Tolstoy’s Theory of History

I’ve been really enjoying listening to the unabridged War and Peace (I’m listening to a reading by Neville Jason) as a commuting book. It’s episodic enough to be good when listened to in half hour increments, and it’s good enough to be a pleasure to hear while not so stylistic in its prose as to be make one feel as if one ought to be reading it rather than listening. However, this morning I hit one of Tolstoy’s chapter long theory-of-history sections, and was startled at how little sense it made. This is a chunk of Book 9, Chapter 1:

From the close of the year 1811 intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces—millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army—moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, toward which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn. On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: “My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg”—and there would have been no war.

We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power—the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns—should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

Now, yes, it’s true that Napoleon could not have invaded Russia if all of his soldiers had suddenly decided that they didn’t want to go. Such a thing has even happened a few times in history — not all of Alexander the Great’s charisma could convince his soldiers to go any further into India. But clearly, it was much more possible and likely for Napoleon to choose not to invade Russia than it was for his army, after his decision to invade, to spontaneously decide not to sign up for another year.

The are wider societal, economic and cultural forces that drive historical events, but that by no means suggests that people do not in fact have choices. And although history is the sum of innumerable actions by individual persons, many of which will never appear in history books, and yet which help to shape and give character to the tenor and events recorded therein, there are most certainly some actors who have more influence on history than others. If one person refuses to serve in an army, we usually don’t hear about it. (Though sometimes we do.) And unless tens or hundreds of thousands do likewise, it does nothing to stop a war. Yet someone like Napoleon was in a position to choose to invade or not invade Russia. In that instance, massive historical events which cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives depended on the actions of just a few people.

I simply don’t see how one can assert the contrary, as Tolstoy seems to do here, and make any sense at all.

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11 Responses to Tolstoy’s Theory of History

  • Heh. I mostly remember the “diaper epilogue” as we called it when we speed read it in college. I don’t remember the other as much, possibly because I skimmed it pretty shamelessly in order to hit a deadline. At this rate, I should be there in another month or so.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Tolstoy proves he’s a novelist.

    Here’s one historian’s “take”: “History . . . little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Gibbon.

    Tragically, no “great leader” has learned its (history’s) lessons.

    Hard experience is a merciless teacher, but the fool will have no other.

  • What bothers me is that while Napoleon certainly had greater moral culpability, everyone who goes along with an unjust war while knowing its an unjust war is, in my understanding of Catholic teaching, also morally culpable. So while Tolstoy might be wrong in equating the two, the soldiers who followed the unjust orders are also wrong. So the decision by the bulk of his army to go along with Napoleon is relevant and is a cause of the war, even if not the main cause.

  • “The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription.”

    To paraphrase Orwell, only an intellectual could write something that silly. Tolstoy was a great novelist, but one of the problems with reading him is that one constantly encounters his crack brained nostrums about every topic under the sun. In fact, Napoleon was basically a free agent in regard to foreign policy and the disastrous invasion of Russia was his baby from start to finish. Alexander, imagine a Russian Prince Charles, was autocrat of all the Russias in deed as well as in theory, and he had a free hand in foreign policy likewise.

  • WJ says:

    I actually agree with Tolstoy here, really, I do. ;)

    Tolstoy’s position, I take it, is that history–and especially history on a grand scale, princes and potentates, etc.–gives us a picture of the essential irrationality, absurdity, and incomprehensibility of human activity. There can be no “explanation” for this history because, essentially, it’s all bad–much as there can be no “explanation” for evil. This is a particularly dark account of history (and of politics), and it’s not one that Christians have to agree with, of course. But it’s not essentially different from that found in Augustine’s in De Civitate Dei in his account of the history of the earthly city; and in Tolstoy’s “fatalism” we can detect a quasi-secularized version of Augustine’s Divine Will. For Augustine, it is quite certain that history is incomprehensible from any point within history itself; it only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.

    There are problems with this account, I grant. But I don’t think it’s as foolish or simple a position as a cursory reading might suggest.

  • “only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.”

    That is God’s prerogative not ours, which was rather the point of Saint Augustine, always bearing in mind that he was a mere mortal, albeit a brilliant one and illumined by faith, attempting to ferret out what God intends in human history. I rather doubt that it is ours to discern His plan, although Saint Augustine’s City of God deserves an A for effort, if not historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

  • WJ says:

    “That is God’s prerogative”–Well, of course that’s true, but it’s also the prerogative of the elect, who after Christ’s Second Coming will no longer exist *in* history and so will be able to understand it for the first time.

    “historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine”. This begs the question in favor of one understanding of what constitutes “accuracy.” Suppose that historical accuracy depends upon one’s seeing all human events in light of the Incarnation and Second Coming. Then Augustine’s accuracy is perhaps unparalleled. I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.

  • Darwin says:

    I’ll admit, it’s been a decade since I read City of God, and when I did it was on a college course deadline so I was reading way too fast, but my recollection is that St. Augustine is talking about it being unclear to us what the direction of history is in the sense of it’s purpose, why it’s happening in a final cause sense. We don’t know if the Roman Empire will last another three hundred years because we don’t know what purpose the Roman Empire has in the drama of salvation.

    What Tolstoy seems to be saying, by comparison, is that at the level of actual occurrence, history is without clear cause, and that someone like Napoleon had no choice as to whether or not to invade Russia, was not really the maker of that decision, because he was being swept along by a tide of history — no more or less the author of the invasion than a single sergeant who chose to enlist for another term in the Grande Armee rather than retiring.

  • “I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.”

    Only if positivism is defined in regard to history as fidelity as close as possible to a rendition of what actually occurred in history as opposed to what we wish had occurred. Saint Augustine was writing a work of theology and was using the history of the Roman Empire for polemical purposes. Some of his positions from a historical standpoint are simply risible, including his contention that the military defeats suffered by the Republic were greater than the defeats suffered by the dying Empire he was living in, part of his response to pagans claiming that Christianity was causing the decline of the Empire. As I have said however, fidelity to the actual historical record was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

    It is of course impossible for humans to step outside of history this side of the grave. The fact that we know that at the end of time awaits the Final Judgment tells us quite a bit about how we should live our lives, but tells us next to nothing as to how to seek an accurate record of the events that took place before us.

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