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Wu Wei and Prudence

Rod Dreher’s most recent post gets at some of what I was striving for in my last three reflections on Tolstoy’s novel, and the character of Kutuzov. But I think the word, “prudence” may not be precisely the right one for the quality we’re getting at. There’s a Taoist expression, wu wei, which is frequently translated […]

Rod Dreher’s most recent post gets at some of what I was striving for in my last three reflections on Tolstoy’s novel, and the character of Kutuzov. But I think the word, “prudence” may not be precisely the right one for the quality we’re getting at.

There’s a Taoist expression, wu wei, which is frequently translated as “non-action,” but it doesn’t mean inertness. It’s also sometimes described as “action in harmony with nature,” but while there’s something to that translation, it doesn’t capture the negativity of the expression. The underlying idea is that there is an objective flow to reality, which can be better sensed if we allow our conscious selves to recede. Action contrary to that flow produces resistance; moving with the flow is moving without resistance. And Taoism is a method for reducing resistance. You could characterize this as “prudence” or “practical reason” or “wisdom,” but I think that the concept is more specific than that.

Tolstoy uses this basic premise – of an objective flow that he calls “necessity” – to argue that command itself is an illusion. Napoleon is the consummate man of action, imposing his will on the world, but Tolstoy’s portrait is of a man blithely unaware that he is in command of nothing, imposing his will on nothing. Tolstoy doesn’t just argue that Napoleon’s actions produced resistance, and in that sense were futile; he argues that Napoleon was deluded to think his commands were actions of any significance at all – that they caused things to happen. Rather, he claims that Napoleon, like everyone, is controlled by events rather than being the master of them. He may issue commands, but they are only obeyed when it is possible to obey; when it is not possible, or when the commands are never actually heard, they are ignored. And they are usually ignored. Napoleon may think it is his genius that enabled him to conquer Europe, but it was the independent actions of millions of individuals that enabled him to say, “I conquered Europe,” and those actions were only dimly related to any commands of Napoleons – and, on top of that, those commands were themselves the necessary product of contingencies over which Napoleon himself had no control.

There is no individual hero in Tolstoy’s novel, but Kutuzov, who isn’t nearly as important a character as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky or Count Pierre Bezuhov or a dozen other characters, stands out as, to some degree, Napoleon’s opposite. He’s the opposite not just because he is drunk or falling asleep more often than not – which he is – but because, deep down, he recognizes the truth about his own insignificance that Napoleon is profoundly ignorant of. And so the commands he issues, when he bothers to issue any, are to do precisely what is already in the process of being done. Tolstoy’s Kutuzov “goes with the flow” not merely in the sense that he prudently knows when to attack and when to hold back, but in the sense that he is aware that he isn’t really deciding whether an attack will happen or not. Even though he is commander of the Russian Army, he sees himself as only able to influence the behavior of that army at the margins.

Rod Dreher worries about accommodation to evil, because he’s right that the “way” of non-doing doesn’t really have anything to say about when resistance is the only moral stance. But his examples of what proper resistance looks like deserve further examination. He says that Reagan was unquestionably right in standing up to the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union was weaker than we thought, and crumbled only a few years after he began his military buildup. But consider: if the Soviet Union really was weaker than generally thought when Reagan came into office, then it was weaker after a decade of détente. How does that fact discredit détente as a strategy? Indeed, it’s at least as logical to say that, now that we know the Soviet Union was so weak, our Cold War strategy was unnecessarily aggressive all along. That’s certainly the conclusion that Andrew Bacevich drew.

Tolstoy would look at the assertion that Reagan brought down the Evil Empire and say: no he didn’t. The individual decisions by millions of Russians, Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Germans, etc. brought down the Evil Empire, and the relationship between those individual actions and the action of any one man is obscure – and, moreover, anything Reagan did that was significant was overwhelmingly likely to have been done by someone else in his place at that time, because those actions were forced choices, driven by necessity, even if we don’t fully understand the laws thereof.

Rod gets at this in his reflections on a hypothetical Cardinal Wojtyla who never became Pope:

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?

Undoubtedly we would – but what does that say about the significance of his being Pope? If you accept the Tolstoyan view that the dragon was slain when it was ready to be slain, and that therefore someone was going to slay it, then our perception that Pope John Paul II was a dragon-slayer is, to a considerable degree, an illusion, inasmuch as it was not any particular genius or charism of his that caused the dragon to die.

I don’t think this perspective requires you to ignore evil – far from it. Dreher is right that this perspective doesn’t tell you what evil or good is, and I suspect that Tolstoy would agree – and would argue that good is love for God and those created in His image, full stop. Put those two ideas together – Tolstoy’s powerful brief for historical necessity and against the idea of the “great man of history,” and Tolstoy’s conviction that love of God, expressed through love of our neighbors, is all that is good – and you are well on the way to Tolstoy’s radical political ideas, which cannot, I think, be described as “prudent.”

Am I a Tolstoyan? No – I can’t, myself, endorse this view of reality. I may be too attached to the conceit of my own significance. But I find it an exceptionally useful corrective for Americans, with their extraordinarily high regard for individual potency.

(By the way: my reflections were on Tolstoy’s Kutuzov, the character, not the real man, about whom I know very little apart from what I learned from Tolstoy, and I am not so foolish as to trust even Tolstoy’s portrait as a perfect guide to the life. I will say, though, that Tolstoy was well-aware of some of the charges leveled against Kutuzov by my commenters: he knows he was a drunk, knows he spent much of his time asleep, knows he was despised by the Tsar, etc. He knows that Russia’s army was cut in two at Borodino, that the battle achieved no obvious strategic purpose and, indeed, that the battle of Borodino was not even fought according to plan. He knows that many claimed Kutuzov was only following Barclay de Tolly’s plan, that he was a time-server and a flatterer, etc. Whether Tolstoy’s response to these charges is persuasive or accurate is another matter.)



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