Reading for Sunday, 1 February

Here Tolstoy really starts to take a sledgehammer to the Napoleon myth, by carefully and convincingly making a case that Napoleon really couldn’t have known what was going on and the only reason we thought he was a legend, was because every time he won, it was because we thought his strategy was good.

Leo’s starting to remind me a bit of Oliver Stone (especially in JFK), where blow by blow, the information has to be driven home to make you believe the overall theory.

I certainly agree that there is a providence guiding the actions of men, and certainly the most well-laid plans of men have fallen apart.  But I feel like the only conclusion we can draw is that no orders you can give or plans you can make can really make a bit of difference in the world.

If that’s the case, then why do anything?  Many great changes in the world have been made by people who kept persistently changing things and who were able to influence the world in great ways.  Certainly, not everything is one person’s control, but I have to believe that we have a certain amount of influence on our spheres, otherwise, there would be no point in doing anything.

Or, to go off on a more radical tangent . . . can you imagine Tolstoy writing about the financial crisis?  “We blame the big banks, and their CEOs for causing the financial crisis.  But can we really stop there?  They could blame their investment fund managers who decided to invest in subprime mortgages.  But their brief was to make a high return for their investors – so would they not have been foolish to ignore an investment that everyone else was investing in?

“And precisely because everyone else was investing in it – every fund manager invested in subprime mortgages.  Thus, can any of them really be blamed for doing something that all of them had to do?

“So do we then blame the mortgage lenders who issued the loans to people they knew would default? But, again, we see the same dilemma.  Those lenders were in competition with other lenders.  If they didn’t write those mortgages, somebody else would.  All the lenders, faced with the choice between eventually losing their jobs for losing sales to the competition and offering a bit of happiness to an underprivileged family that could finally afford a mortgage would surely choose the latter path?

“Do we then blame the home owners – those who took on a mortgage they couldn’t possibly afford to repay?  We possibly could – but what drove them to take out a mortgage?  Surely, it was the American Dream – that great, grand fantasy, emblazoned on the heart and soul of every true American – that it is their destiny to own a small part of the vast continent that they inhabit.  A small place to put up a home and a flag and say, ‘Mine!’

“Where did this Dream come from?  It has been passed down to generations of Westerners from time immemorial – from Pilgrims to Settlers to Immigrants.  Is it rational?  Is it sensible?  Who knows, but it is is American.  And it is this great Spirit of Ownership, moving in the souls of thousands of Americans, that led, inexorably, to an event that no man could have planned or wished for – the great recession of 2008.”

Hmm . . . maybe this book has been creeping under my skin in ways that I don’t realise.


2 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 10.28 – Because of a Cold

  1. A very, very interesting paralll you draw there, Matt, between the world of War and Peace and the world of the global economic crisis, and how Tolstoy’s theory might apply to both.

    First, though, let me say that I still don’t think for one moment that the logical conclusion from Tolstoy’s view is that it doesn’t matter what you do, that it won’t change anything. I think what he is saying is that it’s all the pieces together that create the change – you are one piece, only one piece, but still a piece. Of course, then comes a whole lot of stuff about free will, which Tolstoy gets into more seriously later, which is another issue again, but at the moment, I think, his point is simply that the picture is bigger than Napoleon.

    So yes, that does start leading us to drawing a seemingly endless chain of things linking to other things, just as you describe it with the global economy. As a Marxist, much more than a Tolstoyist (is there such a word?), I very much believe that there really is a very complex and important chain of linkages that can explain our current economic crisis and which, in the minds of most Marxists, would have made our current situation pretty well completely predictable over a hundred years ago. Does that mean that everyone who is part of that chain is absolved of any responsibility for their part in it? Not at all. But it does mean that we have to target our strategies for change more broadly, and more deeply, than we often do. Marx talked a lot about the inveitability of certain economic and political change. Lenin talked a lot about the role we need to play in effecting that change and Trotsky (my real hero) talked even more about how we have to see all of that as part of a bigger, global picture.

    I don’t mean, in all of this, that Tolstoy was really a Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyist – far from it. But the notion that the world is both predictable and changeable is something that I think they all held onto, because of a shared view that single things don’t in and of themselves change the world, but rather lots of things linking together do – if simply because it’s lots of things linked together that makes the world what it is.

  2. Quoting Ian . . .

    First, though, let me say that I still don’t think for one moment that the logical conclusion from Tolstoy’s view is that it doesn’t matter what you do, that it won’t change anything.


    I agree with that, Ian . . . although we are inclined to think about Fate and how everything’s predestined when we’re stressed out trying to figure out our troubles, we don’t really believe it.

    God gave us the privilege of choosing how we conduct our lives – we are also privileged in that we are given brains to figure how to make the right moves.
    It is we, the humans, who cause these events, be it good or bad.

    And I hardly think we can blame the new homeowners . . . good grief! Anybody who has lived a life where they had nothing, while all around them other people owned their own homes – anybody who hungered can’t possibly be blamed for taking the cookies left out for them on the table.

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