top of page
  • Writer's picture738

155. Development (IV)

When Hernán Cortés landed in America he burned his ships behind him. The idea was to send a message to his men that there was no way back; they would conquer the New World or die in the attempt. The incident is often used as an introduction to the principles of game theory. It illustrates how, through changing the incentives people face, it is possible to change their actions. The man with no option to retreat must fight on, and he will put every effort into the fight; his position is entirely existential, failure to win means death—possibly his still beating heart sliced from his chest. There is no explicit element of encouragement here; it hardly needed to be explained to the men what had happened—Cortés had done something that self-evidently altered their incentives on the continent, everything else flowed from there.

As an aside, it has become popular in recent years to replace Cortés with Tariq bin Zayid, a man who invaded Spain around 700 AD. Now, I suppose, perhaps Cortés got the idea from him, but this is neither here nor there—man has probably been altering incentive structures for centuries in a similar way. The introduction of bin Zayid into the picture is simply an anti-Western attempt to make sure those people being introduced to game theory do so in a context where it is implied that it has a non-Western origin—and, indeed, a context where it should be used to invade and subjugate the West, in this case under Islam, rather than to show the West’s victory in the New World. It is, in other words, part of a widespread and long-standing commitment by the West’s progressive intellectual class to reconceptualise everything of value as having a non-Western origin—or to be repurposed as anti-Western in some way.

In this case, the idea is part of a wider campaign to attribute all Western scientific and technological achievements—including game theory—to Islam. Of course, game theory as a formal discipline was not invented by bin Zayid or Cortés; the story exists to demonstrate the principle, to show that people understood intuitively what has since been formalised by game theory—still, the illustrative story is all about planting an implicit suggestion in a person’s mind, almost in the same way as Cortés changed his men’s incentives in an implicit way…

I previously said that, ultimately, priests rule; but this is not quite correct, priests rule in gestalt with soldiers—one cannot do without the other and, frequently, as in the case of the emperor, both are combined. Soft power alone—priestly power or money power—cannot rule; it is possible to persuade and manipulate people to an extent, but, unless you have a stick behind the soft power, you are vulnerable. Arendt noted that this was the case for the Jews, a people who often have money and intellectual power but lack martial power. Money and rhetoric can work to an extent, but everyone resents their boss since he has no power of physical chastisement; it is only the warrior whose power man ultimately respects, the ability to physically compel us to act.

The soldier still needs the priest—or at least the priestly idea—to give him the confidence to act; it is confidence, faith, that can change the course of events. Cortés burned his ships in a rational move to change the incentives faced by his own men, but what about his own certainty? The confidence to cut off your own retreat—changing your own incentives—is different to that of dealing with other people’s lives. This kind of confidence comes from faith: the man with faith can change the course of a war or battle—and so the soldier without faith, a mercenary, is always, as Machiavelli observed, the poorer fighter. Whether or not a soldier fights is often determined by his faith in an idea, system, or man; without this element everything can be easily lost.


Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page