War and Peace

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Tolstoy once said famously that War and Peace was not meant to be a novel at all. Like all great works of art, it certainly defies all conventions. Set against the historical events of the Napoleonic Wars, its complex narrative development is a long way from the tidy plot structure of the European novel in its nineteenth-century form. Tolstoy's novel does not even have a clear beginning, middle and end, though it does, in one sense, turn on a moment of epiphany, the year of 1812, when Russia's liberation from Napoleon is made to coincide with the personal liberation of the novel's central characters.

As they seek fulfillment, fall in love, make mistakes, and become scarred by conflicts in different ways, these characters and their stories interweave with those of a huge cast, from aristocrats to peasants, from soldiers to Napoleon himself. Battles, love affairs, births, deaths, changing family fortunes, Russian dancing, the great comet of 1812 - the entire spectrum of human life is here in all its grandeur and imperfection.

While clearly still a novel, War and Peace can be understood, at an other level, as a novelist's attempt to engage with the truth of history. But history-writing disappointed him. It seemed to reduce the richness of real life. For whereas the 'real' history of lived experience was made up of an infinite number of factors and contingencies, historians selected just a few (for example, the political or the economic) to develop their theories and explanations. He was particularly frustrated by the failure of historians to illuminate the 'inner' life of a society - the private thoughts and relationships that make up the most real and immediate experience of human beings. Hence he turned to literature. On this reading, War and Peace appears as a national epic - the revelation of a 'Russian consciousness' in the inner life of its characters.

For War and Peace is a universal work and, like all the great artistic prose works of the Russian tradition, it functions as a huge poetic structure for the contemplation of the fundamental question of our existence.

Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.

To shed a light on this brilliant masterpiece, such interesting statements from the Epilogue:
The subject matter of history is the life of peoples and humanity. To seize and put into words, to describe directly, the life of a single people, let alone the whole humanity, is beyond possibility.
Question arose. How did these individual compel whole nations to act in accordance with their will? And what was it that directed the actual will of these individuals?
What kind of force is it that moves nations?
Let us accept that nations are directed by mysterious forces called ideas.
Undoubtedly some relation exists between all who live contemporaneously, and so it is possible to find some connection between the intellectual activity of men and their historical movements.
But why intellectual activity should be singled out by cultural historians as the cause or the expression of an entire historical movement is not easy to understand. Historians could arrive at such a conclusion only with the following provisos: (1) that history is written by educated people who find it natural and agreeable to believe that the activity of their social group is a source of movement for the whole humanity, just as this kind of belief would come naturally and agreeably to tradesmen, agriculturalists and soldiers (only their beliefs don't get expressed because merchants and soldiers don't write history), and (2) that spiritual activity, enlightenment, civilization, culture and ideas are all vague and indeterminated concepts, flags of convenience under which even more opaque phrases can be used very conveniently, thus accommodating any kind of theory.
But even allowing histories of this kind a certain intrinsic value, histories of culture - and all general histories now show tendencies in that direction - are notorious for presenting a serious and detailed analysis of various religious, philosophical and political doctrines as causes of events.
Some historians assume that the will of the people is transferred to historical leaders conditionally, but that the conditions are unknown to us. They say that historical personages have power only because they fulfill the will of the people who has been delegated to them.
But in that case, if the force that moves nations lies not in the historical leaders but in the people themselves, what is the role of the leaders?
Historical leaders are, according to these historians, living embodiments of popular will, and the activity of historical leaders represents the activity of the masses.
But that gives rise to another question: does all the activity of historical leaders serve as an expression of the people's will or only some part of it? If the whole activity of the leaders serves as the expression of the people's will, as some historians suppose, then all the details of the court scandals contained in the biographies of a Napoleon or a Catherine serve to express the life of the nation, which is evident nonsense; but if it is only some particular side of the activity of a historical leader which serves to express the people's life, as other so-called "philosophical" historians believe, then in order to determine which aspect of a leader's activity is the one that expresses the life of a people, we need to know at the outset what constitutes the life of the people.
Confronted by this difficulty, this type of historian will invent the most obscure, insubstantial and generalized abstraction that can be found to cover the greatest possible number of events, and tell us that this abstraction represents the aim of humanity in movement. The most commonly encountered abstractions, accepted by virtually all historians, are: freedom, equality, enlightenment, progress, civilization, culture.
Still less does the history of authors and reformers explain to us the life of the peoples. The history of culture explains to us the impulses and conditions of life and thought of a writer or a reformer. We learn that Luther had a hot temper and said such and such things; we learn that Rousseau was suspicious and wrote such and such books; but we do not learn why after the Reformation the peoples massacred one another, nor why during the French Revolution they guillotined one another. If we unite both these kinds of history, as is done by the newest historians, we shall have the history of monarchs and writers, but not the history of the life of the peoples.
The life of the nations is not contained in the lives of a few men, for the connection between those men and the nations has not been found. The theory that this connection is based on the transference of the collective will of a person to certain historical personages is a hypothesis unconfirmed by the experience of history.
Arriving to a conclusion, we can give straight and positive answers to two of history's crucial question: (1) What is power? (2) What is the force that determines the movement of peoples?
(1) Power is a relationship between a given person and other person by which the less directly a person participates in a collective enterprise the more involved he is in expressing opinions and theories about it and providing justification for it.
(2) The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have supposed, by the exercise of power, or intellect, or both together, but by the actions of all involved; all the people who come together in such a way that those who participate most directly in the activity assume the least responsibility for it, and vice versa.
In the last analysis we reach the circle of infinity, the furthest limit to which the human intellect must come in every realm of thought if it is no toying with its subject matter. Electricity produces heat, heat produces electricity. Atoms attract; atoms repel.

On the subject of the relationship between heat and electricity, and of atoms, we cannot say why things happen like this, and we say that it is so because it is inconceivable otherwise, because it must be so and that it is a law. The same applies to historical events. Why war and revolution occur we do not know. We only know that to produce the one or the other action, people combine in a certain formation in which they all take part, and we say that this is so because it is unthinkable otherwise, or in other words that it is a law.
The presence of the problem of man's free will, though unexpressed, is felt at every step of history. All serious-minded historians are inevitably confronted with this question. All the inconsistencies and uncertainties of history, and the wrong path taken by historical studies, can be attributed to this problem and the lack of any solution to it.
If the will of every man were free, that is, if each man could act as he pleased, all history would be a series of disconnected incidents. If in a thousand years even one man in a million could act freely, that is, as he chose, it is evident that one single free act of that man's in violation of the laws governing human action would destroy the possibility of the existence of any laws for the whole of humanity. This contradiction embodies the whole problem of free will, which has occupied the best minds from time immemorial, and from time immemorial has stood out as an issue of tremendous importance.
The problem is that regarding man as a subject of observation from whatever point of view - theological, historical, ethical, or philosophic - we find a general law of necessity to which he (like all that exists) is subject. But regarding him from within ourselves as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves to be free. This consciousness is a source of self-cognition quite apart from and independent of reason. Through his reason man observes himself, but only through consciousness does he know himself. If consciousness of freedom was not a separate source of self-awareness independent of reason, it would be subject to reason and experience, which in fact it is not and never could be. To understand, observe, and draw conclusions, man must first of all be conscious of himself as living. A man is only conscious of himself as a living being by the fact that he wills, that is, is conscious of his volition. But his will - which forms the essence of his life - man recognizes (and can but recognize) as free.
Our conception of the degree of freedom often varies according to differences in the point of view from which we regard the event, but every human action appears to us as a certain combination of freedom and inevitability. In every action we examine we see a certain measure of freedom and a certain measure of inevitability. And always the more freedom we see in any action the less inevitability do we perceive, and the more inevitability the less freedom. The proportion of freedom to inevitability decreases and increases according to the point of view from which the action is regarded, but their relation is always one of inverse proportion.
Religion, the common sense of mankind, the science of jurisprudence, and history itself understand alike this relation between necessity and freedom.

In every single case, where our concept of free will and necessity increases or diminishes there are only three basic variable entities: (1) The relation to the external world of the man who commits the deeds; (2) His relation to time; (3) His relation to the causes leading to the action.
Thus our conception of free will and necessity gradually contracts or expands according to the greater or lesser degree of association with the external world, the greater or lesser degree of remoteness in time, and the greater or lesser degree of dependence on the causes in relation to which we contemplate a man's life.
In the same way we can never imagine the action of a man quite devoid of freedom and entirely subject to the law of inevitability. (1) However we may increase our knowledge of the conditions of space in which man is situated, that knowledge can never be complete, for the number of those conditions is as infinite as the infinity of space. And therefore so long as not all the conditions influencing men are defined, there is no complete inevitability but a certain measure of freedom remains; (2) However we may prolong the period of time between the action we are examining and the judgment upon it, that period will be finite, while time is infinite, and so in this respect too there can never be absolute inevitability; (3) However accessible may be the chain of causation of any action, we shall never know the whole chain since it is endless, and so again we never reach absolute inevitability.
In general terms, we would have arrived at two fundamentals underlying the entire world view of humanity - the unknowable essence of life and the laws that determine that essence. Reason says: (1) space with all the forms of matter that give it visibility is infinite, and cannot be imagined otherwise; (2) Time is infinite motion without a moment of rest and is unthinkable otherwise; (3) The connection between cause and effect has no beginning and can have no end.
Consciousness says: (1) I alone am, and all that exists is but me, consequently I include space; (2) I measure flowing time by the fixed moment of the present in which alone I am conscious of myself as living, consequently I am outside time; (3) I am beyond cause, for I feel myself to be the cause of every manifestation of my life.

Reason gives expression to the laws of inevitability. Consciousness gives expression to the essence of freedom. Freedom not limited by anything is the essence of life, in man's consciousness. Free will is what is examined; necessity does the examining. Free will is content; necessity is form. Only by separating the two sources of cognition, which are like form versus content, do we arrive at the mutually exclusive and separately unimaginable concepts of free will and necessity. Only bringing them together again do we arrive at a clear concept of human life.
Man's free will differs from every other force in that man is directly conscious of it, but in the eyes of reason it in no way differs from any other force. The forces of gravitation, electricity, or chemical affinity are only distinguished from one another in that they are differently defined by reason. Just so the force of man's free will is distinguished by reason from the other forces of nature only by the definition reason gives it. Freedom, apart from necessity, that is, apart from the laws of reason that define it, differs in no way from gravitation, or heat, or the force that makes things grow; for reason, it is only a momentary undefinable sensation of life. And as the undefinable essence of the force moving the heavenly bodies, the undefinable essence of the forces of heat and electricity, or of chemical affinity, or of the vital force, forms the content of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and so on, just in the same way does the force of free will form the content of history. But just as the subject of every science is the manifestation of this unknown essence of life while that essence itself can only be the subject of metaphysics, even the manifestation of the force of free will in human beings in space, in time, and in dependence on cause forms the subject of history, while free will itself is the subject of metaphysics. In history, what we know, we call the laws of necessity; what we don't know, we call free will. In the eyes of history free will is simply an expression for an unexplainable leftover from what we know about the laws of human life.
For history, lines exist of the movement of human wills, one end of which is hidden in the unknown but at the other end of which a consciousness of man's will in the present moves in space, time, and dependence on cause. The more this field of motion spreads out before our eyes, the more evident are the laws of that movement. To discover and define those laws is the problem of history. From the standpoint from which the science of history now regards its subject on the path it now follows, seeking the causes of events in man's freewill, a scientific enunciation of those laws is impossible, for however man's free will may be restricted, as soon as we recognize it as a force not subject to law, the existence of law becomes impossible.
To the men who fought against the rising truths of physical philosophy, it seemed that if they admitted that truth it would destroy faith in God, in the creation of the firmament, and in the miracle of Joshua the son of Nun. To the defenders of the laws of Copernicus and Newton, to Voltaire for example, it seemed that the laws of astronomy destroyed religion, and he utilized the law of gravitation as a weapon against religion. Just so it now seems as if we have only to admit the law of inevitability, to destroy the conception of the soul, of good and evil, and all the institutions of state and church that have been built up on those conceptions. So too, like Voltaire in his time, uninvited defenders of the law of inevitability today use that law as a weapon against religion, though the law of inevitability in history, like the law of Copernicus in astronomy, far from destroying, even strengthens the foundation on which the institutions of state and church are erected.

Just as in astronomy the problem of recognizing the earth's motion lay in the difficulty of getting away from a direct sensation of the earth's immobility and a similar sensation of the planets' motion, so in history the problem of recognizing the dependence of personality on the laws of space, time and causation lies in the difficulty of getting away from the direct sensation of one's own personal independence. But just as in astronomy the new attitude was, 'No, we cannot feel the earth's movement, but if we accept its immobility we are reduced to absurdity, whereas if we accept the movement that we cannot feel we arrive at laws,' so also in history the new attitude is, 'No, we cannot feel our dependence, but if we accept free will we are reduced to absurdity, whereas if we accept dependence on the external world, time, and causation arrive at laws.'

In this first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.