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Tolstoy on Written and Unwritten Rules

I’ve written before about finding the ideas of economics in works of fiction. I’ve also described how I find F. A. Hayek’s distinction between law and legislation to be a key insight in understanding how the world works. In this system, legislation is the written, articulated, deliberately constructed rule book, while law is the unwritten, evolved, unarticulated (but not inarticulate!), tacitly understood rules which guide behavior.

So are there any examples of this distinction to be found in fiction? Delightfully, yes. Leo Tolstoy wrote about it well in his novel War and Peace. He describes a scene where a young lieutenant, Boris, is coming to speak to Prince Andrei, who is the son of a famous general and serving as a captain in the army. Tolstoy writes:

When he entered, Prince Andrei, his eyes drooping contemptuously (with that peculiar expression of polite wariness which plainly says ‘if it were not my duty I would not talk to you for a moment’), was listening to an old Russian general with decorations, who stood very erect, almost on tiptop, with a soldier’s obsequious expression on his purple face, reporting something.

“Very well, then, be so good as to wait,” said Prince Andrei to the general in Russian, speaking with the French intonation he affected when he wished to speak contemptuously, and noting Boris, Prince Andrei, paying no more heed to the general who ran after him imploring him to hear something more, nodded and turned to him with a cheerful smile.

At that moment Boris clearly realized what he had before surmised, that in the army, besides the subordination and the discipline prescribed in the military code, which he and the others knew in the regiment, there was another, more important system, which made this tight-laced, purple-faced general wait respectfully while Captain Prince Andrei for his own pleasure chose to chat with Lieutenant Drubetskoy. More than ever Boris resolved to serve in the future not according to the written code, but under this unwritten law. He felt now that merely by having been recommended to Prince Andrei he had already risen above the general who at the front had the power to annihilate him, a mere lieutenant of the Guards.

Here, in discovering the existence of this “other, more important system,” Boris was discovering how the unwritten law of the military was different from the written legislation found in official rules and regulations. The law wasn’t something that could be looked up in a book, and it wasn’t ever explicitly described or even fully understood by everyone. And the law had a flexibility and evolving character to it which the official regulations lacked. Boris realized that the best way forward for him was to act in accordance with the unwritten law, rather than the written legislation.

Having spent nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, this definitely reflects my experience. As you gain experience in the military, you start to recognize the difference between what the regulations say, and how things are actually done. A common source of amusement was laughing at the expense of “boots” (a moniker usually signifying someone fresh out of boot camp with no real experience) who still do everything “by the numbers” – that is, who do everything according to the official rules and regulations.

When you come out of boot camp, you’ve had these rules and regulations drilled into your head, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say nobody knows the official rules better or more thoroughly than someone freshly graduated from boot camp. And this is also why boots were viewed as being comically ignorant – because all they knew were the written rules, which in reality meant they knew nothing. To very badly paraphrase John Stuart Mill, he who knows only the official rules of a system knows little of that.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the military. In every job I’ve had since then, there have always been unwritten rules permeating the background. Learning and understanding those rules have always proved crucial to being successful. Chances are you, dear reader, have also noticed something similar in your experiences as well. If so, do share some examples in the comments – it’s always fascinating to be able to see what’s behind the veil.


Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor