No, seriously, War and Peace. I found it on the top 100 lists of free Kindle books, and decided that reading War and Peace was one of those things I probably had to do in my life to call myself a serious reader.
Bad decision. As I remarked to a good friend, it was meandering, it seemed to lack any true central conflict about any particular character, and it was infused with a very particularly Russian fatalism. At the end of the day, I had no real emotional attachment or involvement in the story, and the last 20% or so was simply a slog through to be able to say I finished it. To thus my fried replied, “yep, that pretty well describes Russian literature.”
However, one specific attribute of that fatalism I found quite interesting, and possibly timely:
That the peoples of the west might be able to accomplish the military march upon Moscow, which they did accomplish, it was essential (1) that they should be combined in a military group of such a magnitude as to be able to withstand the resistance of the military group of the east; (2) that they should have renounced all their established traditions and habits; and (3) that they,should have at their head a man able to justify in his own name and theirs the perpetration of all the deception, robbery, and murder that accompany that movement.
And to start from the French Revolution, that old group of insufficient magnitude is broken up; the old habits and traditions are destroyed; step by step a group is elaborated of new dimensions, new habits, and new traditions; and the man is prepared, who is to stand at the head of the coming movement, and to take upon himself the whole responsibility of what has to be done.
While I’m not a believer in either the societal or personal fatalism espoused by Tolstoy, one can make an argument that what “had to be done” was to crumble the final vestiges of feudalism’s legitimacy in society. This can’t occur by overthrowing a single despot. Political change of that magnitude must be jarring enough to destroy even the memory of what came before it. Society, like a phoenix, must be destroyed and rise from its own ashes to build anew.
Britain, while still a monarchy, had largely transitioned from a feudal society to a mercantile society. America was still a pre-teen on the world stage. Europe, though, was still fighting the final stages to break off the chains of feudalism and monarchy. The slaughter of the French Revolution produced Napoleon, and Napoleon slaughtered Europe.
Is this what “had to be done”? Millions dead, cities burned, the entire existing social hierarchy torn from its roots? Perhaps it did have to occur. Feudalism and monarchy are stories of powerful entrenched interests and a complacent underclass. It is not enough to cast those bonds off on paper; they must be cast off in the soul. This is not easy to do without a jarring blow.
At the end of the French & Russian war, swaths of Europe had been destroyed, and the people were prepared to accept peace — peace on different terms than had existed previously. Society could now be built on a foundation other than feudalism and monarchy. It needed to occur, but it was only the jarring blow that allowed people to come to terms with what was needed.
War is messy. War is hell. War is cruel and painful. But war works.
-John Fuller, my high school AP US History teacher
At the end of the US Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dead, essentially to right a wrong that had been building since before the Declaration of Independence. Was war truly necessary to free the slaves? No, but war was probably necessary to settle, in the minds of America, that the freedom had been won. The Civil War was a black mark on the history of America, but nobody can say that the question of slavery was left unsettled at its conclusion.
Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and — thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.
-Robert A. Heinlein
The thesis that a jarring blow is necessary to effect the inevitable social changes that occur over time, though, is troubling to me. It’s troubling because I see significant social changes on the horizon.
Technology has brought us global, immediate, and zero-cost-of-entry communication, cutting the information stranglehold of governments and destroying entire business models in the process. Modern communication and modern transportation have made the world smaller, perhaps finally putting the lie to economic mercantilism. Governments have been debasing fiat currencies for decades since the end of Bretton Woods II, and global financial stability appears to be solely based on nations’ ability to lend to each other [especially to the US].
There seems to be a palpable tension building in the world and it’s unclear where it will lead. Much of that tension has already been seen in Iran, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. There is tension both within China and in America’s trade/debt relationship with that nation. Unlike some hyperbolic pundits, I won’t quite put Madison in a category as serious as those just discussed, but a fight between fiscal reality, monetary stability, and the promises of government is certainly brewing — and that fight won’t be pleasant.
The world 25 years from now may very well be a place that people alive today don’t quite recognize. But there are a lot of people invested in this one, who will be very upset to see it change. So there’s only one question, and a troubling one, to ask. What sort of jarring blow is on the horizon to cleanse us of the old ways?