"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Warning: Spoilers galore!

War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

Such was Tolstoy’s view of his mammoth work and indeed the book defies conventional forms. Apparently he worked on it for 5 solid years, and reading it gave me the impression that he started out writing a novel and over time he added in more and more military and historical philosophy. The beginning of the book is all narrative, the end all exposition, as though the balance of his interest tipped progressively from the personal to the theoretical as he worked. Perhaps he was unable to express what he wanted to express in the story and resorted to inserting ever longer essays on the themes he wanted to bring forward. His ideas on war and history are made crystal clear, and the way he portrays the War of 1812 in Russia support them, but I am having trouble figuring out how the personal stories of the characters relate to his theories on war and history.

The foundation of his theorizing is the argument that while conventional history attributes the phenomena of war to the great leaders—Napoleon, Alexander, and so on—a close examination of what actually happens shows that very little of what the leaders order actually gets carried out. The difficulties of communication, unforeseeable circumstances, competition between generals seeking court favours, and the panic (or bravery) of soldiers frustrate battle plans almost entirely. I understand that Tolstoy did painstaking research of all sorts of historical records from that war and found that everyone had a different story of what happened and no one really knew what was going on at the time. It was only after the fact that a general consensus formed, preferably one that showed one’s own side off to best advantage.

Tolstoy frequently mocks historians for attributing wins (or losses) in battle to the brilliant (or foolish) tactics of the commander in chief. In his view, what really determines the outcome of a battle is esprit de corps. Whether the soldiers are willing to run into a space filled with flying bullets is what determines who wins. Numbers, weapons, position are unimportant, especially since these cannot be effectively organized and commanded anyway.

After driving home the point that battles are fundamentally chaotic, Tolstoy moves on to the general course of the war, and continues to mock the historians for misunderstanding what happened. The conventional view is that the Russians lost the first major battle on Russian soil, at Borodin, because they retreated afterwards. However Tolstoy’s view, and the Russian commander’s view, was that the Russians won because they inflicted a mortal wound that was the eventual downfall of the French army, even though Napoleon subsequently marched right through to Moscow unopposed. The wound was more psychological than physical, since the French army still had superior numbers, but so many were lost that day, so far from home, that they started feeling insecure. Their instinct was then to rush to Moscow to feed off its plenty, but when they got there they found the city abandoned. This is one of Tolstoy’s other major themes: the Russians won the war because they were Russian. They would not submit to occupation as the Europeans did, so they abandoned their homes and properties and left behind a ghost town. This led to looting and a breakdown of discipline among the French, which further increased their anxiety and eventually prompted their disastrous flight back to France

Tolstoy also makes an interesting point about the fires. The usual story is that the Muscovites burned down their city as they left to starve out the French, but Tolstoy writes that the fires were inevitable because houses simply catch on fire from time to time, more so when there are soldier’s camp fires burning all around the city, and with the firefighters gone along with the rest of the native population, there was no other possible outcome but the burning of Moscow. This is not an unimportant point because the inevitability of events is really Tolstoy’s main thesis.

Although Tolstoy suggests at several points in the story that historical events were inevitable, and mentions Providence once or twice, it is only in the second part of the Epilogue that he fully explains what he means. There he presents a critique of modern historians who have made only a partial break with ancient historical methods and have failed to embrace the scientific method. He writes that ancient historians attributed historical events to the will of one or more gods who manipulate the desires and actions of human beings. Modern historians reject this view, and transfer the history-making power of will from the gods to humans. The problem with this, according to Tolstoy, is that there is very little evidence that any person’s or group’s will has any effect on historical events, and it is questionable whether we have any free will at all. He presents examples and lines of argument that suggest that our behaviour is simply a product of our origins and circumstances, and so if we want to explain historical events we simply need to understand the origins and circumstances of all of the people involved and that will explain why they acted the way they did, especially when they acted contrary to their stated values and goals.

Naturally we would all object to the notion that our every move is somehow programmed, but Tolstoy argues that though we feel free, reason suggests otherwise. Modern neuroscience, psychology, and sociology would seem to confirm that our behaviour is at least in part determined by our biology and environment, but we still cannot accept that, and so we live in a paradox. Not being aware of that paradox is what leads historians astray when they try to find the causes of events, but perhaps it is the only way we can live. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, in which historians are able to predict events mathematically, but their calculations will only be correct as long as the people involved don’t know the predictions. Only those who think they are free can act predictably!

If human behaviour is not free, then, Tolstoy believes, we should be able to describe human behaviour mathematically. Understanding the total complexity of what drives every act of every person is impossible, but it may be possible to express the sum total of group behaviour mathematically and thus derive laws of history. He draws a parallel with natural science in which there are cases where the ultimate cause of a phenomenon might not be known but we can still determine the laws according to which that phenomenon takes place. For example Newton did not know what caused gravity (and I’m not sure we do now!) but he was able to formulate a law of gravity that described the observed attraction between masses. Tolstoy proposes this as the only way forward for a truly modern, secular study of history. I am not at all exposed to the cutting edge of history, but it seems as though Tolstoy’s proposal was not adopted, and the study of history continues in much the same way as in his time.

Lest you think the book is all dry, curmudgeonly theory, I should say that it is also a fascinating, entertaining, and moving story. Tolstoy makes his characters come alive by describing their every move in minute detail, but always with a purpose, not simply to fill the pages. Similarly his descriptions of battles and other scenes are so detailed and include all of the senses so that you feel like you’re really there. Tolstoy was a master craftsman, of that there is no doubt.

He also has something to say about what it is to be human. Ambition and the desire to understand and shape the world seem to get his characters into trouble, but when they abandon those mental processes they find themselves making the right decisions quickly and instinctively, and finding happiness. This journey is expressed most clearly in Pierre Bezukhov, a tormented spiritual seeker whose experience as a POW cures him (at least partially) of his dreamy nature and he settles down to wedded bliss. Similarly, Nikolai Rostov begins as a rather brainless, hot-headed, glory-seeking young gun, but finds true happiness in providing for his family. Though he operates his estate purely out of self-interest, that self-interest entails taking good care of his serfs, and so they would rather serve him than be freed, and his farm prospers abundantly. This Nikolai seems to be a precursor to reformed reformer Nikolai Levin from Anna Karenina.

As for the women, Tolstoy is very clear: family life is the complete fulfilment of a woman. He has nothing but disdain for women who feign intelligence and talk politics at salon parties. Only all-consuming dedication to one’s husband and family can make a woman both natural and happy. Nikolai’s sister Natasha is introduced as a thoroughly spoiled and vain girl, but after marriage she “lets herself go” and finds ever-increasing happiness in dedicating herself totally to her husband and children. But what Tolstoy lacks in respect for women’s minds he makes up for in respect for women’s instincts, which he depicts as always correct and instrumental in reining in the destructive intellectual fancies of their men. Family life is Tolstoy’s ideal for men as well. Politics and spirituality are useless exercises, though religion is fine for the women as long as it doesn’t interfere with family life.

I think Tolstoy was not quite decided about religion when he wrote the book. His epilogue entreats historians to abandon the notion of God-given free will, but in the story he depicts religion with great respect. As I mentioned before, he sometimes mentions Providence as the ultimate decider of events, and his most religious character, Marya Bolkonsky, is the least flawed and least changed of all his main characters. Her brother Andrei, who loves his sister but rejects religion, has religious experiences during his military service, but it comes to nothing and he dies rather strangely, with hostility towards the living. I understand that Tolstoy changed his views on religion drastically in later life, and perhaps this book reflects some inner conflict on that subject.

One thing he was not conflicted about was the horror of murder. It seems that part of his seeking to understand history is to understand how such large numbers of people can so deliberately set about killing each other so horribly. Every time someone is killed or maimed in the book, he uses vague language to convey the mind’s unwillingness to acknowledge murder and death—something happened to the soldier’s leg, or they put something in the pit. This horror of killing is especially emphasized in the firing squad scene, in which the soldiers, though doing their duty and carrying out a form of justice, come away with faces like criminals.

As I said in the beginning, it is hard to relate the characters to Tolstoy’s thoughts on history, but the last scraps of the narrative may be a clue. There we see Pierre beginning to revert to his dreamy, scheming nature, and Bolkonsky’s son begins to sound very much like the father he never knew in wishing to distinguish himself publicly in some way. Perhaps the message is that though our circumstances may change and bring us closer to a natural way of life (i.e. family life), we still cannot help our nature and will continue to act according to its dictates for our entire lives and throughout the generations.

If you feel daunted by the size of War and Peace, I assure you that it is easy reading, no doubt much easier than reading this post! Though one can occasionally get bogged down in Tolstoy’s theorizing, most of the book is an engrossing narrative animated by very human characters. It certainly is long, but it is written in a straightforward way, and Tolstoy’s vivid descriptions make you feel like you are watching the action in person rather than reading about it. So if you’re Feelin’ Chunky this year, do give War and Peace a try!

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8 comments on “"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

  1. AndrewL says:

    Great post, thanks.
    I haven't read W&P as yet. Maybe in a few years (…as I nervously glance over at my copy).

  2. Sylvia says:

    If you could get through that whole post then you should have no trouble with the book! 😀

  3. Stefanie says:

    I thought your post quite good. I'm not quite recovered from Clarissa yet, but one of these days I will read this one.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Thanks. You'll be happy to know that there are only a couple of letters in War and Peace. 😉

  5. Rebecca Reid says:

    It sounds good. It did sound rather theoretical, until you clarified that it's not. I will have to read this *some day*, but probably won't this year!

  6. Sylvia says:

    Oh yes, I'd say it's something like 90% story. The theorizing stands out, though, as a departure from the narrative and because Tolstoy makes such a strong challenge to conventional history.
    I'd definitely recommend picking up this translation while it is still available and tuck it away for later. From what I gather it's an excellent translation and a very finely produced book.

  7. Balkan says:

    Glad you read it!

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