Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tolstoy on Authority

War and Peace continues. In a recent chapter, Tolstoy handled his thoughts about physicians, generals, and historians. In an interesting sense he thinks about all three in the same manner. He has a well developed suspicion of authority structures. In the case of the role of the physician treating Natasha he argues that the physician is not actually responsible for the continued health of his patient. The pills and treatments are there to spend the time, rather than to cure her from her despondency resulting from rejecting Prince Andrei. So the physician becomes an observer. The generals are not directing the battles but merely syncophants who have a range of opinions which are not based on any long term substantive understanding of battle tactics. His comments, mentioned previously about the interest of generals in "decorations, promotions or rubles" is in part like a principal agent problem or at least an understanding of rent seeking that anticipates the formal theories in economics by a couple of hundred years.

But his most impressive comments rest for historians. In Tolstoy's view historians write history with a lot of local reference that imputes a lot more logic and thought into unfolding events than the participants have at the time that events are unfolding. He analyzes why the Russians allowed the French to come into Russia for the cold winter of 1812 and argues that the French and Russian interpretations are quite different - ascribing a higher level of insight to what would happen to their side than he (Tolstoy) believes is present. Orwell commented in the same area a couple of hundred years later (The history of the war will consist quite largely of 'facts' which millions of people now living know to be lies.) but Tolstoy's explanation addresses the alternative explanations of the facts of the battles of 1812 with a clarity that is refreshing.

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