It’s a long one, no question. I choose that opening sentence advisedly, knowing that I’m not in a position to say anything about this book that is much more intelligent than that. War and Peace had been on my reading list for some time, but I was finally nudged into reading it when I picked up a contemporary translation as a paperback on a giveaway table (tr. Anthony Briggs). I’d previously read Anna Karenina, so I knew to expect well developed characters and a strong moral emphasis. I was not disappointed. Tolstoy writes real characters, who are buffeted by circumstances, develop internally, make resolutions, fail in their resolutions, and whose courses are redirected according to the vicissitudes of life. I don’t know another writer who does this as well; the comparisons that come to mind are Dostoevsky, who writes archetypes, and any of the ‘clever’ modern writers who manage the readers’ perceptions of characters only by withholding information about them.

Structurally, the striking thing about War and Peace is its scope. It is an enormous work in the sense of time, space, number of characters, and page count, yes, but I am thinking of the characters, on the one hand, and on the historical focus on the other.

Characters. The focus is on Russian nobles, but Tolstoy reaches as far down as peasants and common soldiers, and as high up as Napoleon and the Russian general Kutuzov. Each is driven by his or her own utterly individual concerns; nearly every character is a moral center. At the moment, the only morally dimensionless characters I can call to mind are Karatayev, who is unalloyed goodness, and Dolokhov, who is unalloyed evil.

History. Tolstoy is in concerned with history, and a good portion of War and Peace consists of his reflections on the wars of the period, and they ways people have written about them. What moves history? What is the interrelation between free will and historical necessity? What counts as an explanation in history? In various ways, Tolstoy shows how the answers that had been given to these questions are inadequate. Fairly early on, he draws an analogy between historical interactions and infintestimal calculus. He says that history can only be understood as the summation of individual wills, integrated over time continuously. This leads him to some very interesting reflections, some of which I quote below. But it also provides the point of contact between individual experience and events of ‘historical’ magnitude, which I consider to be the real achievement of the book.

When he takes a broader perspective, Tolstoy is wont to describe events as either inevitable or senseless: he sees the failure to defend Smolensk and Moscow as the result of mere bureaucratic dithering. At various points in the narrative, Tolstoy argues that leaders have been credited with decisiveness and leadership after the fact, whereas in fact they were merely pursuing the inevitable course of action, given their circumstances and the facts they had at hand. This occasions not a few grim reflections on the meaninglessness and wastefulness of war—when Rostov visits Denisov in the field hospital, for instance. But the personal narratives take personal initiative and morality seriously. Andrey strives mightily in all that he does, but the course of his life is still determined almost entirely by events external to his control. Pierre is barely agentive, and his life too is determined by events external to his control. (Borodino is the climax, of course: Andrey waiting with his men for orders, Pierre wandering through the thick of the battle. “No, I’m just here.”) The achievement of the novel is that the one reality doesn’t negate the other. Individual lives really are tossed about by world events, and individuals really are free moral agents. The most tightly regimented prisoner in the most controling prison, is still morally free; or conversely, as Tolstoy remarks, the generals at the heads of the armies are no more free to act than the lowliest conscripts.

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For the rest, I’ll cite a few passages in which Tolstoy comments on history or historiography. I’ve referred previously to his analogy between historical events and infintestimal calculus. After introducing this, he remarks that since all units of analysis are therefore arbitrary, it will be impossible to reach consensus on the analysis of historical events at the macro level.

Criticism can effortlessly ensure that every conclusion of history gets blown away like dust, leaving no trace behind, simply by selecting a greater or smaller discrete unit for analysis — and criticism has every right to do this, because the selection of historical units is always an arbitrary business.

This passage gave me a warm fuzzy feeling because I’d previously had a similar thought in the context of comparative studies of ancient near eastern cultures. It’s a bit depressing from the perspective of historiography, but there you go. (It all goes back to the induction problem; I’m reading Newman’s book on induction, in which I hope to find some answers to that, or at least some well-formulated problems.)

I’m delighted by the passage below, perhaps just by the metaphor. In critiquing ideas like ‘chance’ and ‘genius’ in historical writing, he comments that these are exactly the categories sheep might use to explain the visscitudes of sheepish existence:

To a flock of sheep the sheep who gets driven into a special pen by the shepherd every evening for a good feed, and becomes twice as fat as the rest, must seem like a genius. And the fact that every evening this sheep doesn’t come into the common fold, but goes into a special pen where there are lots of oats, and this same sheep fattens up nicely and then gets killed for mutton must look like a curious combination of genius and a series of unusual coincidences.

But all the sheep have to do is drop the assumption that everything that happens to them comes about solely for the furtherance of their sheepish interests; once they assume that the events occurring to them might have aims beyond their comprehension they will immediately perceive a unity and coherence in what is happening to the sheep that is being fattened up. Even if they will never quite understand why it is being fattened up, at least they will know that chance played no part in anything that happened to it, and they will have no need for concepts like chance or genius.

But again, the sheep are ridiculous only because they insist of finding interpretations for the events in their lives, in terms that are meaningful to them. If we accept frankly that nearly everything in the world that affects us personally, happens for reasons that are quite orthogonal to our personal interests or ideas, I think we’ll be a lot happier.

This is a delightful stick-in-the-eye to those of us who insist on the primacy of ideas as a force in world history. Perhaps that can be shown, but it can’t just be assumed, any more than we would assume that trends in handicrafts affect world events.

There clearly is a connection between all living things at any one time, and so it must be possible to establish some sort of connection between the intellectual activity of men and their historical movements, just as a connection can be established between the movements of humanity and commerce, handicrafts, horticulture, and anything else you care to name. But why intellectual activity should be singled out by cultural historians as the cause or the expression of an entire historical movement is not easy to understand. Historians could arrive at such a conclusion only with the following provisos: (1) that history is written by educated people who find it natural and agreeable to believe that the activity of their social group is a source of movement for the whole of humanity, just as this kind of belief would come naturally and agreeably to tradesmen, agriculturalists and soldiers (only their beliefs don’t get expressed because merchants and soldiers don’t write history), and (2) that spiritual activity, enlightenment, civilization, culture and ideas are all vague and indeterminate concepts, flags of convenience under which even more opaque phrases can be used very conveniently, thus accommodating any kind of theory.

And another fine passage, calling out facile historical explanations. How easy to accept ideas that are intellectually or emotionally satisfying, without regard to their truthfulness…

So far the study of history as part of the human spirit of inquiry has been like money in circulation, notes and coins. Biographies and national histories are like paper money. They can pass and circulate, doing their job without harming anyone and fulfilling a useful function, as long as no one questions the guarantee behind them. And as long as no one questions precisely how the will of heroes is supposed to direct events, historical works by Thiers and his ilk will retain a certain interest and educational value, not to mention the odd touch of poetry. But just as doubts about the validity of banknotes can arise, either when too many go into circulation because they are so easy to make, or because of a sudden rush to convert them into gold, in the same way doubts about the real value of this type of historical work will arise either when too many of them are written, or when some naïve person asks the simple question, ‘Precisely what force was it that made it possible for Napoleon to do that?’ — in other words, when someone wishes to change a working note for the pure gold of a valid concept.