“All their assaults and attacks on each other caused almost no harm; the harm, death, and mutilation were caused by the cannonballs and bullets that flew everywhere through that space in which these men were rushing about.”

I’m not sure it would be right to say that my coverage of War & Peace has really been “building” to anything, but let’s see what I can do with day four, bringing things out more to the “point” of the novel, which, as Greg Zimmerman noted back in December, “inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel,” amounts to something like this:

The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force.*

Tolstoy accomplishes a few things with the war portions of the novel, including developing the story of Borodino as a turning point in the Napoleonic wars, and I think these are the most interesting and compelling sections of the novel in many ways (though they kind of break the idea of “novel” a little bit)**. His interest is big: in explaining the causes of the war, or, as he often describes it quite to my liking, the great movement of people across Europe from west to east followed by a great movement of people across Europe from east to west.

I also like that he’s a bit of a wrecker. The war sections are more anti-authoritarian than the peace ones (except where the peace sections touch on diplomacy), and Tolstoy is actively antagonistic toward received interpretations of historical events. “They were wrong in 1812, they were wrong a generation later, and they’re wrong now!” he insists, and successfully—he is grappling with some pretty standard issues of historiography, and he is right to reject the idea that we can simply say “Napoleon was a genius” and all is explained.

Unfortunately, I am not fully sympathetic to Tolstoy’s alternative view. He is a fatalist, and practically a Calvinist. As he drills down into the cause of each cause, further and further, he gets to a point where each individual who made up a part of this movement across Europe is an individual who moved across Europe, but he can’t stop there. He insists that these people had no choice—whatever they did was inevitable, just because. (Of course, it’s not quite “just because” for Tolstoy, it’s because of that stage manager he mentions once in a while. But he begins to seem more like an 18th-century Frenchman who believes he’s living in a clockwork universe than whatever he really is.)

But is there a point to this level of analysis? Here’s an example from the epilogue, where he does lots more philosophizing, and which I think illustrates two main things: Tolstoy’s ridiculous philosophical sloppiness, and the pointlessness of his obsessive exercise in cause-seeking.

A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: why does it move? A muzhik says: the devil moves it. Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels turn. A third asserts that the cause of the movement is the smoke blown away by the wind.

The muzhik is irrefutable. In order to refute him, someone would have to prove to him that there is no devil, or another muzhik would have to explain to him that it is not the devil but a German who moves the locomotive. Only then, by way of contradiction, will they see that they are both wrong. But the one who says that the cause is the turning of the wheels refutes himself, because, if he enters upon the terrain of analysis, he must keep going: he must explain the cause of the turning of the wheels. And until he arrives at the ultimate cause of the locomotive’s movement, the steam compressed in the boiler, he will have no right to stop in his search for the cause.

First, the sloppiness. With hardly a breath after saying the muzhik is “irrefutable,” Tolstoy is ready to tell you exactly how to refute him! And the idea that by contradicting each other, the two muzhiks should both be convinced of their wrongness is also suspect. And even if the man who mentions the turning of the wheels “must keep going,” that doesn’t mean he “refutes himself”; naming a promixate cause before a more distant cause doesn’t refute the existence of the proximate cause. There can be more than one!

The second point is really about scope, appropriateness, and obsession. There are perfectly valid reasons out here in the real world to care only about proximate causes of events. Perhaps simply saying “the wheels move” is unhelpful, and moving on to the steam compressed in the boiler is important because without knowing that, you won’t be able to fix a broken locomotive. But Tolstoy is unsatisfied with explanations that stop anywhere short of the stage manager—whereas going as far as the stage manager is pointless most of the time, because all it gets you is “there’s no such thing as free will and everything is predetermined.” That might be the ultimate explanation of all things, but if the same one thing is the ultimate explanation of all things, it’s a bit of a conversation-stopper—and doesn’t do anything at all to help get the train running on time.

I’m not saying necessarily that I disagree with Tolstoy’s views on free will (we might disagree entirely about what’s virtuous and what’s vicious, but in some ways I’m a Calvinist myself), but that I find his insistence on this depth of inquiry often barren and sometimes depressingly immoral. Many things Tolstoy says about the Napoleonic wars help me understand them better, but when he ultimately concludes that no one involved was responsible for any of his or her own actions, it’s at best inutile and at worst a disgusting rejection of personal responsibility. We are not working at the stage-manager level, and at the human level personal responsibility is still real. As the consumption partner put it last night, “You may have been predestined to be an asshole, but if you were, guess what? You’re still an asshole, and it’s still my right to treat you like one.” Of course, this is simply the tangle of free will and predestination: if you’re damned, it isn’t actually your fault, but you’re still damned because you deserve damnation. You can choose, like Tolstoy, to spend a lot of time stuck in this tangle.

My question for the end of this post is how well we think Tolstoy accepts his own conclusions. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week writing about some of the peace-based plots, mostly in terms of deserts. Without free will or personal responsibility, there can be no such thing as just deserts, though. If Sonya’s motives are impure, why should she be punished? She couldn’t have done anything about it anyway, and nothing matters because it was all inevitable. If Kuragin is a despoiler, why should he get his comeuppance? Except! Tolstoy can give it to them because he’s made himself the stage-manager. We lowly humans cannot understand why things happen because we aren’t privy to a whole other level of “reasoning,” i.e., the stage-manager’s reasoning. He has reasons we can’t even imagine for making us all do what he does, so things might not make sense to us, but we can trust that they make sense to him. And this is perfect for a novelist—exactly what novelists do, as I discussed with Tom in the comments yesterday. I think that Tolstoy does accept his own conclusions, and that the war and peace sections are meant to be analogous counterparts proving the same point, but as Tom says, “The analogy is useless!”

Of course, we could always question Tom’s claim that “I am in some important sense a real person!” But really, practically speaking, he is, and so am I, and so was Napoleon, and so were the hundreds of thousands of troops who followed him into battle, and killed other real people. And I’m willing to hold them much more responsible for all that than Tolstoy is.

*Quote from Greg’s blog, presumably from the Anthony Briggs translation he read.

**Don’t worry, there are still plenty of things I disagree with in the war sections. He’s a super dooper nationalist, for one thing.

2 comments to “All their assaults and attacks on each other caused almost no harm; the harm, death, and mutilation were caused by the cannonballs and bullets that flew everywhere through that space in which these men were rushing about.”

  • I wonder what difference it would have made if Tolstoy had published the epilogue and other essayistic stuff separately. It would make the book shorter, so that would be one improvement.

    But it could have been an interesting little book. Separate, he might have actually had to refer back to his own novel, to point out the places where we could see his theory in action. Eh, probably not.

    I blame Pessoa, by the way, for that odd formulation. I had to leave open the possibility that I am in fact not a real person, but the heteronym of the real me.

  • I think that Tolstoy would have been much better off had he done what you suggested. I mean, perhaps not—he is awfully famous, largely for this book, after all. But he would have had a fairly juicy military-politico-philosophical treatise on his hands, and a spirited pageturner to boot. I don’t think, however, that he would really had have to point out the “theory in action.” I mean, that’s part of my thing, I guess—I don’t think he succeeds in connecting them tightly enough here.