Monday, March 25, 2013

Volume III: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Volume III (665 - 1034) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin, 2005 (1392); FP: 1869) translated by Anthony Briggs begins with a critical analyses of the human condition and human nature and man's place and role in world events and history and the misconception and false attributions that is fraught in our analyses of causes. Tolstoy's essay discusses predestination, man's role in humanity's history and the belief that man has control over historical events. Tolstoy agrees with (or Nassim Taleb rather agrees with Tolstoy) on man's epistemic arrogance regarding man's quest to understand events. He argued that man, with the benefit of hindsight, pretends to understand historical events when in fact he understands nothing and only isolates some actions as having caused such events because he can now, post-facto, look back and select any of the numerous causes and claim boldly that what he has identified is (or are) the real (true, actual) cause(s) of the event, when in actual fact what he has found played no role or played a very minute role in a series of sequential actions that culminated into that event. This was the third characteristic of a Black Swan event as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

For instance, Tolstoy says it is wholly untrue and a characteristic of hindsight  (or what Nassim refers to as Epistemic Opacity or Arrogance or The Triplet of Opacity) and a result of flawed methodological approach employed by historians when they undertake the analysis of events in discrete units that the Russian Generals knew exactly what they were doing when they retreated towards Moscow and when they later abandoned it. According to Tolstoy, every man plays a tiny part in any great event and that those who are usually deemed great men to whom great events are attributed to are nothing more than pawns or tools history uses to write itself. He describes how events are predetermined and how it is impossible to influence or change the course of an action. He writes of Napoleon:
Every action they perform, which they take to be self-determined and independent, is in historical sense quite the opposite; it is interconnected with the whole course of history, and predetermined from eternity. [671]
It is this interconnectivity of smaller actions across several millions of years and of people, that determines what happens on any given day. Thus, according to Tolstoy there was not one single event that could be fingered as being the cause of the 1812/13 war between Russia and France and that the Russian victory at Borodino and their subsequent retreat beyond Moscow, the withdrawal of the French from Moscow and the fear that gripped them as they also retreated to Smolensk (in Vol. IV), and the sudden boldness of the Russian army and the guerrilla tactics they wreaked upon the French army are not necessarily fortuitous but rather have no specific cause. Any attempt by historians to find causes for these would be an exercise in futility. To back his thesis Tolstoy asks what would have happened if the people had refused to fight when Napoleon asked them to? He argues that the war feeling in the French army had reached such a fever-pitch that if Napoleon had said anything different from declaring war on the Russians, he might himself have been charged upon. He says that several incidences came together at the right time and burst into uncontrollable exudation of energy. He refers to this as a kind of 'law of coincidences'.

He compared this phenomenon with history; where historians break events up into discrete units for analysis though no event can have a unique beginning since all events are continuous and results from other actions coming before it. He used this in explaining how wrong it is to use a tiny part of the whole to explain the results of the whole; for instance, how Napoleon's life is used to explain the revolution instead of the total sum of every individual's will. For instance, Tolstoy says that it is wrong to ascribe the defeat of the French to Napoleon catching cold, as historians do; according to him, the defeat of the French was long settled. He says that great events are caused by a series of events working together and not by the will of of an individual. Assuming that the defeat to Napoleon's army at Borodino was because he contracted cold and therefore couldn't get his orders carried out, then it is also because his valet didn't get him his boots on time leading to him getting cold etc. but this is not so. Again, he questions why an army that has captured a city will not preserve its provisions but will loot its treasures or why the French did not push towards Petersburg when it has the military strength for it.

Tolstoy also explains that sometimes it isn't those who are deemed great who played the most important role in great events just as a part of a machine that unhinges itself and make loud clanging noise is not necessarily the most important part of that machine. He blamed historians for seeking out causes and for identifying 'great men' or 'heroes'. He discusses the fallacy of human deductions, which in search of solutions break down continuous motions into discrete units for analyses and end up misunderstanding events. He makes his explanation using the tortoise and Achilles as a case in point and also blames the lack of appropriate methodology for such pedantic hubris. In discussing this Tolstoy mentioned a new branch of mathematics, possibly calculus, which unknown to the ancient now
allows for infinitely small quantities and by doing so creates the basic conditions of motion... [911]
It is this suddenness with which Tolstoy's story evolves into a discursive essay that makes this book an important treatise - a treasure tome - of life in Russia in the 19th Century. His subject matter are wide-ranging as seen in his varied analogies which ranges from the fields of mechanics to mathematics to Opera and Cinemas.

Another theme that runs through the 3rd Volume is the trinity concept of  love, forgiveness, and death; or more specifically, love, forgiveness at the point of death. As the French approached Moscow, the Russian aristocrats, unwilling to surrender their recherche lifestyle, migrated to Petersburg and other areas leaving behind the peasants and serfs. This is a period where the French cultural influence on Russian life was very palpable. In fact even as as Russia was going to war with France, there were those glitterati high-society people who still revered France (example are those who patronised Countess Bezukhov's salon); though this was counterbalanced by the personages who patronised Anna Pavlovna's salon. Regardless, the general mood of the people was one of hatred towards the French to the extent that the to be caught speaking French, which was common, is to be suspiciously looked upon as a (potential) spy.

However, not all Muscovites could separate their umbilical cords from their homes and Old Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky is one such person. He suffered his first stroke when he moved from Bald Hills to Prince Andrey's house at Bogucharovo but did not survive the second attack. However, what is more significant here is not the Old Prince's love for his home and the fatherland and his anger over its possible desecration by the French. The significance of his death is in his declaration of his confused and withheld love and appreciation towards Princess Marya, his daughter, to whom he had always been unduly harsh. On his deathbed, the Old Prince asked for forgiveness and blurted out his filial love for his daughter, which for some reason was expressed only in vitriolic vituperation.

But the Old Prince was not the only one who saw the importance of love at the point of death and the uselessness of a life fraught with hatred. He was not the only one whose understanding of life blossomed exponentially at the point of death. His son, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, also did. After he was hit by a bullet in the stomach that would prove fatal, Prince Andrey was sent to an infirmary where he met Anatole Kuragin whose leg had at the time been amputated; this being their first meeting after Anatole's deception of the former's fiance, Natasha Rostov. Prince Andrey's emotional reaction towards Anatole was one of love and forgiveness. And when he - Andrey - later found himself in the presence of Natasha, a woman who rejected his proposal, he would ask for forgiveness and declare his love for her. Natasha would be by his bedside, tending and turning him and treating his wound day and night. 

Similarly, Dholokov meeting Pierre for the first time after the duel that resulted when he was accused of having had an affair with Helene (Countess Bezukhov, Pierre's wife) asked for forgiveness, with teary eyes, for any misunderstanding that might had occurred between them in the past. Thus, on the battlefield and on the deathbed each realise how fickle life is and how meaningless the things we fight for or against are when death will neutralise everything, like anti-matter. In the face of death, love prevailed over hatred.

However, unlike the others who saw life's futility when they were near death, Helene (or Countess Bezukhov - Pierre's wife) excluded everybody from her deathbed. Prior to that she continued to lead her high-society life, dissolved her marriage to Pierre after joining a church and married two different individuals at the same time. Instead of this polyandrous behaviour causing societal isolation, Countess Bezukhov was admired for her boldness, panache, and intelligence. Pierre on the other hand was blamed and lambasted as continued his search for life's meaning and for the ingredients of happiness. He had also not resolved his feeling for Natasha Rostov but have identified that his destiny and Napoleon's are interconnected in a mysterious way. He has found (rather been told) that Napoleon is the anti-Christ whose name, when arranged and numbered in a sequence, the sum of which comes to six hundred and sixty-six (666), the number of the beast John mentioned in Revelation. Pierre has also found that if he Frenchified his name and add his origin and do some elimination his name l'russe Besuhof will also come to the same sum as Napoleon's. Believing that he has been chosen by destiny to be the destroyer of the beast, he set out to defend Moscow, in whichever way he can, even as the Russian army retreated beyond the city and the city was ensconced in conflagrations and looting by the French army.

Pierre is one person who is difficult to understand and appreciate as he wastes his wealth and his life on a wife who he does not love and she in turn hates. Pierre is a conundrum. His representation is based on life itself. Can we really understand it? For instance he sold one of his estates to raise a militia for the war. Though he was unsure of his participation and usefulness of the war, he went to the war front to observe events and came face to face with death and was almost taken a prisoner but for a cannon ball that came hurling past. Later, Pierre will be arrested for arson, after he fought a French Officer who was busily robbing a woman of her necklace; later (in Vol. IV) he will by providence escape execution and become a prisoner.

Another important observation, which runs through the whole book, is Tolstoy's ability to capture mob-thought, describing the complex of decisions, positions, and thought-processes that go on to influence mob action. For instance, Tolstoy describes the general mood as the French approached Moscow and the various opinions that were bobbing around. This phenomenon is balanced by his detailed description of the minutest action such as the sun rising behind someone's back or how a tiny bit of biscuit fell from the Tsar's hand, rolled into the crowd and caused excitement among the masses. This also supports his thesis that millions of tiny actions are the cause of any event.

Finally, Leo Tolstoy portrayed man's quest for wealth and how it influences decisions and rules actions. Countess Rostov's eagerness to safeguard the family's lifestyle and protect the next generation of Rostovs led her to take certain decisions, which were not unique of the time. Countess Rostov, upon hearing that Prince Andrey was dying from war wounds, saw God's providence in this because earlier she had read a letter from Nikolay Rostov, his eldest son, about meeting Princess Marya, Andrey's sister. Should Prince Andrey die the Princess will become the sole heir and should he marry Nikolay, as the countess is working tirelessly to see it come through including manipulating Sonya (her niece) to break her engagement to Nikolay, then wealth of the Rostovs will be restored and their father's profligate behaviour wouldn't matter.

The story blooms in this volume.
See also: Volume IVolume II, & Volume IV


  1. Aside of the idea of the predetermination of history, that first part of your review, describes in more clarity than I have ever thought it, my own personal view of history.


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