Tolstoy’s Theory of History

Tuesday, March 1, AD 2011

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.

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11 Responses to Tolstoy’s Theory of History

  • I concur, DC… wait until you get to the second epilogue… he elaborates at length on his theory of history, and it’s similarly curious.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “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.

  • 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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