The Hand That Moves The Battle Along
History is a registry of unreason, existence a fog of perception. The ancients understood this. Homer barded about a world guided by gods fickle, eristic and vehement. Hinduism conceives a world in constant cycles of crisis consistently in need of a righteous protector, Vishnu, to set things to balance. The Book of Wisdom situates its namesake as emanating wholly outside of humanity, creatures, as that book says, prone to perverse and senseless counsels. We moderns find this worldview frightening. In our post-Enlightenment view humans are guided by reason, dedicated to progress and the idea that mankind, invested with discernment and rationality, are somehow separate from nature’s other beasts.
This idea, with seedlings rooted in antiquity, grew to fruition largely in 18th century France, the land of the Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, Rousseau’s Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique, and Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois. These great discourses on reason and science sparked The French Revolution and its grand organizing principles of Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort — of course the last part of this motto was sensibly retired as being distasteful given that the rational new order of things couldn’t stop the guillotine from chopping its way through the Reign of Terror. These ideas also formed Napoleon, our old friend, who sought an empire for this new age of reason, seeking to guide history towards a codified, planned order based on scientific understanding and rationality.
In today’s chapter we see the futility of such an undertaking. Here we have Napoleon surveying the battle of Borodino. Keep in mind that he has planned everything. We know from previous chapters that Napoleon, drawing on the awesome powers of human reason, has considered every angle, foresaw all possibilities of events and accounted for them. The inscrutable mesh of reality, however, intervenes and he soon finds himself adrift in the fog of war. From the Shevardino Redoubt he looks down upon his works only to encounter impenetrable, obfuscating clouds of smoke. It is, Tolstoy tells us, impossible for him to see what’s happening on the battlefield below.
Here the ancient way imposes itself on the feeble modern. Ignorance and confusion reign. Adjutants bring Napoleon information but the information is either false or the situation below has already changed so much as to render the new information moot. It’s clear from Tolstoy’s presentation that an unseen, unknowable and chaotic hand moves the battle along, not the orderly design of human rationality.
The hand that moves the battle along can be a terrifying prospect. We seek control and certainty in the world. But maybe we’re just little Napoleons with only the pretension of control. It’s a tough world to make sense of. The ancients embraced religion to interpret the chaos. In response to concerns that religious claims are too fantastic they adopted the Tertullian position certum est, quia impossibile. The religious understanding of the world endures to this day. Some moderns, on the other hand, see only a naked materialism at work, reality an uncreated soup of matter, quarks and black holes.
To the Napoleons posted on the Shevardino Redoubt, does it matter which view is correct?
Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations