The Sheepish Aims of Great Men
Wily Jacob successfully schemes to steal his brother’s birthright. Loki plays a similarly deceitful role in Norse mythology. Kitsune regularly dupe samurai in Japanese folklore. These are just three examples of the trickster, a Jungian archetype defined, in part, by an ability to employ superior intellect in order to beguile or mislead others. Like all Jungian archetypes, we carry the trickster inside of us. In fact, the most beguiling of all tricksters might very well be human consciousness itself. What other entity, after all, has the power to convince us that our petty human bodies and experience, occupying less than an infinitesimal portion of the vast universe, are things of any great significance?
This is partially what Tolstoy is getting at today with his analogy of the rams. A ram’s intelligence is limited, blindingly so, by its experience. The ram tricks itself into thinking that the herdsman loves it. The herdsman feeds it, shelters it, cleans it. There is no creature more beneficent to the ram than the herdsman. This deception is indulged until the ram is slaughtered and placed, deliciously, on the herdsman’s dinner plate.
Tolstoy has it that we are like the rams. We labor continuously under the illusion that all of history speaks of, for and by us. We center ourselves in the play of reality. This is error. Tolstoy writes:
Only by renouncing our claim to discern a purpose immediately intelligible to us, and admitting the ultimate purpose to be beyond our ken, may we discern the sequence of experiences in the lives of historic characters and perceive the cause of the effect they produce (incommensurable with ordinary human capabilities), and then the words chance and genius become superfluous.
Tolstoy believes that the historians of his time get history wrong because they take the wrong point of view in their adoption of the great man theory of history. This is an idea Tolstoy develops further in the book’s second epilogue (yes, there are two!). Could it be that we make the same mistake? If, as A Year of War and Peace has argued previously, we are the historians of our own existence, then perhaps many of our frustrations and miseries are born of the mistaken intuition that we are in control of things, that we steer the course of our life events.
The conscious mind is much less the CEO and the decisionmaker and the thought thinker than it thinks it is. This is the beginning of insight into appreciating that whereas while you’ve been thinking that you’re the pilot of the plane, the plane is actually largely on autopilot. Thinking that you’re the pilot doesn’t help and in some ways it hurts.
Robert Wright, “What Buddhism got right about the human brain.” Audio blog post. The Ezra Klein Show. Vox. 27 Nov. 2017.