So, following on my last post, if statesmanship is more like surfing than like sailing, then standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” is a particularly quixotic mission, pretty much guaranteed to wipe you out. And if that is the case, then what is the purpose of a magazine called “The American Conservative?”
I’m sure everybody around here has a distinct opinion on the question, but it seems to me that where the Tolstoyan attitude toward history leads is to a much greater appreciation for the conservative virtues: being cognizant of limits, valuing continuity with the past, and having a sober-eyed view of reality. And it seems to me that the purpose of this magazine should be to approach politics with a view to cultivating those virtues.
There is no hero in War and Peace. The most heroic figure in the actual conduct of the war is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei performs feats of extraordinary heroism in the battle of Austerlitz, feats which have essentially no impact on the final result of the battle, and for which he achieves minimal recognition. By contrast, in the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrei is prevented from doing much of anything, and suffers his fatal wound while standing around waiting for orders to go into action. So much for individual heroism.
There is a villain, of course – Napoleon, personally and politically the negation of everything Tolstoy valued. But Tsar Alexander, Napoleon’s opposite, while portrayed very sympathetically as a noble product of an aristocratic system (whose virtues and vices Tolstoy is well aware of) is not the hero. Though nominally the autocrat, Tsar Alexander as portrayed by Tolstoy is very much the unconscious avatar of forces beyond his control. He is, first, the leader of a pan-European alliance against Napoleon; then, after the defeat at Austerlitz, he makes peace with Napoleon, and becomes an aggressive and liberal domestic reformer; then, after Napoleon’s fatal invasion of Russia, the Tsar becomes the leader of reaction, abroad and at home, to the point where the progressive-minded begin to seriously contemplate the necessity of anti-government action. Though he is only one man, Tsar Alexander manages to embody contradictory forces at different points in his reign based on what the constellation of forces at the time demanded – and he does so entirely without awareness that this is what he is doing. He does not have Napoleon’s illusions about personal genius, but he does think he is in command. And he is not.
If there is a hero in the sense of being the exemplar of the virtues that Tolstoy thought really mattered in leading an army – or a nation – it is Kutuzov, the old man brought out to lead the Russian army in its greatest danger, and cashiered once he achieved success.
And Kutuzov, as Tolstoy portrays him, is distinguished not by tactical brilliance, nor by having some theory of how war should be conducted, but by having an intuitive feel for what conditions actually are, and for not being distracted by his own ego, by any need to prove himself relevant. He abandons Moscow without a fight because Moscow is going to be lost anyway, so why lose the army as well? When the tide turns in Russia’s favor, he senses this, and tries to restrain his own army from wasting lives fighting when the French army is disintegrating of its own accord – but even this restraint he applies prudentially, aware that the spirit of the men will demand opportunities for action even when there is no objective need.
Kutuzov is portrayed less as a commander than as a surfer, sensing the quality of the waves, waiting for the right time to ride them to shore. And more than all the other surfers, he seems to be aware that this is all he is. To that extent alone is he the hero of 1812.
I would argue that, as a society, we could use more of Tolstoy’s Kutuzovs, and more awareness, as a society, of the truth that Tolstoy is articulating about them.