Nikolai Rostov and the Spontaneous Order
Adam Smith, that great theorizer of moral sentiments, while inquiring into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, discovered that self-interest — distinct from selfishness — often benefits the public good. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner,” Smith writes, “but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” These advantages are important because, Smith continues, “by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, [the producer] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
One wonders if Tolstoy’s two-week stay in London in 1861 brought him into contact with Smith’s great opus. The similarities of thought between the Russian and the Scotsman in today’s chapter are striking. “Only unconscious action bears fruit,” writes Tolstoy, “and he who plays a part in a historic event never understands its significance. If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless.” Then, before he closes out the philosophical portion of today’s chapter and returns us to Nikolai Rostov’s story, Tolstoy says that those who have the most direct part in the war effort, the soldiers, think very little of their significance in that effort. They are, little Smithians, self-interestedly more concerned about their pay, their quarters and like matters.
As an example, Tolstoy offers us a healthy serving of some Rostovian self-interested behavior. Nikolai is tasked with securing remounts from a remote provincial town far away from the Battle of Borodino. He doesn’t think twice about accepting the mission, preferring instead to preserve his own well-being rather than risk it fighting the French.
While he’s out on this business he quite enjoys himself. He takes in the fresh air, the peaceful countryside and, mostly, the young women. He also accepts an invitation to a party where he drinks a bit and innocently — maybe — flirts with a married woman. It’s unclear at this point why Rostov is at the party, what greater purpose it serves in his life, but that is precisely Tolstoy and Smith’s point. This notion of a spontaneous, emergent order is an important one so we’ll finish today with a meditation from another Adam of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector. […] Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society