Reading for Thursday, 12/12/08

I apologise again for this posting every two day thing.  I’m not trying to fall behind, but there just seem to have been a lot of Christmas celebrations on at the moment.

Anyway, to those of you hardy Tolstoy readers who are still with us . . .

. . . welcome to Book 9!

I distinctly remember when I read War and Peace for the first time, there’s this moment around about the middle of the book (where we are at the moment) where you think, “I’ve been reading for ages! And there’s heaps more to go!”

So this is probably another danger zone for would-be War and Peace completers – but then again, there’s something about having read this far, that you might as well keep reading.  But then we run into the second hurdle – Tolstoy suddenly drops the novel and turns into a historian/philosopher.

It’s not terribly complex philosophy to understand, and his writing is quite clear, but it’s a definite shift in tone (especially after all the melodrama we’ve been living with for the last few days).

I haven’t read any history of Leo Tolstoy, nor do I know a lot about the writing of War and Peace beyond the fact that he scribbled it all out by hand (!) and his wife then did her best to make sense of his torturous handwriting and fed it in some sort of semblance of order to his publishers.

So that’s why there’s still some debate about whether you translate all the French or not.  In one version of the novel, he had it all in there untranslated, but then a bit later, he decided that it was okay to translate it.  (Or vice versa.)

Anyway, the point of all that is, I’ve often wondered whether he wrote it completely in order.  Or, if not out of order, which bits he thought up first.  When we reach the beginning here of Book 9, it feels like we’re arriving at something with Leo has been wanting to say all along, but he required 8 books of back story to get us in a position to have the discussion.  (It’s a little bit like when you want to talk about a mathematical concept or a musical idea with somebody who doesn’t know what you’re talking about – you have to give them all the background information just to get to the point you want to make.)

I could be wrong, but it feels like this is what he has been waiting for.

If you remember back to when we were reading all the wars of 1805-07, one of the recurring themes was exactly how much power one individual person can have in changing the course of history.  For instance, a general might claim that he won the battle, but he could be exaggerating, when the reality was that a bunch of cavalry accidentally charged – an event which was really in nobody’s control.

Certainly, in the context of war, there are plenty of cases where events have transpired and the outcome of the battle was quite distinct from the orders that were issued by the various commanders on the field.

But, in this chapter, Tolstoy expands this theory out to a massive level.  What if, he says, nobody ever really controls anything? Or, more particularly, what if nobody has free will?

Did Napoleon really start the war of his own free will??  Wasn’t he just reacting to something that the Russians did?  Why did the Russians do what they did?  Because they were reacting to something else, etc.

And so, because individuals on the whole are always reacting to other events that were out of the control, can anyone truly be said to be able to change the flow of history of their own free will?  Instead, history is something that moves us along, without any of us really being able to change it or influence it at all.

Actually, I’ve got to pause there – there is a sense in which you or I, as an individual, can influence history – but only in a very micro sense.  So every person’s actions contribute to the flow of history, and it’s these millions of little actions that move history along.  But no one person by themselves, in Tolstoy’s view, can say that they had a major effect on history.  And so therefore, we have free will, in so far as we can make choices in life, but from a historical point of view, nobody was really free to change the course of history.  It just happened independent of everyone, and thus we are all slaves of history.

I’ll chip in my two cents (because it’s my blog and I can):

Cent 1 – I disagree with part of Tolstoy’s idea.  I agree with his idea in so far as there are always going to be things out of our control that could change our plans.  So there’s a sense in which we can never have perfect control over events.  But I believe that as individuals, depending on our status in society, we can cause great change in society.

Because human societies are set up with power structures, with bodies to guard the enforcement and legality of those power structures, it naturally flows that the people at the top are going to be able to have a lot more influence than those at the bottom.  If a lot of the people at the bottom get together in a collective than, yes, they could have influence, but under normal circumstances, if a Prime Minister or a President or a King signs a declaration of war – that person is wielding a power and causing a far more momentous shift in history than a person deciding to take their dog for a walk.

So, yes, maybe the individual person on the street has no free will if they find themselves conscripted to go off to war – but the King or General certainly had the free will to choose to declare war or not.  Maybe not if they’re being attacked – sometimes war is thrust upon us – but certainly if we are the aggressor (like Napoleon or Hitler).

Cent 2 – I believe the main reason that Leo Tolstoy is trying to argue this theory is because he is trying to reconcile the idea of why good people can suddenly start killing each other in massive numbers, like the Russian and French did in 1812.

He’s left with really only two options – either a) they wanted to fight (meaning that he’s got to admit that someone out there was aggressive and happy to cause bloodshed) or b) he’s got to explain the war some other way.

To my mind, option a) makes perfect sense.  Because every now and again, you get somebody who is aggressive.  You get a Hitler or an Alexander or any of the Vikings, for that matter, or a Napoleon who wants power, who wants land – and is perfectly prepared to shed blood to get it.  History (especially 20th century history) is littered with people who want to do that.

But Tolstoy doesn’t quite want that point of view.  Why?  Because of his theory that “the war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and all human nature.”  Since when has war been opposed to human reason and human nature?  Certainly, there are some people whose reason and nature opposed war, but there are equally people who can’t wait to get into a fight.  People who are naturally aggressive.

To a Christian, the idea is not so strange, because one of the concrete pillars of the faith is the idea that no human being is perfectly good.  So people starting wars, etc. is something to be expected in this view of the world.

But Leo Tolstoy, unable to hold to the view that man is anything but innocent and good, instead posits his complex theory of fatalism to explain the bad things in the world – something caused something else which caused something else.

It’s just a novel, but the problem is that the reality of this view is that it kind of lets everybody off the hook for the actions they take.  You can always find something that “made me do it”, but at what stage do you take responsibility for the consequences of your own actions?

Anyway, enough ranting (I’ve just gone right over 1,300 words here!) and we’ll see how this discussion picks up as we continue (because, believe me, it’s going to be a common theme from now on).


2 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 9.1 – Fatalism

  1. Ah yes, Matt, I’m sure there are many of us who could quite easily rant on for much more than 1300 words on these issues. But you’re right, it is your blog, so I will try to keep my comments a little more limited – never, as you may already have noticed, a particularly easy feat for me.

    I don’t totally agree with Tolstoy’s analysis, either – but perhaps for slightl different reasons to yours. It certainly makes sense to me that history is driven not by its Emperors and Tsars, but rather by the millions and millions of people and events that surround those Emperors and Tsars. But, for me, the problem arises when Tolstoy concludes from this that eerything is predetermined.

    I can see the logic of his argument – that once something happens, while it feels like it is happening freely at the time, once it is done it is part of objective history, and so in that sense itself becomes another link in the massive chain of causes. So, if you follow that argument to its extreme, it does kind of mean that the course of history was, ultimately, set in its motion a nano-second after the Big Bang (if you believe in the Big Bang).

    So, while we might feel that someone like Napoleon (or George W Bush, for that matter) have the power to go to war or not to go to war, Tolstoy would say that those decisions are made (and, importantly, not only made but also carried out) because of a million other things falling into place. But he would go further and say that every one of those million other pieces are themselves influenced by another million other pieces, and so on and so on back to the Big Bang.

    This is where, for me, philosophy can sometimes become a bit of an exercise in word trickery – mounting clever arguments that seem internally consistent but, when all is said and done, don’t seem to bear a lot of connection with the real world.

    I am inclined to think that the truth lies somewhere in between the Tolstoyan notion of everything being predetermined and everything being governed by free will. I think we can cause a lot of harm by forgetting either side of that picture – if we think everything is predetrmined then it is hard (I believe) not to fall into apathy and inaction; and yet if we think everything is governed by free will, then we forget the social, economic and political influences that have such a powerful impact on how people behave and on how history develops.

    And yet I suppose all of us, in trying to make sense of these sorts of issues, are influenced by our belief systems – which for you, Matt, is a Christian one and for me is rather more a Marxist one. And yet our belief systems are themselves influenced by our experiences of the world. So, in a way, we end up in the Tolstoyan chain no matter where or how we start!!

    But, as you say, there will be plenty more opportunities for us to discuss and debate these issues and, needless to say, I look forward to that very much!

  2. Well, I’ll admit, I dropped in here to see how you were going to explain this chapter.

    I’m nowhere near this part of the book on my discussions at RGG, but I am setting them up in advance at WC . . .

    So I come to this part and think – what am I gonna’ say?

    That Tolstoy asks his reader to decide – was it all out of the hands of the people involved? Was it something that was just supposed to happen?

    Or was it a series of events?

    Maybe it was just because of the egotism of Alexander and Napoleon.

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