Friday, February 21, 2014

Digressions into the Philosophy of History

Interestingly enough, after the more personal and less directly historical Books 6, 7, and 8, Tolstoy begins Book 9 with a long philosophical digression on the nature of history, causation, and freedom. To me, this seems to only reinforce one of the points Tolstoy makes regarding history – that ultimately, everything is historical, even the most intimate details of the personal lives of individuals (such as the touching scene between Pierre and Natasha at the end of Book 8). Of course, this touches upon the distinction Tolstoy draws between the “individual life” and the “elemental hive life” of the individual, and upon Tolstoy’s rather odd statement that one’s “individual life is the more free the more abstract its interests” (537). It would seem that Tolstoy is claiming that, the further one removes oneself from practical affairs, the more one escapes the “hive life,” the historical drive. But it seems that the decision to withdraw from practical affairs is just as susceptible to transformation into historical fact as practical action—so perhaps Tolstoy means that withdrawing into abstract affairs makes one less susceptible to the social impulse of history.

This brings up another point: that, for Tolstoy, history seems to be psychologically and socially driven, but not causally or consciously driven. History marches toward a goal, but the goal is chosen not by a rational principle but by “the unconscious, general hive life of mankind" (537). Yet we should probably be careful in saying that for Tolstoy history is irrational, given Tolstoy’s remark on page 537 about the nature of irrational events. It might be better to say that, for Tolstoy, the progress of history does not conform to anyone’s conscious aims. Moreover, history is not driven by any sort of recognizable causality—we cannot pick out a neat, discrete set of causes for a given historical event; we can only say that the totality of historical facts prior to the event led to the event via coincidence. Given the weightiness of Tolstoy’s discussion of history, the beginning of Book 9 marks a pronounced shift in perspective (or perhaps a pronounced declaration of a perspective) on the lives of the characters.


  1. What I find interesting about your remarks is your citation of this passage which falls in the 500-600 page range of the novel. If all life is simply meaningless and only contributes to the "hive life" of mankind, why bother developing characters and describing the peace scenes? In particular, the above description of history is noticeably absent of a female narrative, yet Tolstoy spends many pages describing numerous women who seem to have an impact on men and society overall. What is Tolstoy trying to say if history appears to progress apart from the will of "man"kind - women exist solely to mate and procure more men to contribute to the annals of history? I agree that the narrator/Tolstoy is making a declaration of perspective on the lives of the characters, but I think irony underlies the whole passage, as these pages are but a small number in a huge epic describing innumerable, minute details of these characters' lives.

  2. I think you make a good point in suggesting that these remarks at the beginning of Book 9 may contain a degree of irony - I wondered about this myself during the reading for today. However, I think that we have no reason to reject these remarks entirely, as they align with other aspects of the book (most noticeably with the depictions of Napoleon and Alexander) and because they are developed further at the beginning of Book 10 as well. So, it seems to me that there is good evidence suggesting that these remarks on history are made in earnest.

    I would also say that I don't think that Tolstoy is saying that life is meaningless in these remarks. To return to page 537, Tolstoy remarks that the individual has both an "individual life" and an "elemental hive life"; indeed, the individual life can attain a degree of freedom, which still puzzles me. Nevertheless, fatalism doesn't seem to imply that life is meaningless; rather, it only seems to imply that events happen necessarily, that things could not have turned out otherwise. I think that for Tolstoy life can be meaningful while still being "historical."

    To me, it seemed like these remarks did account for the "female narrative" of the book in their universality. While Tolstoy certainly uses gendered language such as "mankind" and attacks "great men," I think he is trying to get at a view of history that applies to all of humanity. On this view, the peacetime scenes of War and Peace would be included among all the other causes which lead up to a given event. All people, regardless of gender, play parts in history (and we could also note Tolstoy's remarks about "great men" seem to apply to female rulers such as Catherine the Great).