Tolstoy on History

Leo Tolstoy on History from War and Peace

Below are a number of quotations related to history from Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace. I’ve left the quotations intact. I added no emphasis, though I included headings. The text is quoted from: Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Anthony Briggs. NY: Penguin Classics, 2005.


Contingency in war:

Military movement is like the movement of a clock: an impetus, once given, leads inexorably to a particular result while the untouched working pars wait in silent stillness for the action to reach them. Wheels creak on their spindles as the cogs bite, the speeding sprockets hum and the next wheel stands and waits patiently, as if resigned to centuries of immobility. But the moment comes when the lever slips into place and the submissive wheel rotates with a creak, blending into the common movement without knowing where it goes or why.

In a clock the complex action of countless different wheels works its way out in the even, leisurely movement of hands measuring time; in a similar way the complex action of humanity in those 160,000 Russians and Frenchmen – all their passions, longings, regrets, humiliation and suffering, their rushes of pride, fear, and enthusiasm – only worked its way out in defeat at the battle of Austerlitz, known as the battle of three Emperors, the slow tick-tock of the age-old hands on the clock face of human history.

We can well understand why contemporaries might have seen things that way. We can understand why Napoleon might have attributed the cause of the war to the machinations of the English (indeed, he said as much from St Helena). We can further understand why English members of parliament thought the war had been caused by Napoleon’s megalomania; why Duke of Oldenburg blamed the war on the violence done to him; why those in trade explained the war in terms of the Continental System, which war bringing Europe to its knees; why veterans and old-world generals blamed it all on their begin called up for service again; why legitimists of the period would insist on the necessity of getting ‘back to basics’, and diplomats of the day put it down to the 1809 alliance between Russia and Austria not being properly concealed from Napoleon, plus the clumsy wording of Memorandum No. 178. We can well understand how these – and other causes, endless points of view available – might have appeared to contemporaries. But for us, the descendents of these people, as we contemplate this vast accomplishment in all its enormity and seek to penetrate its dreadful simplicity, these explanations seem inadequate. It is beyond our comprehension millions of Christian men should have killed and tortured each other just because Napoleon way a megalomaniac, Alexander war obstinate, the English were devious and the Duke of Oldenburg was badly done by. We can see no connection between these circumstances and the stark reality of murder and violence; we cannot see how an affront to a duke could have induced thousands of men to rampage through the other end of Europe, slaughtering the inhabitants of Smolensk and Moscow and getting slaughtered in return.

We, their descendents – those of us who are not historians seduced by the pleasures of research and can therefore review events with unclouded common sense – find ourselves faced with an incalculable multiplicity of causes. The more deeply we go into the causes, the more of them there are, and each individual cause, or group of causes, seems as justifiable as all the rest, and as false as all the rest in its worthlessness compared with the enormity of the actual events, and its further worthlessness (unless you combine it with all the other associated causes) in validating the events that followed. For instance, Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and restore the Duchy of Oldenburg seems to us no more valid as a cause than the willingness or unwillingness of any old French corporal to serve a second term, for had he refused to serve, and a second and a third and a thousand corporals and soldiers along with him, Napoleon’s army would have been reduced by that number and there could been no war.

Historical fatalism is the only possible explanation of irrational phenomena like these (phenomena with a rationale beyond our comprehension). The more we try to explain away such phenomena in rational terms, the more irrational and incomprehensible they become for us.

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to get what he wants, and he feels with every fibre of his being that at any particular time he is free to perform an action or refrain from doing so, but the moment any action is taken it becomes an irrevocable piece of history, with significance which has more to do with predetermination than freedom.

There are two sides to life for every individual: a personal life, in which his freedom exists in proportion to abstract nature of his interests, and an elemental life within the swarm of humanity, in which a man inevitably follows laws laid down for him. Although on a conscious level a man lives for himself, he is actually being used as an unconscious instrument for the attainment of humanity’s historical aims. A deed once done becomes irrevocable, and any action comes together over time with millions of actions performed by other people to create historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social scale, the more obvious are the inevitability and the element of predestination involved in everything he does.

‘The hearts of kings are in the hands of God.’

Kings are slaves of history.

History – the amorphous, unconscious life within the swarm of humanity – exploits every minute in the lives of kings as an instrument for the attainment of its own ends.


Contingency in history:

The men of the west went east to kill each other. And the law of casual coincidence determined that thousands of minor causes colluded and coincided to produce this movement and the coming war…along with millions and millions of other causes, colluding and coinciding with each other to produce the impending events.

When a ripe apple falls, what makes it fall? It is gravity, pulling it down to earth? A withered stalk? The drying action of the sun? Increased weight? A breath of wind? Or a boy under the tree who wants to eat it?

Nothing is the cause of it. It is just the coming together of various conditions necessary for any living, organic, elemental event to take place… When it comes to events in history, so-called ‘great men’ are nothing but labels attached to events; like real labels, they have the least possible connection with event themselves.

Every action that they perform, which they take to be self-determined and independent, is in a historical sense quite the opposite; it is interconnected with the whole course of history, and predetermined from eternity.


Tolstoy discusses the numerous people, from Czar Alexander to French and English men, who contribute to the arrival of war:

Moved ostensibly by fear or vanity, pleasure, indignation or reason, and action on the assumption they knew what they were doing and were doing it for themselves, they were actually nothing more than unwitting tools in the hands of history, performing a function hidden from themselves but comprehensible to us. This is the unavoidable fate of all men of action, and the higher they stand in the social hierarchy the less freedom they have.

In the search for laws of historical movement exactly the same thing occurs.

The movement of humanity, arising from a countless series of actions arbitrarily performed by any individuals, is a continuous phenomenon.

The aim of history is to work out what laws lie behind this movement. But in its attempt to establish the laws behind the continuous movement that arises from all those arbitrary individual actions taken together, the human mind accepts a sub-division into arbitrarily determined discrete units. The first thing history does is to take an arbitrary series of continuous events and examine it separately, whereas in fact no event ever can have a beginning, because an individual event flows without any break in continuity from another. The second thing history does is to treat the actions of a single person, king or commander, as the sum total of everybody else’s individual will whereas in fact the sum of individual wills never expresses itself in the actions of a singe historical personage.

In the development of historical science, smaller and smaller units are selected for analysis, as if this is the path that leads to truth. But however small the units determined by history, we feel that the acceptance of any discrete unit, or of a beginning to any phenomenon, of the idea that multiple individual wills express themselves in the actions of any one historical personage, is intrinsically wrong.

Criticism can effortlessly ensure that every conclusion of history gets blown away like dust, leaving no trace behind, simply by selecting a greater or smaller discrete unit for analysis – and criticism has every right to do this, because the selection of historical units is always an arbitrary business.

Only by adopting an infinitely small unit for observation, the differential in history otherwise known as human homogeneity, and perfecting the art of integration (the adding up of infinitesimals) can we have any hope of determining the laws of history.


To examine history:

In order to study the laws of history we must change the subject completely, forget all about kings, ministers and generals, and turn to the homogenous, infinitesimal elements that move the masses to action. No one can say how far it is within man’s grasp to arrive at the laws of history in this way, but it is obvious that this is the only possible way to discovering any historical laws, and human intelligence has hitherto not devoted to this way of thinking a millionth part of the effort that historians have put into describing the doings of various kings, ministers and generals, and expounding their own opinions of those doings.


On causes and telling history:

The human intellect cannot grasp the full range of causes that lie behind any phenomenon. But the need to discover causes is deeply ingrained in the spirit of man. And so the human intellect ignores the infinite permutations and sheer complexity of all the circumstances surrounding a phenomenon, any one of which could be individually construed as the thing that causes it, latches on to the first and easiest approximation, and says, ‘This is the causes!’ When it comes to historical events, where the actions of men are the object of study, the will of the gods is used to serve as a primeval approximation to underlying cause, though this was eventually superceded by the will of a few men occupying the historical foreground – the heroes of history. But one glance below the surface of any historical event, one glace at the actions of the mass of humanity involved in it, is enough to show that the will of the historical hero, far from controlling the actions of the masses, is itself subject continual outside control. You might think it doesn’t matter very much whether historical events are interpreted one way of another. But between the man who says that the peoples of the west marched on the east because Napoleon willed them to do so, and the man who says this movement took place because it was bound to take place, there is the same yawning gap as there is between men who used to claim that the earth stood still while the planets revolved around it, and other men who said they didn’t know what keeps the earth in place, but they did know there were laws controlling its motion and the motion of the other planets. There are no single causes behind historical event, and there never can be, other than the one grand cause behind all causes. But there are laws controlling events, so of them beyond our ken, some of them within our groping grasp. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we stop looking for causes in the will of individual men, just as the discovery of the laws of planetary motion became possible only when men stopped believing in the earth as a fixed entity.


On the perspective and limits of comprehension of the historian or person examining the past and causes of events:

Just as the sun and every atom of ether is both a sphere complete in itself and also only a tiny part of an inconceivably vast whole, so every personality bears within himself his own aims whilst bearing them also in the service of generalized aims that lie beyond human comprehension.

A bee has settled on a flower and stung a child. And the child is scared of bees and says that bees are there to sting people. A poet admires the bee as it imbibes nectar inside the sepals of the flower and says that bees are there to imbibe nectar inside flowers. A beekeeper, observing that the bee collects pollen and brings it back to the hive, says that bees are there to collect honey. Another beekeeper, one who has studied the life of the swarm more closely, says the bee collects pollen to feed the young ones and rear a queen, and the bee is there for the propagation of its species. A botanist observes the bee flying over with pollen to fertilize the pistil on a diclinous flower and sees this as the purpose of the bee. Another one, observing the tendency for plants to migrate and the bee’s contribution to this process, feels able to claim this as a purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, second or third purpose discernible by the human intellect. The higher the human intellect goes in discovering more and more purposes, the more obvious it becomes that the ultimate purpose is beyond comprehension.

Human comprehension does not extend beyond observation of the interaction between the living bee and other manifestations of life. The same applies to the purposes of historical characters and nations.…. Man acts within time, and is involved in events…

With this conclusion in mind, we can give straight and positive answers to two of history’s crucial questions: (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 persons by which the less directly a person participates in a collective enterprise the more involved he is in expressing opinions and theories about is and providing justification for it.

(2) The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have suppose, by the exercise of power, or the intellect, or both together, but by the actions of all involved; all 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 moral terms power is the cause of the event; in physical terms it is those who are subject to that power. But since moral activity is inconceivable without physical activity, the cause of the event is actually found in neither of them, but in a combination of both.

To put is another way, the concept of cause does not apply to the phenomenon under review.

In the last analysis we come to the circle of infinity, the furthest limit to which human intellect must come in every realm of though if it is not toying with its subject matter. Electricity produces heat; heat produces electricity. Atoms attract; atoms repeal.

On the subject of the relationship between heat and electricity, and atoms, we cannot say why things happen like this, se we say they do it because anything else is unimaginable, it has to be, it’s a law. The same applies to historical phenomena. Why do wars or revolutions happen? We don’t know. All we know is that for either of these to happen men must come together in a particular combination with everybody taking part, and we say that this is so because anything else is unimaginable, it has to be, it’s a law.


Tolstoy’s conclusion:

As with astronomy in days gone by, so today in matters of history the conflict of opinion depends on the recognition or non-recognition of an absolute entity for the measurement of visible phenomena. In astronomy it was the earth’s immobility; in history it is personal independence, or free will.

Just as in astronomy the problem of recognizing the earth’s motion lay in the difficulty of getting away from 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 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 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 we arrive at laws.’

In the first case, we had to get away from a false sensation of immobility in space and accept movement that we could not feel. In the present case it is no less essential to get away from a false sensation of freedom and accept a dependence we cannot feel.