Isaac Newton Meets the Corleones

Isaac Newton Meets the Corleones (Spoiler alerts for “The Godfather”)

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In “The Godfather” (1972), the greatest crime film of all time, mob scion, Sonny Corleone, relentlessly pummels his brother-in-law, Carlo, in a public street.

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Revenge for Carlo’s abuse of Sonny’s sister, Connie.

The First-And Second-Order Thinking

Sonny is practicing first-order thinking:

“Carlo needs a beating.”

Sonny does not apply Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion.

For Every Action There Is an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Second-order thinking.

As Peter Kaufman teaches in “The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking,” Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies in physics, chemistry, biology, and even human behavior.

Newton’s Third Law was in the Bible long before Sir Isaac:

"As you sow so shall you reap."

And, as is said daily on New York City streets, by those who know no Newton,

"What goes around, comes around."

Sonny never considers that Carlo, who is not rising in the Corleone family as quickly as Carlo’s pride dictates, might now, with this pain, hurt and humiliation, turn against his in-laws and take revenge upon Sonny.

Sonny does not do second-order thinking.

For, as we know, Carlo shortly stages a domestic brawl with Connie, drawing Sonny, predictably employing first-order thinking, headlong into the spectacular deathtrap at the causeway.

"Revenge is a dish that must be eaten cold." - Talleyrand

Sonny’s brother, strategic Michael, sees far beyond first-order thinking.

Michael is a past master of Newton’s Third Law.

The Second-And Third-Order Thinking

Michael employs second, even third-order thinking.

Michael went to college, but he did not learn second-order thinking at college.

"One thing I learned from my father is to try and think as the people around you think." - Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”

Michael knows full well Carlo set up Sonny.

When at last Michael confronts Carlo over Sonny’s murder, he offers Carlo a drink and a plane ticket to Vegas.

Michael assures Carlo he would not make his own sister a widow.

He is godfather to Carlo’s son.

Michael only wishes to know “who approached you.”

Carlo is relieved to “learn” that Michael will not kill him.

"Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what every man wishes, that he believes to be true." - Demosthenes

At such a tense moment Carlo is no longer capable of second-order thinking.

But we can practice Carlo’s second-order thinking for him, with the added wisdom of hindsight:

“Michael is reassuring me to secure the knowledge he seeks. If I provide it, I will have confessed to the murder of his brother. This will not go unavenged. By revealing who approached me I will not escape punishment for my sin in recompense, but rather, seal my fate.”

So Carlo takes the bait, accepts Michael’s assurances and provides the precious information Michael demands:

“It was Barzini.”

Believing he has settled his debt and purchased a comfortable exile Carlo relaxes into the front passenger seat —the proverbial death seat---of Michael’s car, for his ride to the airport.

And he is expertly garroted by friendly Clemenza, plane ticket safe in Carlo’s pocket.

"Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken." - Warren Buffett

But we are not done with the problem of first-order thinking in the Corleone family.

For now Michael, despite the Newtonian wisdom that has elevated him to head of the family, has his own problem with first-order thinking.

The worst first-order thinking: addiction.

For Michael is addicted to killing.

Unfortunately, killing works.

It gets Michael what he wants.

Until it doesn’t.

The Disaster

For foolish Fredo, the brother whose every choice, in business, friendship and marriage, leads to disaster for himself and his family, was always lovingly tolerated…

Until Fredo took sides against the family.

Michael graciously allows Fredo to live until their mother has died.

Then Michael assures that Fredo will never take sides against the family again.

But this time Michael does not do his full measure of second-order thinking.

He does not consider the consequences of Fredo’s murder for his inner self.

The equal and opposite reaction in his very soul.

For having committed the second great sin of Genesis, the murder of a brother,

Fratricide will haunt him all his days.

And it should haunt us as well, for in our own first-order thinking, we, each of us, are irresistibly drawn to Michael Corleone, this charming, wealthy, well-tailored, immaculately groomed, powerful and brilliant serial killer.

With nary a thought for the murdered, innocent and guilty alike, so soon forgotten.

Every prosecutor in the Homicide Division laments their best witness is dead and perhaps forgotten.

In tribal life men who kill earn more respect, more lovers and more descendants.

That’s Darwin.

And you need not be an Einstein to see that all human life is tribal.