It is easy to mistake Leo Tolstoy’s massive book, “War and Peace,” for a novel. It is not. Instead, it would better be considered the world’s longest satirical polemic, in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” From beginning to end, Tolstoy’s classic work is intended to illustrate the arrogant incompetence of human understanding and the inability of human reason to explain even the simplest of social phenomena.
With unrelenting precision and distinct overtones of mockery, Tolstoy dissects the notion that men dictate events. In one specific example, he examines, with minute detail, the four specific orders Napoleon gave to his army prior to the battle of Borodino:
These dispositions, which are very obscure and confused if one allows oneself to regard the arrangements without religious awe of his genius, related to Napoleon’s orders to deal with four points – four different orders. Not one of these was, or could be, carried out …
And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will.
In the second epilogue, Tolstoy goes on to brutally abuse both specific and universal historians, demonstrating how their explanations of various historical events is not only inevitably contradictory, but often constructed on base premises that do not withstand a moment’s reflection. Tolstoy further underlines his case by the choice of the two heroes of the novel within the polemic, Pierre and Kutozov, both of whom achieve their respective dream of inner peace and Russian victory only by submitting their will to the great forces moving around them.
Writing 199 years after Tolstoy, the controversial technical analyst Robert Prechter echoes the count in scorning the common wisdom’s basic explanations for why things happen. In the June Elliott Wave Theorist, he writes:
Almost every day brings another example of rationalization in defense of the idea that news moves markets. The stock market rallied for half an hour on the morning of April 20, peaked at 10:00 a.m., and sold off for the rest of the day. Almost every newspaper and wire service claims that the market sold off because “Greenspan told Congress that the nation’s banking system is well prepared to deal with rising rates, which the market interpreted as a new signal the Fed will tighten its policy sooner rather than later.” Is this explanation plausible?
Point #1: Greenspan began speaking around 2:30, but the market had already peaked at 10:00.
Point #2: Greenspan said something favorable about the banking system, not unfavorable about rates …
Point #3: Greenspan’s speech was not the only news available. Most of the other news that day was good as well …
Point #9: There is no evidence that a rise in interest rates makes the stock market go down.”
Prechter takes things one step further than Tolstoy, as he posits that these massive forces that historians alternatively ascribe to individuals such as Napoleon – institutions such as the Federal Reserve and ideas such as the Brotherhood of Man – tend to operate in distinct patterns known as Elliott Waves. Developed for use in the financial markets as a model of mass human emotion, Prechter is attempting to make use of these patterns to not only explain, but predict the likely effect of massive waves of human emotion.
For example, in my column of July 28, 2003, I noted Prechter’s assertion that we stood on the cusp of Intermediate Wave (3), which meant, among other things, that George Bush would not be re-elected despite a 55 percent approval rating. It’s still too soon to know if the president will serve a second term or not, but it’s surely worth noting that his approval rating has declined 11 points to 44 percent over the past year.
Neither Prechter nor Tolstoy claim to precisely understand the way in which the mysterious wheels of history are turning. What is certain, however, is that both men appear to provide a far better means of beginning to understand the process than the historians, journalists and columnists who unwisely attempt to explain the news with a wildly inappropriate use of the physical laws of cause and effect.