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Tolstoyan Conservatism

Noah Millman has three new posts up that, to my way of thinking, show why TAC is such a great read. The first, based on Noah’s recent read of War and Peace, is about contemporary politics in light of Tolstoy’s view of history. The second explores Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and what it has to tell us about the kind of conservatism our own time and place need. Noah’s third discusses how Tolstoyan conservatism, in the sense that he means in the first post, is not something confined to the political right, but is more about cultivating a particular temperament — one that is, Noah concedes, alien to both the left-wing and right-wing parties in America.

I’ve never read War and Peace, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Noah’s take on the Kutozov character. But this part of his second post interests me:

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.

Again, Noah says in his subsequent post that both the left-wing and the right-wing parties in the US need their Kutusovs, even as the forces within both parties are arrayed in such a way as to prevent Kutusovs from emerging.

It seems to me that the “truth” that Tolstoy articulates about society’s Kutusovs is, above all, they value the underappreciated conservative virtue of prudence. Here’s what Russell Kirk said about prudence and conservatism:

Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

Last night I visited a home in which the people there were watching the Hannity program on Fox. They had the sound off so we could talk. I saw on the screen the host interviewing Tucker Carlson and someone I didn’t recognize, and the banner across the bottom of the screen read “Liberal Hypocrisy.” I had no idea what they were talking about, but I thought, “Who needs that crap?” It could well be that Hannity and his guests were completely correct that liberals are hypocrites on whatever was at issue. My point, though, is that I have no patience for or interest in a politics that conducts discussion under the banner, “Liberal Hypocrisy.” And of course I would say the same thing if this were MSNBC denouncing “Conservative Hypocrisy.”

Noah is correct to point out that nobody turns out voters to win elections by being Kutusov. If we think the point of our political philosophy is the acquisition of power, not the exercise of wisdom, then Kutusovism (now there’s a clunky term) is a loser. But what are the qualities of the victories we gain for ourselves by following the opposite path, the popular path? We never seem to think about that. Kutusov would be terrible on Fox News and MSNBC, because he says, “It’s not as simple as you think it is,” and nobody wants to hear that. It seems to me that in a political environment characterized by ideology, people make three characteristic mistakes:

1. They mistake politics for religion;

2. They mistake emoting for thinking;

3. They mistake wisdom and prudence for political weakness.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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