The life of peoples and humanity is the subject of history, writes Tolstoy, and the writing of history is an attempt to make intelligible the course of human events. But, he asks rhetorically, what is the cause of these events, and what is the force that moves nations? Historians construct answers based on their special viewpoints; some discuss history in terms of the"great men" theory, some in terms of cultural issues, some according to the interplay between nations. Examining each school of historiography, Tolstoy shows how inadequate these separate theories are to explain complex events.
How can the cultural historian explain, for instance, the murder of millions of Frenchmen during the French revolution in terms of what men thought about the equality of man, Tolstoy asks? To do this, the historian must show a propelling force equal to the resultant force, just as the physical scientist explains the thrust of a steam engine in terms of input. Tolstoy argues that a mere"idea" cannot generate such a power.
The biographical historian is equally at fault. To assume that"great men" move nations is as arbitrary as assuming, as did the ancients, that the will of God ordains history. Tolstoy analyzes how these historians explain the decisions of the"great men" who move nations. They cite, for example, Talleyrand's influence upon Alexander, or describe the part Mme. de Stael played in changing the course of government. Naturally it is ridiculous to assume that millions of people submit to whatever Talleyrand or de Stael convinced Alexander.
Tolstoy goes on to discredit the historical construct of"power" as the motive force of events. If the concept of power is valid, he argues, then we must be able to explain its nature and define how it works. If people submit to the power of their government, and if the mass allows its will to be reflected and represented by its leaders, then we can examine what does constitute the will of the masses and how the lives of the people can be represented, or symbolized, by the lives of their monarchs. Tolstoy concludes that we cannot ascribe the activities of millions of men moving from place to place, butchering one another, burning housing and harvests, as a reflection of the actions of some dozen persons who do not kill men or burn property.
On the other hand, events are clearly connected with the will of the leaders. We see that when Napoleon commands, thousands of men march into Russia. To show how"power" is expressed in the relationship between leaders and followers and the conditions under which the leader's will operates — or fails to operate — Tolstoy uses the structure of the military as a working model. His examination concludes that the men issuing the most orders are the farthest removed from the action they are ordering, while those directly involved in the action are the least responsible for directing it. He has already illustrated this principle during the war scenes in the body of his novel.
Tolstoy also examines the kind of power a commander has over the men he commands; it is either moral power or physical power, he says. The physical strength of a leader can only be effective on a small number of men, whereas moral power extends the leader's control to a larger group. Yet history offers many examples of weak and ineffectual leaders who still control the destinies of the men they lead.
Having failed to reveal how the power of a commander is transmitted to his followers, and having failed to describe the nature of this power, Tolstoy adds another argument to discredit the concept of power — the factor of time. Since human beings, he begins, operate within time, and events change according to time; a command can only cover a specific time sequence. Moreover, the commander himself is always in the middle of an event as it unfolds and he can never control all aspects of the event. Tolstoy shows how, out of all the commands given to cover the various conditions of any event, only those that are possible to be carried out will be carried out. No command can produce an event that is not ready to be enacted.
Historians who say that this or that decision caused this or that event to occur are mistaking cause and effect. Tolstoy uses an analogy to illustrate his statement. Consider some men who are about to drag off a log, he says, and each man offers an opinion as to where the log should go. They drag it away, and it turns out to end up where one of them had advised. This is the man, historians would say, who gave the command. All the other commands and commanders are thus forgotten after the event has been enacted. With these analyses, Tolstoy concludes that"power" vested by the mass in one or a few persons, expressed through the followers of a commander, and operating within the constraints of time, can never serve to explain historical causality.
Having thus discredited the various schools of historiography and pointing out the fallacy of general concepts like"power," Tolstoy examines human existence in relation to the forces of destiny. His previous arguments have considered external phenomena only and have overlooked the intrinsic quality of man's freedom of will. Tolstoy now comes to the crux of his argument, which remains an unresolved paradox: Freedom of will is as mythic a quality as that of power, but without this concept all human activities become meaningless.
If men have free wills, history would be a series of unconnected incidents, says Tolstoy, who believes nevertheless in historical determinacy. But if we admit that even one man has the power to act freely, he argues, then we cannot formulate any law to explain the actions of men. By the same token, if one law controls the actions of men, then no one is free, all wills being subject to that law.
Tolstoy attacks this problem by hypothesizing two views of man, an"inner" view and an"outer" view:"Looking at man as a subject of observation from any point of view — theological, ethical, philosophical — we find a general law of necessity to which he is subject like everything else existing. Looking at him from within ourselves, as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves free." This"inner" quality is our consciousness or free will, and the"outer" quality is reason, or necessity."Through reason, man observes himself," writes Tolstoy,"but he knows himself through consciousness."
Despite our"reason," which accepts the scientific proofs that we are subject to naturalistic constraints as other creatures are, our"consciousness" senses freedom. Without this"meaningless feeling of freedom" life would be insupportable. All the concepts of our existence express this instinct for freedom, Tolstoy says: the notions of wealth and poverty, hunger and repletion, health and disease, are only terms for greater or lesser degrees of freedom. Our sense of free will can never be reconciled with the immutable laws of necessity; at best, we conclude that men and animals share nervous and muscular activity, but man has, in addition, consciousness.
History does not differentiate between free will and necessity. Rather, it relates how free will has manifested itself in the past and under what conditions it has operated. History is"our representation" of the action of free will, and we regard every event as a proportionate combination of free will with necessity. The more we know of the circumstances under which an act was performed, the less free the act seems. When a period of time has elapsed, allowing us to see more consequences of a particular act and its relation to previous acts, we see more and more necessities that determine the nature of the act. Free will, therefore, is an illusion we maintain because we cannot know all the factors contributing to the accomplished act.
With our limited knowledge, we can only conclude that human existence is made up of the"incomprehensible essence of life" and the"laws that give form to that essence." Our consciousness expresses the reality of free will, according to this scheme, while our reason expresses the laws of necessity. When we describe historical events, we express all the known factors as the laws of necessity, while those unknown we term free will. For historians to state, however, that free will (like Napoleon's genius) causes historical phenomena is analogous to astronomers recognizing freedom in the movement of heavenly bodies. As in science, we must seek to describe in history what can be observed, and then state what we know and admit what we do not know.
We cannot describe the essence of the force that moves heavenly bodies, but we can describe how this"vital force" operates. In history, this"vital force" is our concept of free will, and to show how it operates, we cite the observable laws of necessity. To approach history as a science, therefore, we must begin with the necessities: that is, the study of movements of people and of nations, and not episodes from the lives of great men. In order to discover historical laws, we must seek the properties common to all the equal and inseparably interconnected, infinitesimal elements by which free will is constrained. To be intelligible, history must admit that personality is subject to the laws of time, space, and motion, just as physics admits the relative movement of the earth as the basis of its investigations. We do not feel the earth's movements with our senses, neither do we feel our consciousness dependent on external phenomena. Yet our reason has descried the planet's motion, and our reason must detect the limits of our free will. Only with this kind of scientific approach can historiography become a credible discipline, and ultimately, reveal the nature of human life.
Most critics regard Tolstoy's philosophical exegesis in the Second Epilogue as unliterary, boring, and outside the intentions of the novel. They regard the didactic passages liberally sprinkled throughout the book as redundant. Yet Tolstoy's interest in history is the most serious and intense aspect of War and Peace and provides the novel with its underlying unity. The Second Epilogue, therefore, deserves our attention because it reveals Tolstoy's obsessive and passionate search for truth; this quest not only gave force to his major novels, but provided him with the philosophic focus of his life.
Isaiah Berlin has discussed Tolstoy's theory of history in a brilliant essay, and the Analysis in these Notes is based on his work with the quoted statements taken from his book The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953).
Tolstoy's interest in history derives from his desire to penetrate first causes, to answer for himself the burning question of the meaning of human life and death."History, only history, only the sum of the concrete events in time and space — and sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimension, empirically experienced, physical environment — this alone contains the truth, the material out of which genuine answers — answers needing for their apprehension no special senses or faculties which normal human beings did not possess — might be constructed" (p. 11). Life consists of innumerable events and history chooses only an insignificant arbitrarily patterned part of these events with which to document a special theory as the primary cause of social or political change. What then is the"real" history of human beings?
Tolstoy says that the"inner" events of human beings are the most real and immediate experiences;"they, and only they, are what life, in the last analysis, is made of"; hence the routine political historians who write history as a series of public events"are talking shallow nonsense" (p. 15).
Tolstoy illustrates this difference between written history and actual — or"private" — history throughout War and Peace when he shows how the statesmen and commanders highest in the pyramid of authority are far removed from the ordinary men and women whose lives are the"actual stuff of history." In various battle scenes, Tolstoy shows how little control the commanders have over the destiny of the event they believe they command, while the soldiers who do the fighting are the most responsible for its outcome. Andrey discovers this truth when he meets the"important" people who guide their nations' destinies at Brunn, or when he talks with the reformer Speransky; all these men delude themselves into believing that their memoranda, resolutions, and councils are the motive factors that determine historical change, whereas they are, in fact, nothing but"self-important milling in the void" (p. 17). Men of destiny like Napoleon equally with men of science like the German militarists must be impostors, since no single will or theory can fit the immense variety of"possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effect which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record."
This, then, is the ultimate illusion that Tolstoy attempts to destroy in the course of his novel:"that individuals can, by use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events"; and the men of history who believe this turn out to be hugely mistaken. The real world, on the other hand, does not consist of men who exert their alleged"free will" or who theorize motives for what they do, but it consists of the day-to-day stream of life of men in their everyday existence. Social, political, and economic phenomena are not the ultimate realities at all; rather, these are"outer accidents" of the ultimate reality, which consists of the"ordinary, day to day succession of private data" (p. 20).
Tolstoy's mastery of describing the moments of individual subjective experience — the details that compound"real life" — is unsurpassed. Yet he realized that history's task is not merely to describe transitory minutiae but to explain the totality of events without using those"thin disguises for ignorance" like"chance,""genius," or"cause."
Tolstoy believes that the lives of human beings are subject to the control of natural law, along with the entire universe. Men, however, are unable to accept this"inexorable process," and elect to view their existence as regulated by the operation of free choice on the part of individuals of extraordinary capacity for good or ill. These supposed"great men" are in fact quite ordinary persons whose ignorance and vanity induces them to accept responsibility for all of the evils attributed to them. They prefer this role to recognition of their own helpless insignificance in the"cosmic flow" of events which is indifferent to them. Tolstoy excels in presenting this focal idea by means of descriptions of events placed in apposition to the ridiculous interpretation of those events entertained by men carried away by their own egoism. Similarly, Tolstoy's thesis is given forceful expression by those instances of revelation when the reality of human existence is comprehended by"those who have the humility to recognize their own unimportance and irrelevance" (p. 27).
War and Peace contrasts the"universal and all-important but delusive experience of free will, the feeling of responsibility, the values of private life generally, on one hand; and on the other, the reality of inexorable historical determinism, not indeed, experienced directly, but known to be true on irrefutable theoretical grounds" (p. 29). Tolstoy is unable, in the last analysis, to entirely discredit the historiography we know. Although the"important" people in history are less important than they believe themselves to be, neither are they shadows; individuals do have social purposes and they can transform the lives of communities.
Tolstoy's concern with history is not merely to point out the faulty reasoning of historians; his interest stems from a deeper, personal quest, a"bitter inner conflict between his actual experience and his beliefs, between his vision of life, and his theory of what it, and he himself, ought to be, if the vision was to be bearable at all" (p. 35). He desired to discover a single doctrine or law to which the multiple and seemingly unrelated daily events that make up reality belong, and his obsessive interest to discover this unifying truth drove him to this ruthless criticism of all theorists and historians who provide a shoddy, illogical law as the common denominator of multiple experience. This desire generates the philosophical examination of history in War and Peace and not a spirit of academic rumination.
The very idea of a unifying moral law to cover all the realities of experience presented Tolstoy with a lifelong paradox: Moral life with its sense of"responsibility, joys, sorrows, sense of guilt, achievement," is illusory, since"free will" does not exist if we know — and theoretically we can know — the laws of necessity that govern every phenomenon and human activity. Faced with this paradox of believing in and yet denying free will, Tolstoy, like Prince Andrey, chooses nihilism and regarded the"first causes of events as mysterious, involving the reduction of human wills to nullity" (p. 55).