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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.

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