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In his speech “The Strenuous Life,” Theodore Roosevelt identified “the American character” with “the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.” “The man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” Roosevelt asserted, “wins the ultimate triumph.” The novelist Émile Zola argued a similar point in a speech praising vigorous effort informed by social science. Since the man whose work is guided by knowledge “is always kind,” Zola reasoned, we may be confident that the “illimitable future” of the “coming [-twentieth] century” will witness “the greatest happiness possible on earth.” It did not work out that way.

Leo Tolstoy found Zola’s speech so ­wrongheaded that he reproduced it in full in his essay “Non-­Acting,” which defends the opposite ­thesis. Paraphrasing Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, Tolstoy maintains that “the ills of humanity arise . . . not because men neglect to do things that are necessary but because they do things that are ­unnecessary.” The more confident we are that we can achieve the greatest human happiness, the more likely it is that we will create the greatest misery.

Lao Tzu’s concept of nonacting fascinated Tolstoy largely because in War and Peace and Anna Karenina he had developed a similar doctrine. The ancient Chinese teacher rejected not all action, but only intentional efforts counter to the nature of things. It is wiser to respect the world’s spontaneous tendencies and work within the limits they set. Because such work may look to the enlightened like doing nothing, the paradox-loving Lao Tzu called it nonaction: “To generate without taking possession, / To do without presuming on it, / To lead without managing, / This is called the Dark Potency.”

How may we know whether a province has a good governor? Lao Tzu answers: If people defy his will, the governor is bad; if they obey from fear, he is almost as bad. If they “love and praise” their governor, still he is not good. Only if they ask, “Do we have a governor?”—only when his will seems to be accomplished of itself—can it be said that they have a good governor. Lao Tzu and Tolstoy considered the most dangerous people to be those who imagine they possess the knowledge—Tolstoy calls it “science”—to accomplish what they deem beneficial. “Exterminate the [purported] sage, discard the [supposedly] wise,” Lao Tzu advises, “and the people will benefit a hundredfold.”

Kutuzov, the truly wise general in War and Peace, behaves like a master of nonaction. The other commanders, led by General Pfühl, believe they possess a “science of warfare” that ensures victory. Tolstoy means this “science” to represent any putative science of society, existing or to come. Ever since Newton reduced the amazingly complex movements of the planets to four simple laws, endless “moral Newtonians,” as historian Élie Halévy called them, have claimed to do the same for ­society. Tolstoy dedicated War and Peace to demonstrating the absurdity of such thinking.

All such claims depend on the assumption that the deeper one looks, the more things simplify. But in human affairs, Tolstoy contends, the very opposite holds. Behind a hundred phenomena one finds a thousand. Causes do not simplify, they ramify. Wisdom begins with the recognition that one cannot possibly take all contingencies into account and that surprise belongs to the very nature of things. Battle, or the workings of society, do not at all resemble the movements of the planets. One must learn to make decisions under irremediable uncertainty.

As the battle of Austerlitz approaches, the generals of the allied Russian and Austrian armies persuade the two emperors to force a contest that, according to military science, they cannot lose. “What foresight for every eventuality, for every condition down to the smallest detail!” an officer exclaims to the novel’s hero, Prince Andrei. At the council of war before the battle, Kutuzov, the nominal commander-in-chief who opposed giving battle, dozes off. When the discussion stops for a moment, Kutuzov “open[s] his eye, as a miller wakes up when the soporific drone of the mill wheel is interrupted,” and listens “with an expression that seemed to say, ‘Oh, you’re still talking about the same nonsense!’”

At last Kutuzov ends the discussion: “‘Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow—or rather for today, for it is past midnight—cannot be altered now. . . . And before a battle, there is nothing more important,’ he paused, ‘than a good night’s sleep.’” If there really were a science of war, then getting the plan right would be the most important thing. But if that is impossible, if battle is shaped by ­chaos and unforeseeable contingencies, then what is needed is not more planning but alertness, which depends on a good night’s sleep.

Tolstoy famously described battle as it had never been described before, and as military historians today take for granted. Everyone experiences confusion, moves in fog and smoke, does not know what is happening even a few feet away, and reacts to the panic of other soldiers with panic of his own. Commanders issue orders that cannot be carried out because by the time they arrive, the situation has changed. Battle intensifies the confusion that makes perfect knowledge impossible in all human affairs.

Far from winning decisively at Austerlitz, the Russians and Austrians suffer a disastrous defeat. One might expect this disconfirmation to shake the generals’ faith in their “science,” but—as with Marxism and many other supposed social ­sciences—contrary evidence can always be explained away. “In 1806 Pfühl had been one of the men responsible for the plan of campaign that ended in [the defeats at] Jena and Auerstadt, but in the outcome of that war he failed to see the slightest evidence of the failure of his theory. Quite the contrary, to his mind it was the departures from his theory that were the sole cause of the whole disaster.” Since Pfühl’s science prescribes measures too detailed to be carried out, no defeat can ever discredit it.

Prince Andrei does benefit from experience. He outgrows his immature belief in a science of warfare and becomes the most eloquent spokesman for the opposing view. “What theory or science is possible,” he asks, “where the conditions and ­circumstances are unknown? . . . No one has ever been able to foresee what the position of our army will be at the end of any day.” Sometimes everything depends on whether a hero cries “hurrah!” or a coward panics and infects those around him—things no science can predict. “What science can there be in a matter in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be determined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which becomes manifest at a particular moment, and no one can tell when that moment will come?” “At a particular moment”: Crucial contingencies cannot be foreseen. “In every practical matter”: Andrei’s argument applies not only to battle but to all human activities.

Like Aristotle, Tolstoy believed that in addition to “theoretical knowledge” such as mathematics (episteme), there is “practical reasoning” (phronesis). Good drivers, chefs, and violin players do not possess a science, yet there is no gainsaying their superior performance. To put the point differently, wisdom differs from knowledge. It is not formalizable, and it comes of experience reflected on thoughtfully. As Aristotle explained, that is why young people can be good at mathematics but not at moral decision-making, or at any activity requiring judgment acquired through long experience.

Kutuzov has reflected profoundly on his experience and arrived at something resembling Taoist wisdom. Prince Andrei observes that when a general presents Kutuzov with some surefire plan for cutting off the French, he merely makes a show of listening, since “he knew beforehand all that would be said. . . .What the general was saying was . . . ­intelligent and to the point, but it was clear that ­Kutuzov despised both intellect and knowledge . . . [and] even the ­patriotic feeling” with which such plans were presented. He despised them, ­Andrei realizes, “not because of any intellect or knowledge of his own,” but “because of his age and experience of life.” Kutuzov senses when plans will fail because they run counter to the totality of contingencies.

Tolstoy describes Napoleon as a self-satisfied megalomaniac who imagines he controls events by sheer force of will. At the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon cannot understand why, with the same generals, troops, and tactics as before, he has failed to achieve more than a Pyrrhic victory. “Napoleon failed to see that in regard to his army he played the part of the doctor who hinders by his remedies.”

Kutuzov, by contrast, does not imagine that he can force a victory by brilliant tactical decisions. He gives orders “when his subordinates required it of him, but when listening to their reports he appeared to be interested not so much in the words that were spoken to him as to the tone of voice of the man reporting them.” He is less a conventional general than a Taoist sage on horseback. “Long years of military experience had taught him, and the wisdom of old age had convinced him, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of men struggling with death, and he knew that the fate of a battle is decided not by the dispositions of a commander in chief . . . but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he took cognizance of that force and ­guided it insofar as it lay in his power.” By raising the soldiers’ morale and nudging them in the right direction, he does all that can be done. Pfühl and Napoleon act, Kutuzov “non-acts.”

Napoleon at last occupied Moscow as he had occupied the capitals of Austria and Prussia, but instead of surrendering, as those countries did, the Russians retreated and fought on. Suddenly ­Moscow burned down and Napoleon, facing the Russian winter in a destroyed city, was forced to make a rapid retreat. Assuming that history is made by decisive actions, historians asked whose idea it was to incinerate Moscow. Some credited the city’s furiously patriotic mayor, Rostopchin; others picked other Muscovites. Nonsense, Tolstoy replies. No one decided to burn the city down. No one had to, since a city made of wood, where scarcely a day passes without a fire, “cannot fail to burn when its inhabitants have left it and it is occupied by soldiers who smoke pipes, make campfires . . . and cook themselves meals twice a day.” Likewise, no one ordered the inhabitants to leave—Rostopchin in fact tried to stop them—but the civilian equivalent of “the spirit of the army” led them to feel that they simply could not remain under French rule. By leaving, they unintentionally made the city burn and, without intending it, saved Russia. Tolstoy concludes: “Moscow was burned by its inhabitants, it is true, but by those who abandoned her, not by those who stayed behind.”

What constitutes the spirit of a people? Whatever it is, that spirit sets limits to economic and social reform. In Anna Karenina, Levin, like other progressive landowners, tries to modernize his estate according to the latest scientific methods from abroad. In much the same way, Russia itself was copying Western institutions and practices. As with many reforms, efforts often failed or made matters worse.

Why don’t plans that look good on paper, meet scientific criteria, or replicate institutions abroad have the desired effect? Levin’s machines and methods work in England but every attempt to import them fails for some reason he cannot specify. His bailiff knows in advance what will not work:

The bailiff listened attentively, and evidently made an effort to approve of his employer’s projects. But still he had that look Levin knew so well that always irritated him. . . . That look said, “That’s all very well, but as God wills.” Nothing mortified Levin so much as that tone. But it was common to all the bailiffs he had ever had. They had all taken up that attitude towards his plans, and so now, he was not angered by it but mortified, and felt all the more roused to struggle against this, as it seemed, elemental force continually ranged against him, for which he could find no other expression than “as God wills.”

Levin expends considerable effort in struggling against this “elemental force” and implementing, or rather forcing, his improvements. He does not attribute his failures to sabotage, for he knows that the peasants are well-disposed to him and are trying to do as he wishes. They can’t do any better, he comes to realize, because laborers work according to their habits. Russians work differently than do their English counterparts for whom the machines and methods were devised. The moment a Russian worker’s attention flags, something breaks: The more vigorously Levin tries, the more reform by template turns

into a cruel and stubborn struggle between him and the laborer, in which there was on one side—his side—a continual intense effort to change everything to a pattern he considered better; and on the other side, the natural order of things. And in this struggle he saw that with immense expenditure of force on his side, and with no effort or even intention on the other side, all that resulted was that the work did not go to the liking of either side, and that splendid tools, splendid cattle, and land were spoiled with no good to anyone.

Change is possible only within the limits set by “the natural order of things”—in this case, the sum total of habits and practices, chosen by no one and accumulated haphazardly over centuries—that constitutes “the elemental force.” Levin learns that the only successful reforms operate within the limits set by that force.

Levin eventually meets a prosperous peasant family that has, in fact, adopted some modern methods. He is struck by how they have ­succeeded where he and other progressive landowners failed. The family has looked for solutions to specific problems and, when some new method appeared promising, adapted it to local conditions and traditional practices. Change has come as a patchwork of ad hoc fixes, each of which modifies circumstances in ways allowing for other adaptations. Changes come from the bottom up. They fit no theory and copy no model but take advantage of opportunities the elemental force permits.

Ethical problems also concern Levin. As he once believed in agricultural science, so he seeks the right ethical theory, but each theory proves inadequate. At last, he entrusts himself to the same kind of experiential wisdom that guides Kutuzov in military matters. When he does, Levin finds he can make the decisions that used to perplex him, and Tolstoy lists a page of examples. If one asks what theory these decisions presuppose, one has missed the point. Wisdom, arising from thoughtfully considered experience, does not fit any theory. Without offering certainty, it works better than theoretical alternatives.

Levin’s friends try to convince him to support Russian military intervention in the Balkans aimed at stopping Turkish atrocities. Left and right agreed on this war, but not Tolstoy—and not Levin. Levin’s intellectual brother Koznyshev challenges him: Suppose a Turk were about to murder a Bulgarian baby right before your eyes. Wouldn’t you use force to stop him? Wouldn’t you kill him if necessary? Levin replies that he does not know. He would have to decide on the moment. From a philosopher’s point of view, this answer makes no sense because it fails to specify the criteria that would guide Levin’s decision. And that is the point: So many unforeseeable contingencies might operate, and the results of a wrong decision either way are so terrible that no theory should decide. It is better to trust to the spontaneous action of the moment guided by wisdom acquired over a lifetime.

In the early 1880s, Tolstoy underwent a religious conversion that entailed repudiating his earlier literary works and moral conclusions. The key difference between the “two Tolstoys” pertains less to specific ideas than to the spirit in which the ideas were propounded. Before 1880, Tolstoy derided any claim to certainty. Contingency and complexity govern the world, and the mind, as Tolstoy depicts it, leaps to simplistic conclusions sustainable only by fallacious reasoning and the exclusion of counterevidence.

Such skepticism characterizes the realist novel as a genre. In saints’ lives and utopias, heroes arrive at absolute truth, whereas in the realist novels of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Henry James, and others, wise people recognize human limitations. After 1880, Tolstoy, like a character satirized in one of his novels, believed he had discovered the timeless truth—so it is not surprising that his two great novels, the summit of realism, repelled him. Now he saw skepticism as a force sustaining contemporary evil.

Christ had proclaimed the absolute truth, Tolstoy maintained, but since the time of ­Constantine, no one had taken it seriously. Instead of the “law of love” enjoining absolute non-resistance to evil, mankind had adhered to “the law of violence” from which all evil derives. “Absolute non-resistance,” “all evil”: Tolstoy’s point was that these formulations are categorical and admit no exceptions. For a Christian, violence is never justified. No matter the circumstances, one must not oppose violence with violence. Armies and police forces must be abolished, and since the State depends on coercion, it, too, must give way.

The Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus appreciated love and called for pity and compassion, Tolstoy explained, but only Christianity—before it was distorted by “church religion”—insisted that love was “the only guiding principle of life.” Instead of novelistic wisdom giving no guarantees, Tolstoy after 1880 offers a simple, absolutely certain precept guiding all people in all circumstances.

Tolstoy’s new perspective could not differ more from Kutuzov’s. That commander avoided decisive engagements, retreated, and trusted to “patience and time”—but he was no pacifist. He was a general, after all. From Tolstoy’s later perspective, preferring caution to the categorical is the very reason evil persists.

Levin opposes the Eastern War, but he does not advocate absolute pacifism. Tolstoy now answers the question posed by Koznyshev quite differently. Levin says he would have to decide on the moment whether to use violence, but Tolstoy has arrived at a categorical answer:

A rogue has raised his knife over his victim. I have a pistol in my hand and kill him. But I do not know, and cannot possibly know, whether the purpose of the raised hand would have been implemented. The rogue may not have carried out his evil intention, whereas I certainly commit my evil deed. Therefore, the only thing that a person can and must do in this and similar instances is what he must always do in all possible circumstances. . . . A man’s conscience may demand that he sacrifice his own life but not that of another person.

The deeply skeptical Tolstoy of the great novels likewise maintained that one can never be absolutely certain what another person will do, but he nonetheless insisted that one must act on the preponderance of the evidence. War and Peace takes as its main theme decision-making in conditions of radical uncertainty, and it shows wise and foolish ways of doing so.

Tolstoy after 1880 paraphrased the usual objections to anarchism and pacifism: Without prisons, criminals would roam free and kill people; without armies, other countries would invade, rape, and murder. Perhaps so, Tolstoy observed, but that makes no difference. People behave badly because the law of violence has governed humanity for so long. That will change only when people choose the law of love. Those who make the choice recognize that, far from preventing crime, prisons cause it, as armies cause war. There is no original sin; people are fundamentally good, and one can eventually bring them to the law of love by example.

Even if the change takes centuries, Tolstoy repeats, there is no alternative. Pacifism, far from being unrealistic, is the most practical way of achieving the good. The Christian law of love is the law of human nature, even though false teachings and “perceptual deception” have convinced people otherwise. Remind them of what they already know, and they will never commit evil. Nothing could be further from the complex image of human beings presented in realist novels.

Tolstoyanism infuriated ­Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Tolstoy described happy prisoners serving a term for having refused to join the army, but the conditions they endured did not compare with Soviet conditions. As ­Solzhenitsyn knew, Soviet doctrine held that if enemies are naïve enough to assume goodwill, let alone practice nonviolence, one should take advantage of their naivete and use it to destroy them. By disarming resistance, Solzhenitsyn reasoned, Tolstoyanism magnified evil. It was therefore the antithesis of Christianity.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels about the Russian Revolution, begins with a young idealist’s visit to the aging Tolstoy. Clinging to the great man’s teachings, Sanya hopes to have his doubts resolved. You say that the purpose of life is “to serve the good, and so create the Kingdom of God,” Sanya asks, but it is not always clear just how the Kingdom of God is served. Surely loving isn’t the only way? Tolstoy answers that it is. ­Sanya replies that people he knows are still incapable of love, and so in the modern world “love cannot prevail. Wouldn’t that mean that your teaching . . . is premature? If so, ought we not to envisage some intermediate stage, ask less of people to start with and then try to awaken them to universal benevolence?” Tolstoy rejects any softening of his doctrine.

Sanya now challenges Tolstoy’s key thesis that “evil does not come from an evil nature, that people are evil not by nature but out of ignorance.” Sanya’s experience demonstrates otherwise, and Solzhenitsyn’s readers, of course, had much worse experience to consider. “It isn’t at all like that,” ­Sanya pleads, “it just isn’t so! Evil refuses to know the truth. Rends it with its fangs. Evil people ­usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing. And go on doing it. What are we to do with them?” Tolstoy replies: Explain things better and “then they will understand.”

In realist novels, the test of ideas is experience. For those who think categorically, experience merely distracts.

The twentieth century demonstrated: Nothing causes more evil than attempts to abolish evil altogether. Categorical thinking and unmitigated certainty kill.

For Solzhenitsyn, the answer to totalitarian ­violence does not lie in the categorical rejection of violence. To combat totalitarianism effectively, one must appreciate the world’s complexity and the impossibility of perfect knowledge.

But doesn’t skepticism weaken resolve? ­Solzhenitsyn’s characters wonder: Can skeptics, less than perfectly sure of their beliefs, stand up to the true believers? If not, then democracies, which presume the validity of different opinions, must lose to totalitarianism. The Bolsheviks counted on absolute unanimity and complete certainty as their guarantee of victory.

Solzhenitsyn replies that skepticism need not lead to weakness. One may exert oneself to the utmost to fight those who proclaim an answer to everything, even without offering an alternative certainty. Greek tragedy, the realist novel, and Christianity as Solzhenitsyn understood it all picture life as a struggle with uncertainties. By its very nature, faith presumes less-than-perfect knowledge. The human condition as God made it precludes infallible understanding and yet imposes the moral obligation to combat evil as best we can.

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.

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