Friday, November 18, 2011

"War and Peace" and the Dao

I just got finished reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace for something like the tenth time (I've lost track.) As before, I found more to it than I had gained from previous readings. Since I know that for the overwhelming number of people it is considered an impossibly long, abstruse book, I thought that I'd share a little of why I love the book so much, and why I would suggest that the themes that Tolstoy discusses should interest Daoists.

 Most of my readers probably don't know much about Leo Tolstoy, but he was an absolutely amazing person. He was born into one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families in Russia. As a young man, he gambled and whored away most of his family fortune. Bored with this life, he decided to join the army and ended up fighting in Chechnya. Returning from the war, he took up writing and was recognized as an "up and coming" writer at the age of 24. He produced an astounding amount of work: 24 novels and novellas, many short stories, 6 plays and 9 non-fiction books. As if this wasn't enough, he did this while being a very successful farm manager and while working at various projects to improve the life of his peasants and humanity in general. (The Doukhobors who live in the West of Canada had half of their passage fare from Russia paid by Tolstoy.)

Tolstoy also emerged as a major thinker in how to change society through peaceful means. His writings so impressed Mohandas Gandhi that he wrote directly to Tolstoy to ask if he could reprint A Letter to a Hindu that he had written to another member of the independence movement. His ideas on Christian anarchism have influenced people up to this day, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. (Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he mentions that he had a copy when he was in prison at Robben Island, which he read many times.)

The book itself deals both with the private lives of various people, primarily Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukov, and, Napoleon's wars with Russia.   Tolstoy attempts with his novel to create a grand theory of history and explain how people's private lives fit into it. One theme that he illustrates over and over again is how even though people naively believe that specific decisions are made by "great" individuals, what really happens is that web all get swept along by circumstances.

One early simple example comes from a battle.  A group of soldiers is attacked by some French cavalry.  A sergeant yells out to the men to run into some trees or else the horsemen will slaughter them.  Later on,  a colonel gets a medal for ordering his men to go into the woods, thereby saving them.   The officer is loath to turn down a medal, so he lets everyone believe that he is a hero.

Tolstoy believed that not only does fate (or, as I would say, the Dao) control history, what little control we have over our lives diminishes as we become more and more important in the grand scheme of things.  A sergeant may be able to yell out to his men to run into the trees, but a leader like Napoleon is hemmed-in by the forces beyond his control.

 Tolstoy illustrates this point by pointing out that Napoleon seemed incapable of controlling his men once then entered Moscow.  He couldn't stop the looting that destroyed all the supplies that the army needed to survive the winter. When the retreat started, he couldn't stop the army from bunching up from fear of Russian partisans, which destroyed its ability to forage for supplies.  He couldn't stop the army from trying to carry back all the loot it had gotten from Moscow, which encumbered its supply train and killed all its horses.  And he couldn't slow the column down.  (Tolstoy writes that most of the soldiers were so terrified of the Russians that they marched at the astounding pace of 25 miles per day all the way from Moscow to the border.  He maintains that this pace is what killed most of the Grand Army of Europe and many of the Russian troops who chased them attempting to do battle.)

In contrast, Pierre, who was travelling as a prisoner in the Napoleon's column for part of the trip found himself "free" for the first time in his life.  He was barefoot and living on horse meat, at the beck and call of is guards, but he found for the first time in his life that he was master of his own thoughts.  He got up when the guards told him to, slept as soon as he laid himself down, and, when something unpleasant came to his mind, learned he could just divert his attention and be free as a bird.  A man who has control over his mind is free, whereas a man who is "in charge" is imprisoned by the illusion of his own importance.  Pierre's experience is that of a Daoist who frees himself from the "land of dust".

While Pierre is a captive of the French he becomes friends with private who the French pulled from an army hospital (he was sick with a fever):  Platon Krataev.  Krataev is a representative of the "good peasant" that Tolstoy held so dear.  Krataev is filled with pithy sayings that Pierre finds apropos to the issues he faces as a captive.  He is also fatalistic and humble.  He "takes life as it comes" and adapts to the circumstances without complaint.  Eventually Krataev is too sick to keep up with the column, so the French murder him.  But Pierre is so impressed by his example that long after the war is over, and Pierre is a happily married wealthy aristocrat, his wife can draw him short on a scheme of his by simply asking him "What would Platon Krataev think of this idea?"  I believe that Platon Krataev is a pretty good example of what Daoists would call an "uncarved block".

In contrast to Napoleon's false "heroic" style of leadership, Tolstoy's real hero is Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov .  Whereas Napoleon is shown as an arrogant, pompous fool in love with grand gestures and who makes big plans about battles.  Kutuzov is shown as an old man who does as little as he possibly can to "get in the way" of his soldiers.  His genius consists in what he doesn't do, not in what he does do.  He understands that once the French invade Russia, his job is to control the enthusiasm of his men, who want nothing more than to tear the Grande Armee to pieces.   Battle between the French and Russians finally came about at Borodino, where even though the Russians left the field Kutuzov considered his men to have won a huge victory.

This is an important point for Tolstoy.  Kutuzov saw it as a victory because even though the troops were not deployed ideally, they refused to break and run like all the other armies of Europe had done in the face of Napoleon.  Instead, they simply fought off the French and if driven from a part of the field regrouped and retook it.  Eventually, simply because of lack of supplies the Russians had to leave.  But they didn't run away in a route, they simply retreated back down the road towards Moscow.  The Russians not only proved that they were as good or better than the French, the French knew it too.  That was why they retreated so quickly and in a disorganized mass instead of an organized army.

The secret as Tolstoy writes is that Kutuzov understood that he was fighting a "people's war" where every single member of Russian society was totally mobilized to resist the French.  The aristocrats refused to stay behind in occupied territory and "make nice" with the French.  The storekeepers handed out all their goods to Russian soldiers for free and burnt what was left, rather than sell to the French.  The peasants left their land and refused to sell food.  The Tsar himself in one passage says that he will retreat to Siberia and grow his own potatoes before he will sign a peace treaty with Napoleon.

The point that Kutuzov and Tolstoy understand is that people can only be oppressed if they agree to participate in their own oppression.  Men who will not make any accommodation to the people who occupy their nation will not be occupied long.   (This is exactly the point that Gandhi understood about the British occupation of India.)  Kutuzov's behaviour as described in War and Peace is a perfect example of Wu Wei.

Pierre is oppressed from having married an terrible woman, Helene, early after he inherited his title and enormous wealth.  She is very beautiful and uses sex to create a fashionable "salon" in St. Petersburg society.  She is portayed as vain, ambitious, takes lovers, and very clearly only marries the naive Pierre for his money and title.  Eventually she dies from what is implied to be a botched abortion.  Yet before he finds out that she has died, which sets him free to marry a woman he clearly loves, Pierre gains the realization that he loves Helene as he loves everyone.  He says "why should I blame her for wanting to live the life that she wants?"

This insight comes from a dream that Pierre experiences while in French captivity.  He finds himself in a study with his Swiss tutor from his student days.  He is looking at a globe.  It appears to be somewhat "fuzzy" in that it's edges seems to be moving.  On closer inspection, he realizes that the globe is composed of billions of living things----the people, plants and animals that inhabit the earth.  He hear's his tutors voice in his ears "God doesn't live up the sky.  God is Everything."   Pierre realizes that God loves everything and he should love everything else, because we are all God.  The realization about his wife is just putting this grand vision into practical effect.

It is easy for modern people who are badly poisoned by the modern versions of religion that we have had inflicted upon us to grind our teeth and shudder at any mention of the word "God".  Which might turn a lot of people off of Tolstoy.  But he is meaning the term in a very specific way, one that is a lot more like the "DAO" than Jimmy Swaggard or Pat Roberston.  Indeed, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox church.  (I don't really think I like the DAO type of Daoism, myself.  I'm more likely to see the Dao is "that's just the way it is" rather than build some sort of giant theology around the concept, but I still really like Tolstoy and think that this is more of a quibble than anything else.)

I could go on and on about this book.  But I've already had my software erase this blog once and have to rebuild it.  I do hope that I will encourage some people to make the effort to read War and Peace .  I think someone interested in learning about Daoism would be better off doing this than trying to find some hidden gems of wisdom in their one hundred reading of the Dao De Jing.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very interesting commentary on War and Peace. I have been reading it for the first time through 2012, and also practising Tai Chi.

Like you I have also been very interested in the Taoism concepts within War and Peace. Did you know that Tolstoy collaborated on a Russian translation of the Tao Te Ching some years after War and Peace?

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks very much for that information about the DDJ. That doesn't surprise me, as he does have a few quotations from Daoists sprinkled through his "Calendar of Wisdom".

Reading through the blog post got me rethinking about the death of Platenov again. I remember at the time that Pierre was strangely distant with him as the guards pulled him off to be shot.

I just reread Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha". Hesse argues that wisdom cannot come from disengaging from life, but rather by connecting. He doesn't have the lead character become a realized man until he has a son that breaks his heart and he lives through all the emotions of the "childish people".

I can't even begin to imagine how guys like Tolstoy and Hesse could create these stories-----. Thanks for the kind comment.