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Tolstoy And The Tao

I’m continuing to think about Noah Millman’s discussion of a temperamental conservatism he describes as Tolstoyan (see my post [1] from yesterday, which has links to Noah’s three entries about it). Here is the heart of Noah’s idea:

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 [2]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.

The more I think about this, the more it seems to me like an articulation of a Taoist approach to politics. Taoism teaches that change is constant, and that the wise man learns to “go with the flow” to maintain balance and harmony. But he also knows that nothing is permanent, and that to yield today may, in time, lay the basis for triumph. This is in part because to the Taoist, everything has within it its opposite. Today’s liberator may be tomorrow’s tyrant. Interestingly, the paradoxes taught by Jesus Christ — the man who conquered Rome by submitting to execution by Rome — are rather Taoist, but that’s a separate story, well told in this book by an Orthodox Christian monk. [3]

Anyway, the prudent man — which is to say the virtuous man — is one who senses the currents of events, and adjusts himself to “surf” atop them (to use Noah’s metaphor). [4]Taoism, as I understand it, is not a moral code but a method. Taoism is consonant with a philosophical conservatism in that it recognizes the possibility that things we actively do to deal with an evil may lead to worse evils. Hence prudence, caution, patience. Taoism can deal with the tragic sense.

The problem with this is it can often mean accommodation to evil. The other day I finished watching The American Experience’s biography of Ronald Reagan. He was absolutely right about the evil of the Soviet Union, and those on the left and the right (the Nixonites, I mean) who feared and loathed him for opposing détente were wrong. No one can plausibly deny that now. Yet if things had gone differently with the Soviets, we would judge Reagan harshly. Reagan and his men understood that the Soviet Union was much weaker than most people realized. Their actions were not only moral, but prudent.

On a much less grand scale, one reason Newt Gingrich and his GOP upstarts forced out Rep. Bob Michel and the go-along-to-get-along House Republicans is that they sensed that the time was right to challenge the Democratic status quo. Michel was prudent to a fault, and Team Gingrich took advantage of that.


It seems to me that the point Noah Millman is making is not that we should all be Tolstoyan/Taoist in the sense that I’ve described here, but that we should recognize the virtue in that temperament, and pay more attention to it. But you have to know how to balance it with knowing when it is time to act, as opposed to refrain from acting. The problem with that in American political culture is that prudence is typically criticized as moral cowardice of one kind or another.

For example:

You think invading Iraq is imprudent? What are you, unpatriotic? Do you really believe that dictators like Saddam should go unchallenged? How dare you say that Arabs don’t deserve democracy!


You oppose same-sex marriage? What are you, some kind of bigot? So what if you think this is a huge experiment with unforeseen consequences — a right is a right, and must be fought for.


You think social conservatives should give up the fight to keep same-sex marriage illegal, and focus on religious liberty? What are you, some kind of surrender monkey? Our cause is right, and we must never, ever make peace with untruth.

You see what I mean. The thing is, nobody celebrates those whose prudent inaction kept disaster at bay, and thereby laid the groundwork for future successes. I think about Cardinal Wojtyla, in Poland, who hated communism, but did not have the power to mount an all-out assault on the regime. He bided his time, and when Providence gave him a platform, he acted, and slew that dragon. If he had not been elected Pope, and had died as a Polish cardinal under communism, and some future leader — religious or secular — emerged from within Poland to successfully challenge the communist state, would all the prudent work Cardinal Wojtyla did to keep the church alive in a time of great persecution be remembered as contributing to its eventual triumph over communism? Or would we remember Cdl. Wojtyla as a man who went along to get along?

There are always people who are moral weaklings and who collaborate with evil, or (less dramatically), fail to take a stand for what’s right when it could cost them. But not everybody who rushes passionately and heedlessly into the fray is admirable, and not everyone who waits for a better moment to act is a weakling. American politics rewards the demonstrative, not the deliberative, in part because the demonstrative makes for a better story. We forget that not every hero is conventionally heroic. We forget that sometimes, you really ought not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Tolstoy And The Tao"

#1 Comment By Clint On November 28, 2012 @ 8:24 am

“Within two weeks Kutuzov decided to give major battle on approaches to Moscow. Two huge armies clashed near Borodino on 7 September 1812 in what has been described as the greatest battle in human history up to that date, involving nearly a quarter of a million soldiers. The result of the battle was inconclusive, with a third of the French and half of the Russian army killed or wounded. After a conference at the village of Fili, Kutuzov fell back on the strategy of his predecessor, Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly: withdraw in order to save the Russian army as long as possible.
(During Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812 Barclay assumed the supreme command of the 1st Army of the West, the largest of the Russian armies facing Napoleon. He proposed the now famous scorched earth strategy of drawing the enemy deep into one’s own territory and retreated to the village of Tsaryovo-Zaimishche between Moscow and Smolensk.)

#2 Comment By em On November 28, 2012 @ 8:30 am

I have sometimes thought that Christianity (as established and expressed into Western culture and nations) took many of the exactly wrong things from the Hebrew Bible. The fact that today we have to consider it “Taoist” to act more in accord with the example and teachings of Jesus and his disciples than with ancient Israelites fighting boldly in particular situations at command of God seems like it should be absurd.

#3 Comment By Frederica Mathewes-green On November 28, 2012 @ 9:06 am

St. Alexander Nevsky is honored among the Russian Orthodox because he found ways to keep peace with the Tatars, paying tribute and soothing the excitable among the people who wanted to fight for liberty. Jesus did the same; when told of an atrocity by Pilate he directed the people’s attention to their own sins. But it wasnt so much “bide our time, and strike when Rome is weaker.” Israel was destroyed and scattered, and when Rome finally fell it did them no good at all. Well, that’s the difference–are you looking for politically wise decisions that result in a better victory, or not interested in victory at all.

#4 Comment By Cirdan On November 28, 2012 @ 9:35 am

There are always people who are moral weaklings and who collaborate with evil, or (less dramatically), fail to take a stand for what’s right when it could cost them. But not everybody who rushes passionately and heedlessly into the fray is admirable, and not everyone who waits for a better moment to act is a weakling. American politics rewards the demonstrative, not the deliberative, in part because the demonstrative makes for a better story. We forget that not every hero is conventionally heroic. We forget that sometimes, you really ought not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

This is why it strikes me as pointless to argue that what’s characteristic of conservatism is prudent restraint, indifference to serious theorising about politics, or whatever. Prudent restraint, or a feel for the unspoken but relevant facts, or even indifference to theory can all be found in resolutely non-conservative people.

What separates conservatism from other forms of political activity is the goods it pursues — inequality; domination and subordination; suspicion, if not hostile resentment of, theoretical or non-local knowledge; tribalism, and so on — not the means by which those goods are pursued. If you like inequality, then appeal to tradition is a useful way to block attempts to change it; if you like relationships of dominance and subordination, then it’s prudent to cultivate an attachment to arguments, such as those from prudence, which delay action. Very few non-conservatives prize the things conservatives pursue; the real argument is about what really is good, not what the means to pursue it might be (although conservative imperialism in regard of the virtue of prudence is deeply, deeply tiresome).

#5 Comment By Anduril On November 28, 2012 @ 9:40 am

St. Alexander Nevsky is honored among the Russian Orthodox because he found ways to keep peace with the Tatars, paying tribute and soothing the excitable among the people who wanted to fight for liberty.

Beat me to it! Our former priest, named after St. Alexander, as is my son, once gave a sermon on his feast day entitled “Alexander Nevsky: Prince of Prudence”.

#6 Comment By Elijah On November 28, 2012 @ 9:43 am

Temperament is important, but what men – like Reagan and Wotjyla – had even more of was discernment. Those men recognized evil and weren’t afraid to say so. And then act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I also think it worth remembering that Jesus ended up victorious: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

#7 Comment By Chris Atwood On November 28, 2012 @ 9:56 am

You’re confusing Tolstoy with his artistic creation Kutuzov. Tolstoy himself had no time for “prudence”; Kutuzov may have been his political ideal, but that’s because he had little time for politics, and wanted it to do as little criminal damage as possible. In the real spheres that mattered to him, Father Sergius cutting off his finger, or Pozdnyshev seeing in normal marital relations a hideous lie are expressing much more his ideals.

And to say that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was interested in “prudence” is grotesque. The Solomon of Proverbs maybe, but not the man of the gospels.

#8 Comment By Mark On November 28, 2012 @ 10:00 am

Lovely post, Rod. I’m really enjoying your blog again (I read your Crunchy Con blog several years ago). Yesterday I took a digital TAC membership, and am looking forward to exploring.

Reading the Tao was very helpful for me to really understand much of the Gospel message. When I was first exposed to the Gospel as a child and younger man, I came to it I suppose from a primarily moral perspective. So I took denying the self to be about giving away my stuff to other people because it was the right thing to do, what God expected of me. As I got older (and wasn’t noticeably improved spiritually despite doing a lot of charity work) I started to read the Tao and other things, and was able to come back to the Gospel messages and understand them in terms of true internal spiritual change, requiring a turning away from my various ego-based behaviors. And then the wisdom of denying the self and turning the other cheek made incredible sense.

It’s always inspiring to see people acting from real spiritual strength – selfless, loving, wise, prudent and other good words to describe this type of temperament. I know what you mean by a conservative temperament in this context, but the last few decades of re-branding Conservatism in the US make me wonder whether it would be better to start with a completely new vocabulary, rather than trying to redefine what the word conservative actually means. Plus, I see inner spiritual change and worldly politics as oil and water. It’s hard enough (in my experience) to cultivate that temperament in oneself and to then apply it consistently in daily living with your close relationships. But trying the same things at work, inside a major corporation for example, is much harder. And in national US politics – forget about it! Jesus wasn’t pursuing a political program for good reason.

#9 Comment By Bob Mitchell On November 28, 2012 @ 10:09 am

This is silly Isaiah Berlin has pretty definitely demonstrated that the battle scenes and Kustov himself were almost entirely influenced by de Maistre about the least Taoist person imaginable.

#10 Comment By Tony On November 28, 2012 @ 10:24 am

In Michael Lewis article “monks bearing bonds” from Vanity Fair, the lead orthodox monk has a sign on his door in Greek that states, “the wise man accepts, the fool insists”, he then says to Lewis, ” the wise man says yes, but to reality, while the fool says, no, and”, the wise man takes life as it is and builds on it, the fool insists on his own way, and makes excuses. Great article if you haven’t read it yet

#11 Comment By grendel On November 28, 2012 @ 10:29 am

apropos same-sex marriage: It is always easier to see the virtue of prudence when it is not your ox being gored.

#12 Comment By Peter On November 28, 2012 @ 10:59 am

It is true that there is much to commend in the kinds of tempermental conservatism that you and Noah Millman describe. But the danger you describe about “accommodation to evil” that accompanies such prudence is also very real.

This was one of the main frustrations of Martin Luther King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, which was provoked in large part by tempermentally conservative clergymen in 1963 who called his actions in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.” MLK’s response is a classic protest against a kind of prudence that looks a lot like the prudence you praise. Apologies for the long quote, but this is worth reading in full:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Its hard for me to tell when the prudence of tempermental conservatism is a good guide to (in)action, as in the case of Cardinal Wojtyla, or not, as in the case of the Civil Rights Movement in the early ’60s.

#13 Comment By Andrew On November 28, 2012 @ 11:01 am

The problem with this is it can often mean accommodation to evil.

One name–Platon Karatayev and through him (in War And Peace) Tolstoy’s concept of “non-resistance to evil”. Tolstoy was criticized (speaking politely) for that. Karatayev, for all his short appearance in the novel (Pierre meets him during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow and Karatayev is shot during this retreat) is one of the most controversial figures in whole Russian literature. The term “karatayevshina” is a very popular term in Russia even today. I am not going to go into this, enough to say that this term was applied lavishly, including, and especially so, by the Russian Orthodox clergy during wars in Chechnya. Well, Karatayev is as relevant today as he was when the novel was first published.

#14 Comment By Andrew On November 28, 2012 @ 11:17 am

Yet if things had gone differently with the Soviets, we would judge Reagan harshly

Rod, if things “had gone differently” we wouldn’t judge anyone, most of us would hardly be alive. Soviet Union collapsed not because of Reagan, some specific policies of his Administrations or, that is a favorite of many–of the “victory” of mujaheddin in Afghanistan, you name it–the choice of cliches and myths is very generous. Indeed, USSR collapsed because of the enormous burden of the internal problems and contradictions it carried historically and because of the gigantic Asiatic Empire it had to support. It would have happened one way or another, the issue was not if, but when. You don’t have to take my word on that, none other than George F. Kennan very specifically writes about this issue in his (pay attention to the punctuation of the title) “Republicans Won The Cold War?”

#15 Comment By Bryan On November 28, 2012 @ 11:21 am

Alright, I can’t hold my silence any longer: Tolstoy is vastly overrated. I actually HAVE read War and Peace, and it’s impressive but it’s not the product of a true genius. It’s the product of exactly what Tolstoy was: a very gifted and fortunate upper-class Russian, with immense literary ability and the sagacity and stamina to write about the huge social changes he witnessed occurring around him.

Tolstoy became more “progressive” and irreligious the older he got, and not i a good way, but mainly due to his success and trend-following. He let his popularity go to his head, and he was highly privileged by sheer fact of birth even BEFORE he enjoyed literary success.

Dostoevsky is the man you need to be reading. Or at the very least, Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons,” about–among other things–the quick jump in one generation from social order to anarchy, of a culture falling victim to its own success, is more relevant and prescient to Americans now than at any time since it was written.

And Dostoevsky was a true native genius, intellectually and, more important, morally.

#16 Comment By Daryl Davis On November 28, 2012 @ 11:42 am

It would be difficult to credibly argue that Taoist conservatism isn’t a classic oxymoron. Conservatism is the philosophical resistance to political change, a distrust of “progress.” This is not prudence: it’s intransigence.

Those who wish to live within their means, i.e. prudently, are far outnumbered by those who do not. Where here is there room for political “surfing?”

The federal system ought to be divided in such a way that the prudent may live as they wish and the imprudent the opposite — with each prohibited from imposing debt or morality upon the other:


#17 Comment By Andrew On November 28, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

And Dostoevsky was a true native genius, intellectually and, more important, morally.

I hope you understand that this is strictly your own opinion? I want to add, however, that Dostoevsky was extremely good in describing the pathologies and failures of Russian national character. This is, partially, why his texts are not an easy reading. The language is heavy.

#18 Comment By thehova83 On November 28, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

Bryan apparently wants to start a war here.

IMHO, Tolstoy is superior to Dostoevsky. Tolstoy does a much better job at constructing characters. Doesoevsky’s characters come across as slightly cartoonish and one dimminsional (nearly all are psychologically mad).

No one writes with the vividness of Tolstoy. It’s been said often, but is true. Reading Tolstoy, you feel like your experiencing life itself.

#19 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 28, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

First the Odyssey, now Tolstoy! Gad, what a horrendous pair of works to draw inspiration from.

Prudence is only a virtue to the weak. It is useful for those who do not have the power to do what they wish. So, in 1861 Lincoln caved to British demands that two representatives of the Slaveholders Union be returned to them, but by 1864, when the Union could have smashed both the British and the South, threatened war over the Laird rams and the British, knowing they would be beaten, caved. (There was a report to the British Home Office done at the end of 1863 on the ability of the UK to intervene in the War of the Slaveholders Rebellion and it basically said that they would certainly lose Bermuda and probably Canada, as well as the impossiblility of mounting any naval action, ie blockade, agains the United States in the face of the coastal ironclads.)

Prudence may be useful in some circumstance, but when the power to act is there, it is the virtue of the coward and the fool, and rightly despised by all men of courage.

#20 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 28, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

I have not read any Russian literature. I passively follow the lead of Robert Heinlein, whose wife learned Russian to read the authors in their original writing. Her opinion was that they all were improved via translation. 😉

The fundamental concept in Taoism is balance. It is by no means original to that belief system. It is though, an exemplar of consistency in teaching its adherents to be always conscious (mindful, young padawan) of balance.

I find Rod’s invocation of “prudence” an excellent choice. My favorite soapbox topic is our society’s abandonment of the concept of “enough”. It resides somewhere between subsistence (or worse) and luxury. It used to be the hallmark of the middle class.

A bit pompously taking on the tone of the Taoist philosopher: The prudent man does not fail to take action. The prudent man maintains inaction as a possible alternative, and weighs the costs and benefits accordingly.

#21 Comment By Church Lady On November 28, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

A couple of things:

First, I like your Taoist analogy, it goes well with the surfer dude thing. But let’s be honest, this is not conservatism as we know it in the West, which is of course fixated on the “unchanging things”. Western conservatives actually believe that there are some truth that are immutable and unchanging, even in relation to all the things that change. Taoism only believes in the Tao itself, which is always changing, never the same, and not immutable. This is liberalism in action, if anything. It’s liberals who think that everything is relative, and that we have to constantly adjust our values and action in relation to present conditions, and change them as the times change. I get the sense that you want to find some way to describe Kutusov as a conservative, simply because you really like him, and you identify yourself as a conservative. One more reason to say that you are still, at heart, a 19th century Russian liberal.

Also, detente with Russia in the 1970s was not a bad thing at all. It demonstrably helped the international situation in many ways, which proved particularly useful during crises like the 1973 Yom Kippur war. By the late 1970s, detente had pretty much fallen apart, as signaled by the invasion of Afghanistan. But that didn’t mean it was a mistake. It just means that a new wave rolled in, and the players had to adjust.

Also, the Pope is not the guy who ended the Cold War. He played a minor role, to be sure, but even the Polish situation didn’t do much to end that standoff. Solidarity’s revolt failed. The Soviets crumbled from within, not from without. The internal contradictions and economic failures of communism brought about its collapse. And that was not accomplished by Catholicism, but by George Kennan’s containment policy.

#22 Comment By Church Lady On November 28, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

You want Russian conservative literature, read Gogol.

#23 Comment By Bob Mitchell On November 28, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

A quick update to the Kennan fans on this board. Kennan’s containment idea was operative basically from the issuance of NSC Decree 68 until the election of Eisenhower on the explicit policy of rollback rather than containment. That was basically two years. It is important to delve deep into history rather than just pick the parts hand fed to you in your history textbooks.

#24 Comment By Rambler88 On November 28, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

I don’t think there’s any ideological content in Taoism that could mitigate against its value for conservatives, or that aligns Taoism more with liberalism than with conservatism (or vice versa). Taoism is about intellectual discipline, about recognizing the limitation of categories. If it can be used (via Zen) as a fruitful paradigm for the art of swordsmanship*, it can certainly be applied widely from any political perspective.

This aspect of Taoism/Zen provides some guidance for applying the old Greek maxim “Nothing too much”, which was reflected in Aristotle’s theory that every virtue is a mean between two vices. (Note that this leaves no room for “sin” as a fundamental metaphysical category, though it does not exclude moral responsibility in terms of a practical distinction between culpable mistakes (cardinal or venial) and more or less wise and good actions.) Socrates added another vital point by equating virtue with knowledge–the ability to make moral decisions in the real world is often strongly facilitated by a degree of practical knowledge that many do not possess. (Socrates, as distinct from Plato, placed a high value on practical knowledge.) A modern philosophy that develops this manner of thinking is the school known as American Pragmatism.

One of the first political lessons of Taoism, in fact, is the limited usefulness of the opposition conservative/liberal. No intelligent conservative embarks on a suicidal war to “conserve” something. No intelligent liberal gives away the farm. People do these things, but they are ignorant and foolish first, and conservatives/liberals second.

* For example, Yagyu, Munenori (1571-1646). The Sword and the Mind (Heiho Kaden Sho). NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004 (reprint of original publication, Overlook Press, 1985). The book requires some effort (and some experience with swordsmanship helps), but it helped me greatly to grasp the practical nature and application of Zen, and its relationship with other modes of thought.

#25 Comment By Church Lady On November 28, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

Bob, that would be news not just to Kennan and most others involved on our side, but everyone living in eastern Europe as well. Containment was never abandoned, and rollback never attempted. Hungary in 1956? Czechoslovakia in 1968? Come on, dude, there’s no question that we continued the general plan of containment all the way to the end, and never tried to roll back the Iron Curtain. Even in Korea and South Vietnam, all we ever did was resist expansion. We never actually tried to take over the North of either divided nation.

#26 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 28, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

It is a well-known but rarely discussed fact that Homer Simpson is actually saying “Dao” but pronouncing it very badly. One should notice that he says it, mostly, just after being imprudent. 😉

#27 Comment By Bryan On November 28, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

Andrew, I suppose my answer would be that–aside from direct quotation–I don’t really believe in “fact” when it comes to historical literary analysis so, yes, of course I understand that my opinion is just my opinion.

And the “pathologies and failures of the Russian national character” to my mind extend far beyond Russia; that’s why I describe Dostoevsky as a “moral genius.” I would certainly not claim that his own personal morality was exemplary, only his power of discernment and description.

Hova83, I just can’t agree.

I will disclaim, however, by saying that as I get older and as I study classical languages more, I am more reluctant to opine strongly on work in translation. And since I don’t read Russian I can’t really get too passionate on this particular topic.

But as far as English translations go, Tolstoy just never spoke to me. Dostoevsky’s writing seems far more vivid and human. Then again, I have surely been judged by some to be more than a little cartoonish and mad myself, so it might depend on how one’s own life has unfolded.

And again, I have only read the one work by Turgenev–“Fathers and Sons”–but I highly recommend it to fans of Russian lit.

#28 Comment By Bob Mitchell On November 29, 2012 @ 1:01 am

Classic liberal sneering. I imagine that in the Cold War your side and my side really weren’t the same so maybe it is news to your side. Luckily Arbenz, Allende, and Mossadegh learned first hand that roll back was a reality. Just out of curiosity how many continents do you think there are? The examples you listed are both in Europe; there are other continents. Fortunately for you the United States, the CIA et. al did not make your same mistake. Rollback was all about pushing back against Khrushchev’s policy of moving the communist struggle into the Third World.

To pile on, the whole reason the United States was unable to intervene in Hungary was because Secretary of State Dulles, in rejecting the conventional deterrence favored by Kennan, opted to finance SAC in order to bolster our nuclear detterence. I guess you don’t learn this on your side, nuance has never been a liberal strong point, but deterrence and containment were not the same thing. Indeed, Kennan was opposed to nuclear deterrence. Deterrence and rollback were adopted as alternative and complementary strategies with deterrence meant to stabilize the European front and rollback configured to confront communism in the new emerging theaters of the Third World. The adoption of nuclear deterrence at the expense of conventional forces meant rollback in the European theater was impossible. So sneering about Hungary basically proves my point.

Kennan became irrelevant when Stalin died because his analysis of Russian communism was really an analysis of Stalinism. Khrushchev, as you may recall, took power with an explicit repudiation of Stalinism at home and a commitment of Communist expansion abroad. To confront that we used rollback to overthrow pro-Soviet rulers that were attempting to facilitate that spread. That’s why your two examples likewise don’t disprove rollback. Of course rollback wasn’t implemented in every situation, but then again which ultimately played a bigger role in the post-war geopolitical universe Hungary or Iran. Honestly, no one on earth, with the exception of James Burnham, was suggesting rolling back the Eastern Block.

#29 Comment By Church Lady On November 29, 2012 @ 6:28 am

bob, you are simply not understanding what “rollback” means. It refers to actually trying to take back the countries the Soviets had occupied and established control over following WWII. That’s what Kennan’s policy was directed at. It also involved containment of Soviet and communist expansionism around the world. So in practice it meant accepting Soviet domination in eastern Europe, but resisting, and even fighting, in places around the world where they were trying to expand their influence. That’s what containment means. So our efforts to quickly reverse even semi-democratic communist expansion in Iran and Chile were not examples of rollback, but of containment policy. As were the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

We simply never made a serious effort to roll back Soviet domination of eastern europe. We did, as part of our containment strategy, fight Soviet expansionism, obviously to keep them contained. But trying to define that as “rollback” is just semantic nonsense. The accepted boundaries of Soviet influence were set in place at the time Kennan’s strategy was developed. Containment meant keeping the Soviet influence within those acceptable boundaries, and not rolling them back. It didn’t mean that any time the Soviets gained some victory in their efforts to expand their influence, that was the new “accepted boundary”, and that any efforts to turn that back was now “rollback”. Far from it. Those were precisely the areas that Kennan felt we should fight in, and could do so without risking major war, because even the Soviets accepted that these areas did not represent a major threat to their own security, but only to their plans for expansion.

The basis for accepting the post-war Soviet spheres of influence was that Kennan understood that the Soviets saw these as essential to their own security, and the fight for them would inevitably lead to world war III. They had ambitions beyond their own security, however, and these we could fight without fear of them escalating into world war. These were called proxie wars. They were never extended into actual rollback past the original post-war spheres of influence.

#30 Comment By thehova On November 30, 2012 @ 11:46 am

“I will disclaim, however, by saying that as I get older and as I study classical languages more, I am more reluctant to opine strongly on work in translation. And since I don’t read Russian I can’t really get too passionate on this particular topic. ”

That is the truth. I have heard that Tolstoy translates much better into English than Dostoevsky (who, don’t get me wrong, I love. He grapples with the big philosophical/religious issues of modernity more than Tolstoy who does get a bit obsessed with causation in W&P :)).

#31 Comment By John On July 23, 2015 @ 12:45 am

The suggestion that Taoism “recognizes the possibility that things we actively do to deal with an evil may lead to worse evils.” is really a fair representation of what is found within the Tao Te Ching. However, it would be misleading to assert that is a central tenant of taoism or that as a result taoism is necessarily more closely aligned with philosophical conservatism.

Fundamentally, Lao Tzu rejects the idea that one can even follow the true path let alone grasp it – if one *is* following the true path, then it’s not the true path, because, well, you’re a human being and that’s not something human beings are capable of.

So in many parts, the advice is to let go rather than try hard to follow some ‘truth’. Want to rule a country? That’s a delicate thing, like cooking a very small tender fish. If you’re really good at it, people think they did everything by themselves. The nature of life? Hard to say, but since things close to the beginning of life are soft and flexible, and things near the end of life are stiff and rigid, life must be more about being flexible than inflexible. Taoism doesn’t really sound much like philosophical conservatism at that point.

Because of Lao Tzu’s rejection of the validity of the human being’s capacity to truly grasp the nature of reality, Taoism neither fits nor aligns well more to any philosophical framework versus another; but it also gets along well with many others. Possibly also because if you read it carefully, you’ll notice that Lao Tzu doesn’t take himself as seriously as does say the Buddha or Confucius – after all he starts out asserting that a human can’t really follow the True Path anyway, and he is also a human. So there.

There’s an interesting painting which kind of illustrates the point called the Vinegar Tasters. In it, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Confucius are all tasting vinegar – a metaphor for the difficulties of Life. The Buddha, believing that suffering is a necessary part of life, has a serious face. Confucius, believing that following strict set of social rules will help us avoid or lessen the problems the life brings to us, also has a serious expression. So the Buddha and Confucius both tacitly acknowledge that life is sour unless you do something about it by either following some true path or working to improve it, respectively.

Lao Tzu is snickering because, well, that’s life.