The Blind Tools of History
Often there are no knowable explanations for events but we like to supply them anyway. In 2007, for example, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and, improbably, it became a runaway bestseller. One explanation provided for its wild success was that it featured an animal in its title. Featuring an animal in the title of a book, you see, increases its sales. A simple search of publisher’s data reveals, however, that thousands upon thousands of books published with animal names in their title sell rather poorly. A few of these actually feature some variation of Black Swan in their title. Taleb calls this insistence on providing explanations the Narrative Fallacy: Our need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts. He writes, “The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”
In today’s chapter Tolstoy casts historians as the high priests of the Narrative Fallacy. First he establishes that there were no justifications for either the French or the Russians to engage in battle at Shevardino and Borodino. The battles brought the Russians closer to the occupation of Moscow, something they feared more than anything else. The battles also brought the French closer to their own destruction in that they further stretched their already weak supply lines. In the end, Tolstoy argues, there was simply no reasonable explanation for why the French and Russians decided to offer and accept battle. Chance was the author of the engagement.
Historians, however, suffering from the Narrative Fallacy, armed with irrelevant data, and in possession of retroactive clarity denied the historical actors themselves provide all the reasons necessary to satisfy our deep desire for certainty and order. Tolstoy lists these reasons and then debunks each of them.
We are the foolish historians of our own existence. We seek steady ground and claim clear reasons support the choices we make. We provide orderly explanations for our actions and often simplify incidents in order to furnish a comprehensible understanding of events. In truth, however, we drift about under an overpowering current, our understanding is opaque, the world is a garden of disorder, the state of affairs an impenetrable, tangled yarn of confusion slouching away towards an ultimate insensible cessation.
And, yet, we assign value to things. That’s one reason why we read the historians. After all, if those of the past had a reason, if they were part of an important whole that made sense then so too must we be part of something that makes sense. But imagine the soldiers at Borodino. Picture the things they valued, the things they loved and cherished. What of such things can now even be named? Or have they all been forgotten by the unforgiving march of effacing time?
Some things are hurrying into existence, and others are hurrying out of it; and of that which is coming into existence, part is already extinguished. Motions and changes are continually renewing the world, just as the uninterrupted course of time is always renewing the infinite duration of ages. In this flowing stream, then, on which there is no abiding, what is there of the things that hurry by on which a man would set a high price?
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations