Niebuhr and Tolstoy

January 31, 2021

I keep running back into “War and Peace”, in my re-read of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society“.

This is from chapter 1:

The growing intelligence of mankind and the increased responsibility of monarchs to their people have placed a check upon the caprice, but not upon the self-interest, of the men of power. They may still engage in social conflict for the satisfaction of their pride and vanity provided they can compound their personal ambitions with, and hallow them by, the ambitions of their group, and the pitiful vanities and passions of the individuals who compose the group. The story of Napoleon belongs to modern and not to ancient history. He could bathe Europe in blood for the sake of gratifying his overweening lust for power, as long as he could pose as the tool of French patriotism and as the instrument of revolutionary fervor. The fact that the democratic sentiment, opposed to the traditional absolutisms of Europe, could be exploited to create a tyranny more sanguinary and terrible than those which it sought ostensibly to destroy; and that the dream of equality, liberty and fraternity of the French Revolution could turn so quickly into the nightmare of Napoleonic imperialism is a tragic revelation of the inadequacies of the human resources with which men must try to solve the problems of their social life. The childish vanity of the German Emperor, who wanted a large navy so that he could stand on equal footing with his royal English uncle at naval manœuvres, helped to make the World War inevitable. He would not have been permitted to indulge this vanity however had it not seemed compatible with the prejudices of his people and the economic necessities of a growing empire. Theodore Roosevelt belonged to a little junta which foisted the Spanish-American War upon the American people. The ambition and vanity which prompted him could be veiled and exalted because the will-to-power of an adolescent nation and the frustrated impulses of pugnacity and martial ardor of the pitiful little “men in the street” could find in him symbolic expression and vicarious satisfaction. The need of the modern industrial overlord for raw materials and markets, and rivalry over control of the undeveloped and unexploited portions of the earth are the occasion of modern wars.

And in chapter 10 a passage about Tolstoy the man:

The effort to apply the doctrines of Tolstoi to the political situation of Russia had a very similar effect. Tolstoi and his disciples felt that the Russian peasants would have the best opportunity for victory over their oppressors if they did not become stained with the guilt of the same violence which the czarist regime used against them. The peasants were to return good for evil, and win their battles by non-resistance. Unlike the policies of Gandhi, the political programme of Tolstoi remained altogether unrealistic. No effort was made to relate the religious ideal of love to the political necessity of coercion. Its total effect was therefore socially and politically deleterious. It helped to destroy a rising protest against political and economic oppression and to confirm the Russian in his pessimistic passivity. The excesses of the terrorists seemed to give point to the Tolstoian opposition to violence and resistance. But the terrorists and the pacifists finally ended in the same futility. And their common futility seemed to justify the pessimism which saw no escape from the traditional injustices of the Russian political and economic system. The real fact was that both sprang from a romantic middle-class or aristocratic idealism, too individualistic in each instance to achieve political effectiveness. The terrorists were diseased idealists, so morbidly oppressed by the guilt of violence resting upon their class, that they imagined it possible to atone for that guilt by deliberately incurring guilt in championing the oppressed. Their ideas were ethical and, to a degree, religious, though they regarded themselves as irreligious. The political effectiveness of their violence was a secondary consideration. The Tolstoian pacifists attempted the solution of the social problem by diametrically opposite policies. But, in common with the terrorists, their attitudes sprang from the conscience of disquieted individuals. Neither of them understood the realities of political life because neither had an appreciation for the significant characteristics of collective behavior. The romantic terrorists failed to relate their isolated acts of terror to any consistent political plan. The pacifists, on the other hand, erroneously attributed political potency to pure non-resistance.

It’s interesting to compare Tolstoy to Pierre, in this passage at the beginning of Vol. II, Part III, chapter 1:

All the plans Pierre had attempted on his estates—and constantly changing from one thing to another had never accomplished—were carried out by Prince Andrew without display and without perceptible difficulty.

He had in the highest degree a practical tenacity which Pierre lacked, and without fuss or strain on his part this set things going.

On one of his estates the three hundred serfs were liberated and became free agricultural laborers—this being one of the first examples of the kind in Russia. On other estates the serfs’ compulsory labor was commuted for a quitrent. A trained midwife was engaged for Boguchárovo at his expense, and a priest was paid to teach reading and writing to the children of the peasants and household serfs.

Prince Andrew spent half his time at Bald Hills with his father and his son, who was still in the care of nurses. The other half he spent in “Boguchárovo Cloister,” as his father called Prince Andrew’s estate. Despite the indifference to the affairs of the world he had expressed to Pierre, he diligently followed all that went on, received many books, and to his surprise noticed that when he or his father had visitors from Petersburg, the very vortex of life, these people lagged behind himself—who never left the country—in knowledge of what was happening in home and foreign affairs.

So Pierre is a fox like Tolstoy, who seems to suspect that lack of worldly success may result from lack of focus (but in this he may have been wrong:  see David Epstein’s “Range”).

Four chapters later Tolstoy adds:

Prince Andrew was most favorably placed to secure good reception in the highest and most diverse Petersburg circles of the day. The reforming party cordially welcomed and courted him, in the first place because he was reputed to be clever and very well read, and secondly because by liberating his serfs he had obtained the reputation of being a liberal. The party of the old and dissatisfied, who censured the innovations, turned to him expecting his sympathy in their disapproval of the reforms, simply because he was the son of his father. The feminine society world welcomed him gladly, because he was rich, distinguished, a good match, and almost a newcomer, with a halo of romance on account of his supposed death and the tragic loss of his wife. Besides this the general opinion of all who had known him previously was that he had greatly improved during these last five years, having softened and grown more manly, lost his former affectation, pride, and contemptuous irony, and Cacquired the serenity that comes with years. People talked about him, were interested in him, and wanted to meet him.

Andrey has some ability to get things done politically.  Tolstoy in his late years, referred to by Niebuhr, seems to be more of an idealist than a man of practical political action.  More of a hedgehog, even, though admittedly I still know little about Tolstoy’s biography.

I’ve only just finished Tolstoy’s “Confession”, most of which he wrote in 1879, at the age of 54, having published “Anna Karenina” the year before; “Confession” began that last phase of his life which was so dedicated to faith and the peasantry.

Tolstoy relates in “Confession” many conversations with clergy who are of so little help to him in his search for answers that they seem, along with their religion, utterly reactionary; and this is borne out by Niebuhr in “Moral Man”, chapter 7:

The cultural opposition to the proletarian negation of the whole historical and traditional cultural life of the bourgeois world, cannot be disposed of in Western civilisation as easily as it was in Russia. There an inept Greek church, completely identified with social reaction and incidentally never really indigenous to Slavic culture, fell an easy prey to proletarian revolt against traditional culture.  

Incidentally I love how Tolstoy quotes extensively in “Confession” from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and seems to find there an author who expresses his own thoughts perfectly.  The author of that Biblical book was once thought to be King Solomon, and Tolstoy attributes the book to Solomon. But Tolstoy may have had more in common with the real author than he could have guessed.  According to my Jewish Study Bible’s introductory essay to “Ecclesiastes”, or “Koheleth” as it’s known in the Hebrew Bible: “the several positive references to political hierarchy, wealth in land, and money (kesef) all mark the author of Koheleth as probably of the landed gentry.”

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