Just Like Clockwork
Throughout these early chapters of War and Peace Tolstoy has been slyly peppering in some of the themes he’ll explore in depth later in the second epilogue when he explores his unique theory of history. Today he’s up to it again. Early in the chapter he compares the operations of the military to the wheels, pulleys and cogs of clockwork. “Just as the mechanism of a clock,” he writes, “so in the mechanism of the military machine, an impulse once given leads to the final result; and just as indifferently quiescent till the moment when motion is transmitted to them are the parts of the mechanism which the impulse has not yet reached.”
Curious then Tolstoy’s use of the clockwork metaphor because when he returns us to the present narrative, on the eve of the battle of Austerlitz, a so-called expert makes a prediction about the future and, just like clockwork, that prediction turns out, as we’ll see, to be tragically wrong.
Indeed, in this short chapter one character manages to offend two of today’s leading thinkers on probability.
The character is Dolgorukov and his first offense is against Nate Silver’s problem of forecasting. It’s Dolgorukov that goes to meet with Napoleon today to discuss war issues. Dolgorukov returns to the Russian camp later and is interviewed by Prince Andrei. Prince Andrei asks about whether or not it’s wise to attack the French. Dolgorukov replies, relying on too much noise and not enough signal, that of course it is. Napoleon is weak and certain to lose. Certain, he says. Well, we’ll see how that works out.
At any rate, Prince Andrei is sceptical. He proposes an alternative plan of advance. Then, in one of the funniest and most tragic passages in the novel, Dolgorukov tells Prince Andrei that his plan sounds good and might even be “as good as Weyrother’s but for the disadvantage that Weyrother’s had already been approved.” Bureaucracy, ladies and gentlemen.
Dolgorukov’s second offence violates Taleb’s rule of thumb that, “Older is almost always more solid, but older is not necessarily perfect.” Dolgorukov disagrees. It’s his contention that the energy of youth is far better to consult in war than the wisdom of age.
Sad he should think so. Kutuzov — one of the old generals, one who councils a Fabian patience and warns against a premature attack — actually turns out to get it right. When asked how he thinks the battle will go Kutuzov despairs that the Russians will lose decisively.
The future is often the enemy of a tranquil present. We’re often agitated over our thoughts about the future whether it be the ecstatic agitation of Dolgorukov or the worrisome variety of Kutuzov. We can’t ignore the future. It is worth planning for. But, in the end, we have no control over what events may transpire there so it’s best to focus our energies on the present.
True happiness is to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied, for he that is wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic