Magic and Where to Find It

Day 327 of A Year of War and Peace


Clifford Smith, Shaolin poet extraordinaire, reflecting on the impenetrable logic of spontaneous order, writes that we should “Recognize the Gods came for one accord/ One mind and one common cause, that’s the shit Son.” Here Smith marvels at the unorchestrated, self-organized emergence of various phenomena: biological processes, language, law, natural selection. What most fascinates Smith is the presence of unity and the absence of a unifier. Tolstoy shares Smith’s fascination with the subject of spontaneous order. In today’s chapter his subject is the reconstruction of Moscow. Tolstoy writes, “The motives of those who thronged from all sides to Moscow after it had been cleared of the enemy were most diverse and personal, and at first, for the most part, savage and brutal. They all had only one motive [emphasis added] in common: a desire to get to the place that had been called Moscow, to apply their activities there.”

The undirected coordination of human action is a major theme of Tolstoy’s theory of history. We’ve discussed it before. He returns to the subject today, noting the decentralized nature of Moscow’s rebuilding. He begins by noting that the French destruction of Moscow left it with “no government, and no churches, shrines, riches, or houses.” What remains, however, is “something intangible yet powerful and indestructible.” This mysterious power is spontaneous order and it works its unknowable magic as Moscow slowly but surely rebuilds itself.

No one directs the peasants to enter Moscow and haul out all the ruins. They just do it. When the authorities command the peasants to use their empty carts to haul off corpses instead of plunder, other peasants respond by bringing their comrades rye, oats and hay. This has the unintended consequence of beating down prices to a level not seen since before the occupation.

So much of Moscow’s rehabilitation is just like this: The emergence of order through the interplay of uncoordinated human action. Though top-down command does play a role, its part is very limited in the process. This is an important point to keep in mind. Soon we’ll transition into the part of the book where Tolstoy abandons his fictional narrative and commits to a historical analysis exclusively. A major part of his analysis relies on the bottom-up, self-organized property of history.


Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it / It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it. / It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it / There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it.
Russ Roberts, It’s a Wonderful Loaf

This is the three hundred and twenty seventh 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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