Critical of Theory

Day 173 of A Year of War and Peace

Alexander Fleming did not start with a theory of penicillin and then work his way, under this theory, towards developing the medicine. He discovered penicillin by means of exploration, experience, and tinkering. Fleming was a Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. One day, having returned from holiday, he just happened to be sorting through some petri dishes containing bacteria when he noticed something unusual. The petri dish was littered with colonies of bacteria save for a zone immediately surrounding the space where an odd mold grew. That odd mold, it turns out, was Penicillium notatum. Dr. Fleming published his findings and then other researchers, mostly at Oxford University, further developed penicillin, not by means of theory but, rather, by means of further practice and experimentation.

These great practitioners stand in contrast to Pfuel, a German general who Prince Andrei meets in today’s chapter. Pfuel, you see, has a theory of war. His is a top-down “science” of war developed from years of studying the writings of Frederick the Great. But war, as Tolstoy writes and Prince Andrei has discovered through experience, is probably more of a bottom-up, emergent property so unless battle is waged merely by fingering pages of Prussian letters, it can be assumed that Pfuel’s theory will be seriously compromised by war in practice.

Which is exactly what happens.

Pfuel, it turns out, is one of those generals responsible for planning the disastrous campaigns at Jena and Auerstadt. Both of those battles in practice proved his theory to be wanting. In his mind, however, they merely proved the failure of the exact implementation of his theory.

Pfuel, like Prince Andrei, has been summoned to offer advice to Tsar Alexander. Alexander should beware of smart Germans bearing theories.


In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
Yogi Berra

This is the one hundred and seventy-third installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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