On Tolstoy’s Philosophy of History

All quotes from Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace (Trans. By A. Maude)

It might be nearing a tautology to say the canon of Russian literature is not complete without the novels of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, but it is even more apparent that, without War and Peace, Tolstoy himself, and his detailed philosophy, would be left wanting. However, the philosophical elucidations one gains from Tolstoy after reading War and Peace is found in the sections most criticized for their supposed distracting and superficial qualities. Yet, even in the face of contemporary artistic critics who suggested they be left out of the novel, the passages remained. The question left to the reader, then, is why? That is, what function do these sections on the philosophy of history serve within the novel (if not for Tolstoy himself)? In a word, the function of the philosophical sections within the novel is (i.) to establish the novel itself as a polemic against the major contemporary views concerning historical analysis and (ii.) to set the novel up in such a way as to answer the question of causality (the true question of history) in Tolstoy’s own view.

Tolstoy undoubtedly wrote this novel with a question of causality in the back of his mind; however, this question being left unanswered by contemporary theories of history — such as the so-called “Great Men” theory and the so-called histories of culture — made them ready to become the objects of Tolstoy’s scorn. Consider, for example, this “Great Men” approach to the method of historical analysis. This was the popular method of the historian in the nineteenth century. Tolstoy asks of this method to explain the meaning of historical movements, what caused the movements, and what force produced these events? Tolstoy hears in response only the names of leaders who had “such and such characteristics” and “such and such ministers”. But, of course, this satirization of the normative “history” as a thing recognizable only through the biographies of the leaders and statesmen in power is the repulsive tendency that Tolstoy is railing against. This method does not explain all of an events’ “causes in their completeness” nor show the causes of the masses as with the multiplicity and complexity that the event entails.

To view history in this way — that is, through the lens of supposed Great Men, such as Napoleon — is, for Tolstoy, analogous to believing that the hands of one’s watch resting at ten o’clock cause the neighboring church bells to ring. Another way, the hands resting at ten is a coincidence of occurrence with the ringing church bells; and, of course, the coincidence of occurrences is not an explanation of the true causes of events (let alone true causes of historical events). Yet, for Tolstoy, these “Great Men” historians were merely observing the hands of their watches. This is why Prince Andrew becomes disillusioned with Napoleon and later Speransky, it is why young Count Nicholas Rostov can not explain with accuracy the events of Austerlitz when considering Bagration, it is why Napoleon, the man who believes he sets the world in motion and events themselves occur such that he has willed it, is to be the creature of Tolsoy’s greatest irony in the epic. Napoleon’s view in the novel is the view that these “Great Men” historians have ascribed to the world about him. By way of this criticism against contemporary historians, Tolstoy establishes his polemic in his philosophical sections.

Of course, these historians may respond to Tolstoy and say that it is these leaders that maintain the power and inherent force to move masses, and that they, because the masses consented to be governed or an aristocracy coronated an emperor, belong yet to the core of the history books. But Tolstoy anticipates this objection, furthering the polemical style, and asks: “which force from which leader is the true force? Are these not contradictory forces?”.

First, Tolstoy explains that under this view (the view of the “Great Men” historians), the true force causing events is indeed varied, depending on the given historian (Napoleon’s force, Alexander’s force, etc.). This, of course, is an obvious issue of the method: disagreement resulting in contradictory (or incompatible) analyses of the same events within the same method or practice of the historical as a science. Next, Tolstoy claims these types of “Great Men” historians do not even show us what this force is, nor how it operates.

Tolstoy ventures to say the historians misunderstand or “deliberately stop half way” from achieving the maxim he deems necessary for accurate historical analyses and representations: “[t]o find component forces equal to the composite or resultant force, the sum of the components must equal the resultant”. Viz., the less than 600 signatories at the Tennis Court Oath do not account for the millions of Frenchman who assembled against the Bourbon dynasty. “That Chateaubriand, Madame de Stael, and others spoke certain words to one another only affects their mutual relations, not the submission of millions.” That Caesar crossed the Rubicon does not account for why his legions followed.

In a word, we see Tolstoy’s positive view through this polemic: Great Men are merely those who tell themselves they are the movers and shakers of a world in which they are, in fact, insignificant, “involuntary tools of history”; historians who represent them as men who move and shake the world misunderstand the flow of the event-ontology that is history — “the higher [one] stand[s] in the social hierarchy the less [one] is free”. What’s more, there is a determinate quality to history that evolves without regarding any individual’s willed actions or great desires, but only by deferring to “the activity of all who participate in events” which are the true cause of history.

To conclude and reaffirm, the criticisms of Tolstoy’s contemporary historical practices within the philosophical sections themselves function to show what Tolstoy believes history is not, something which serves to help the reader understand the intent of the novel as greatly polemical. Moreover, the philosophical sections also function to move on as a grounds for Tolstoy to establish a thesis in his own view. Without these philosophical sections in War and Peace, the novel would not have maintained the polemical and analytic features Tolstoy seemed to aim toward, such that their mentioned functions were not distractions, but in fact were of great importance.

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro