Tolstoy introduces this section by showing the error of applying scientific analysis to history. As a mathematician takes arbitrary small units and by integral calculus develops a system of dynamics to understand the continuity of motion, so does a historian take small units of history to understand the continuity of history. But we fall into error, Tolstoy says, when the"unit" we choose to examine is the career of a great man or the effects of a particular political crisis. What we fail to realize, he continues, is that these"units" are made up of still smaller forces operating upon the great man or the political phenomenon. As we establish a unit of"absolute motion," so must we examine the"homogeneous elements" of history: single human beings and their daily lives. For, he says, it is"the sum of men's individual wills [that] produced both the revolution and Napoleon; and only the sum of those wills endured them and then destroyed them." We can never understand the laws of history; but to assume the beginning of an event by citing a historical personality is as mistaken an idea as saying the turning wheels cause the steam engine to move. We must begin to study history by considering the lives of the men within the masses and the infinitesimal activities of each.
Tolstoy now sums up the overall movements of that period. Armies of 12 different nations invade Russia and the Russians fall back, avoiding battle until Borodino. Then the French move on toward Moscow, leaving behind them thousands of versts of famine-stricken, hostile country. As they retreat, the Russians burn ever more fiercely with hatred of their foe, venting this fury at Borodino. For five weeks the French occupy Moscow before they flee while the Russians retreat well beyond the city. As the French flee, their army totally disintegrates, although not a single engagement takes place between the foes.
Kutuzov could never have foreseen this overall pattern, although militarists have criticized him ever since. A commander-in-chief is limited by many factors, says Tolstoy, and he is never present at the beginning of any event. Always in the middle of a changing series of events that unfold moment by moment, he is always unaware of the whole pattern.
When he realizes his troops are too exhausted to fight further, Kutuzov also realizes Moscow is doomed. The safety of Russia lies in her army alone, says Kutuzov to his generals at a meeting; it is better to abandon Moscow and maintain the security of our troops. The generals hear the decision and their council is like a funeral meeting. To himself, Kutuzov expresses bewilderment."This I did not expect!" he says. Then he shouts in fury,"But they shall eat horseflesh like the Turks!" and strikes the table with his fist. He still believes himself destined to deliver Russia from the French.
The abandonment and burning of Moscow, says Tolstoy, is as irresistible an event as the army's retreating without a battle. Another"irresistible event" is the evacuation of Moscow. More and more swiftly after Borodino the rich people leave the city, then the poor, with the rest burning or destroying what remains. Although exhorted by the governor to remain and fight, the citizens who depart are responding to a deeper patriotism that they feel but cannot express. Despite the vague and varied reasons that prompt each departure, leaving the wealthy city is the great deed that saves Russia. Count Rastoptchin, governor of Moscow, however, fails to recognize the"tide of destiny." Wishing to be considered as his nation's defender, he issues proclamations demanding the people remain and take a last stand against the French invaders, despite his own inner knowledge of the futility of this action. Tolstoy says Rastoptchin acts like an attention-demanding child frolicking about"the grand and inevitable event of the abandonment and burning of Moscow."
Meantime Countess Bezuhov faces a peculiar dilemma. Two of her lovers appear in town at the same time and to each she says, in effect,"If you wish to have a claim on me, why not marry me?" She decides to convert to Catholicism because then her marriage to Pierre would become invalid, since it took place according to the precepts of a"false religion." Choosing one of her lovers as a husband, she writes to Pierre for a divorce.
The sunset over Borodino finds Pierre sharing fried biscuits with some common soldiers. He feels delighted to be among them and in his dreams that night his benefactor, Osip Bazdyev, appears to him. Goodness, his mentor says, is being like them (the common soldiers). The voice continues:"No one can be master of anything while he fears death. If it were not for suffering, a man would not know his limits, would not know himself. The hardest thing . . . is to know how to unite in one's soul the significance of the whole." These are the things Pierre has longed to hear, and these statements seem to answer his most perplexing questions.
When Pierre arrives in Moscow the next morning, an adjutant of the governor tells him Rastoptchin wishes to see him. The messenger informs Pierre of the deaths of his brother-in-law Anatole and of Prince Andrey. In the waiting room, an official he knows tells him how severely Rastoptchin treats"traitors," a group of pacifists who allegedly have circulated Napoleon's proclamation around Moscow. For this crime a youth named Vereshtchagin will be sentenced to hard labor. When Pierre talks with the governor, Rastoptchin reproaches him for aiding one of these alleged traitors and warns him from further associations with that subversive group of freemasons. Pierre had better leave town, Rastoptchin says in conclusion. When he returns home, Bezuhov discovers Ellen's letter. Rehearsing the ridiculous sequence of events, he falls asleep with various thoughts running through his head: death, suffering, freedom, Ellen's marriage, the petty demagoguery of Rastoptchin. The next morning Pierre disappears and no one in his household sees him again until after the occupation of Moscow.
According to his interest in beginning an examination into the course of history through the"infinitesimal activities" of each participant, Tolstoy conveys to us a sense of the overall pattern of events and then closely details some daily particulars of one"arbitrary unit" — Pierre especially — amidst these events. As we see the"irresistible tide of history" enveloping not only Kutuzov but Pierre as well, we see how Tolstoy draws a favorable comparison between these individuals. Just as Kutuzov submits to the conditions of historical necessity by abandoning Moscow, so does Pierre strive to partake of the"significance of the whole" by abandoning his former life. Submission to destiny is the path of victory for the hero of Russia as well as the hero of the novel.
In contrast to the Kutuzov-Pierre parallel, Tolstoy provides us with the comic relief of Ellen Bezuhov's amorous crisis and the dangerous moral hypocrisy of Rastoptchin. The countess and the governor both share a childish, limited interpretation of moral universals. Both pervert human values to their own uses: Ellen travesties marriage, and Rastoptchin makes a tragic parody of patriotism and historical necessity.
These"infinitesimal" incidents involving Ellen and Rastoptchin, however, perform a useful function both in terms of the novel and in terms of the history within the novel. With Ellen's faithlessness freeing Pierre from his marital ties and Rastoptchin's banishment freeing him from civic ties, Bezuhov is liberated from society into the mainstream of the events to follow. He is now free to follow his destiny toward self-attainment through plunging into the"tide of history."