerous follies.
Of course, this quaint old story has no lessons to teach modern Americans — does it?
Oh, by the way, according to Eratosthenes, the ancient Greek mathematician/poet, June 11 is the anniversary of the day the Trojans paid the price of their folly. We’ve learned a lot in the past 3,194 years. Haven’t we?
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, June 9, 2010
by Michael Hinkle