Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 2

with one comment

Almost a year ago, on the morning of the inauguration, I wrote on this blog: “Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable.” That’s true not just of this election, but of human existence in general. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in The Hedgehog and the Fox: “Practical wisdom is to a large degree knowledge of the inevitable; of what, given our world order, could not but happen; and conversely, of how things cannot be, or could not have been, done; of why some schemes must, cannot help but, end in failure, although for this no demonstrative or scientific reason can be given.” The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same. In his discussion of Tolstoy’s view of war, Berlin brilliantly skewers the fallacy of so much of this kind of political and historical analysis:

With great force [Tolstoy] argues that only those orders or decisions issued by the commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavorable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.

All history, to some extent, consists of retroactively picking out explanations that happen to fit with what actually happened, and since we tend to think in terms of narratives and protagonists, perhaps the most common model of all is the myth of the great man—and the gender isn’t an accident. Tolstoy is rightfully contemptuous of this whole notion, as Berlin notes:

There is a natural law whereby the lives of all human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but…men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues and heroic vices, and called by them “great men.” What are great men? They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their will and ideals.

Any individuals who believe that they can somehow influence the course of events are gravely mistaken, and Tolstoy devotes much of War and Peace to the castigation of “these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths…[and] all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness.”

And it’s revealing that Tolstoy reserves his greatest scorn for the one person whom we’d be least likely to describe in such terms. His portrait of Napoleon is both hilariously unfair and not entirely inaccurate, and although any such comparison is inherently ridiculous, it’s hard not to read this description without thinking of Trump:

[Napoleon spoke] like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well…It was plain that Balashëv’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will…The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words. The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander—just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview…He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.

And a little while later, we read: “It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

There are moments when Tolstoy deliberately takes this portrait too far, as Berlin writes of the views of the historian Nikolai Kareyev: “Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals…have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.” This rings true of both Napoleon and Trump. But so does the following passage, in which Berlin goes beyond the hedgehog and the fox to uncover an animal that has been lurking in the background:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter—a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

If Jared Kushner had actually read The Hedgehog and the Fox, I’d like to think that these lines would have given him pause, if only for a second. Tomorrow, I’ll conclude by considering what Tolstoy and Berlin have to say about the problem—which Kushner should be taking especially seriously these days—of “how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise,” and whether it’s at all possible to predict what might come next.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

One Response

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  1. “The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same.”

    This is how I see it. A reactionary, pseudo-populist demagogue like Trump seems to have been inevitable, one way or another. The general pattern was all too predictable — based on the political climate, economic data, demographic shifts, and public polling.

    Still, the election was for Clinton to lose. And one of Clinton’s talents was losing when she had so many advantages. But that is part of the situation we are in, the overconfidence and arrogance of the ruling establishment in being utterly disconnected from most Americans.

    Times like these tend to produce ‘leaders’ like Trump and Clinton. Even if Clinton had managed to win, it wouldn’t really have changed anything. Instead of Trump, we eventually would have gotten someone worse. It’s better to resolve these issues now than to let them fester.

    Benjamin David Steele

    November 28, 2017 at 8:23 am

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