Lao Tzu’s concept of nonacting fascinated Tolstoy largely because in War and Peace and Anna Karenina he had developed a similar doctrine. The ancient Chinese teacher rejected not all action, but only intentional efforts counter to the nature of things. It is wiser to respect the world’s spontaneous tendencies and work within the limits they set. Because such work may look to the enlightened like doing nothing, the paradox-loving Lao Tzu called it nonaction: “To generate without taking possession, / To do without presuming on it, / To lead without managing, / This is called the Dark Potency.”
How may we know whether a province has a good governor? Lao Tzu answers: If people defy his will, the governor is bad; if they obey from fear, he is almost as bad. If they “love and praise” their governor, still he is not good. Only if they ask, “Do we have a governor?”—only when his will seems to be accomplished of itself—can it be said that they have a good governor. Lao Tzu and Tolstoy considered the most dangerous people to be those who imagine they possess the knowledge—Tolstoy calls it “science”—to accomplish what they deem beneficial. “Exterminate the [purported] sage, discard the [supposedly] wise,” Lao Tzu advises, “and the people will benefit a hundredfold.”
Kutuzov, the truly wise general in War and Peace, behaves like a master of nonaction. The other commanders, led by General Pfühl, believe they possess a “science of warfare” that ensures victory. Tolstoy means this “science” to represent any putative science of society, existing or to come. Ever since Newton reduced the amazingly complex movements of the planets to four simple laws, endless “moral Newtonians,” as historian Élie Halévy called them, have claimed to do the same for society. Tolstoy dedicated War and Peace to demonstrating the absurdity of such thinking.
All such claims depend on the assumption that the deeper one looks, the more things simplify. But in human affairs, Tolstoy contends, the very opposite holds. Behind a hundred phenomena one finds a thousand. Causes do not simplify, they ramify. Wisdom begins with the recognition that one cannot possibly take all contingencies into account and that surprise belongs to the very nature of things. Battle, or the workings of society, do not at all resemble the movements of the planets. One must learn to make decisions under irremediable uncertainty.
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