From Tolstoy, Kafka, to Taleb

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we are always in a state of ignorance. The moment we decided to escape, we sank into the faint light of fake knowledge. The good news is that, from Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we are slowly finding our way back.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy expressed frustration at mankind’s inability to know all connections and causality. Like mathematical integration, he thought we could arrive at the laws of history by summing up the infinitesimal contributions of all individuals. Isaiah Berlin criticized him as a fox, who knows many things, wanting to be a hedgehog, who knows one big thing. Kafka’s more superior The Castle is a quiet acceptance of the puzzles and perplexities of life. He told us to fully immerse ourselves in our suffering. Our contemporary Taleb takes one step further. How do we thrive in ignorance and uncertainty, and comprehend what is deliberately beyond our comprehension? He calls it the philosophy of antifragility.

A Historical Theory of Tea and Opium

The mysterious way in which seemingly disparate historical events are connected with each other fills me with awe. The human intellect simply cannot grasp the infinite permutations and the sheer complexity of the laws of history. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party threw 342 chests of Chinese tea into the Boston Harbor, leading to the independence of America. In 1839, Qing dynasty official Lin Zexu dumped 20,000 chests of British opium into the Canton Harbor, marking the onset of China’s century of humiliation. The two events are separated by over 60 years and happened on opposite sides of the world, but both can be traced to the seizing of Bengal by the British East India Company in 1757.

A series of mismanagement by the British led to the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which killed up to 10 million Indians (one of the many holocausts in India which the UK remains silent to this date). The destruction of food crops by the East India Company to make way for opium cultivation reduced food availability and contributed significantly to the famine. The company suffered financially as a result of the famine, and influenced Parliament to pass the 1773 Tea Act to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. The undercutting by the East India Company infuriated American colonists who were tea smugglers, many of whom went on to become founding fathers of the United States of America.

In fact, all the East India Company tea which the Boston Tea Party dumped in 1773 were produced in China. Year after year, the East India Company bought large quantities of tea from China, draining silver out of England. The British were desperate to search for a counterpart commodity to trade for tea. They found it in opium, which they planted in large quantities thanks to the taking of Bengal. By 1839, the drug trade became such a serious social problem in China that the Daoguang Emperor sent viceroy Lin Zexu to confiscate all the British opium.

This is how the throwing of tea in 1773 and the dumping of opium in 1839 into the sea were connected with each other.

Factionalism in War and Peace

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey enumerated the factions within the Russian high command during Napoleon’s invasion. You usually see the full range or a subset of these dynamics as a group responds to situations.

  1. Rigid military theorists
  2. Non-planners favoring spontaneous actions
  3. Courtiers reconciling the first two groups
  4. Advocates of surrendering to Napoleon
  5. Adherents to Barclay de Tolly
  6. Adherents to Bennigsen, calling for Barclay to be replaced
  7. Devoted worshippers of the Tsar
  8. Place seekers chasing crosses and promotions (the largest group)
  9. Older politicians who can withdraw from conflicting opinions and take an objective view