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Michael Mikhaylovich Speranski

On New Year's Day of 2001 I typed in a quote from War and Peace that Z. A. Melzak had in turn quoted in his mathematical-philosophical book Bypasses. Recently I found that fragment again, but in a larger context which made it even more fascinating as a portrait. Speranski is the ultimate rationalist—calculating, cold, confident. Tolstoy is skeptical. From Book 6 Chapter 6:

This first long conversation with Speranski only strengthened in Prince Andrew the feeling he had experienced toward him at their first meeting. He saw in him a remarkable, clear-thinking man of vast intellect who by his energy and persistence had attained power, which he was using solely for the welfare of Russia. In Prince Andrew's eyes Speranski was the man he would himself have wished to be—one who explained all the facts of life reasonably, considered important only what was rational, and was capable of applying the standard of reason to everything. Everything seemed so simple and clear in Speranski's exposition that Prince Andrew involuntarily agreed with him about everything. If he replied and argued, it was only because he wished to maintain his independence and not submit to Speranski's opinions entirely. Everything was right and everything was as it should be: only one thing disconcerted Prince Andrew. This was Speranski's cold, mirrorlike look, which did not allow one to penetrate to his soul, and his delicate white hands, which Prince Andrew involuntarily watched as one does watch the hands of those who possess power. This mirrorlike gaze and those delicate hands irritated Prince Andrew, he knew not why. He was unpleasantly struck, too, by the excessive contempt for others that he observed in Speranski, and by the diversity of lines of argument he used to support his opinions. He made use of every kind of mental device, except analogy, and passed too boldly, it seemed to Prince Andrew, from one to another. Now he would take up the position of a practical man and condemn dreamers; now that of a satirist, and laugh ironically at his opponents; now grow severely logical, or suddenly rise to the realm of metaphysics. (This last resource was one he very frequently employed.) He would transfer a question to metaphysical heights, pass on to definitions of space, time, and thought, and, having deduced the refutation he needed, would again descend to the level of the original discussion.

In general the trait of Speranski's mentality which struck Prince Andrew most was his absolute and unshakable belief in the power and authority of reason. It was evident that the thought could never occur to him which to Prince Andrew seemed so natural, namely, that it is after all impossible to express all one thinks; and that he had never felt the doubt, "Is not all I think and believe nonsense?" And it was just this peculiarity of Speranski's mind that particularly attracted Prince Andrew.

(cf. InSearchOfTheFulcrum (2004-03-19), ChekhovOnTolstoy (2005-17-15), IsaiahBerlin (2005-11-24), ...) - ^z - 2008-12-20