Reading for Tuesday, 2 June

And here we continue a bit more, as Tolstoy starts to remind us again about the idea that, really, no great person controls history. We only think that because we like to find a reason for anything.

If we just assume that the events we’re part of are part of some greater set of happenings that we don’t understand, then nobody becomes particularly outstanding. In fact, the way people act becomes inevitable, because circumstances make them the way they are.

This is all a rather unusual way of thinking, because Tolstoy has borrowed ideas from various philosophies and religions, but with a curious mix of his own.

While he doesn’t mention God too often, it reminds me very much of my own Christian faith, which believes in a God who controls all things. However, Christianity teaches of a God who expects humans to also take responsibility for their own actions. So thus, in that view, humans are in a strange situation – they’re consciously making decisions all the time (some of which can have huge consequences), while at the same time, the good and the bad are all controlled by God.

This idea has always been complicated to accept, because it requires you to hold two ideas together – one, God being in perfect control and two, man being responsible for his actions.

So thus, many thinkers split off into two extremes – on one side is our popular Western view of man, the autonomous being, conquering all things in his stride, as long as he can get his act together. Read any American self-help book, and you’ll pretty much get this message.

Then, on the other hand, there’s the fatalism that you see, especially in something like Islam. God is in control and you can’t do much about it.

Or the more secular version: people who just believe that they can’t do much to change anything, and so don’t really see much point in trying.

Tolstoy is more of a fatalist, in that we can’t stop history, and that no one person can make a difference, nor that we can necessarily understand why things happen – but he also has that belief in the motion of the group, which I think he explores a bit further as we go along.

It’s certainly an interesting thought question – if the world was as Tolstoy describes, how should we live? If history rolls on, what can we do? Is it a question that we can answer as individuals? Or do we need to answer it as a group? Does this kind of thinking explain why Russia has been Communist for many years, with a philosophy of the people united together?

Not entirely sure, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

3 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace E1.2 – Chance and Genius

  1. Well certainly you raise (as does Tolstoy) some big and trickey questions here, Matt. I think the whole tension between the notion of free will and determinism has always fascinated thinkers in all spheres – philosophy, religion, politics, even economics and, of course, history. I very much get the sense, especially reading War and Peace or the second time, that Tolstoy is trying to reconcile the two – that events do happen because of laws (albeit laws we have not been able to decipher) and history does moveas a massive tide driven by its millions upon million of bits and pieces – but, within that, we still have freedom and we can still make choices. Do those choices have in themselves have consequences? I think Tolstoy’s answer is both yes and no … they effect some change here, some change there, but then so, too, at the same time do zillions of other choices that millions of other people make. It’s the massive interaction of all that which ultimately is guided by the laws that to us are still inaccessible and indecipherable. At least I think that’s what he is ultimately saying.

    When you stop and think about it, I reckon we have to find some way of reconciling these two notions of free will and determinism, because, really, neither of them seem to make a lot of sense as absolutes.

    You do make an interesting point, Matt, about the link with Russia’ communism and it is certainly something I hadn’t thought of before – that this notion of collective force should be being put forward by a Russian writer. Maybe there really has been something in the Russian culture that lent itself more easily to the development of a political force that is based on the notion of collective identity. I might now need to re-read my copy of Tortsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” in that light!!

  2. Yes, I forgot to say it in the post, but I was thinking as I read this, that no American writer would concoct a novel like this. The notion that Tolstoy is constantly putting down – that one person can alter the course of history – is completely counter to American history and story-telling.

    Their histories and stories are littered with individuals overcoming all odds and making huge changes. The idea that you’re just a cog in the wheel would be quite repulsive to them – well, actually, it would be repulsive to most Western thinkers.

    So I certainly think it’s quite a unique point of view, compared with Western thinking. What would be interesting is to understand how radical Tolstoy’s ideas were at the time – would most Russians have agreed or disagreed with him?

  3. Matt, once again, I must commend you for your efforts here; the in depth thinking you do about this writing, is something I’d expect from a man way beyond your years. My two daughters are in their mid-thirties and wouldn’t be likely to read one page of this book, no less actually think about it and comment.

    I was the same way in my twenties and thirties – I read a lot, but when I came to the Tolstoy philosophical kinda’ stuff, I looked on the streetcar window, and kept my finger in the book, then thumbed to the next chapter.

    Your take on the ‘no great person controls history’ thing, is more or less what I said in my last comment, but the thing about GOD! Yes – so well put; I too believe in an all powerful god – certainly a power above us all. But we still have choices to make.

    Kinda’ boggles us, doesn’t it? Frustrating at times, to think we’re responsible for making the decisions, but God decides when to give us a lift up, or when to throw some bolts and nuts into the works.

    Well, that’s explained by my own belief; when we leave Heaven, God (or somebody in charge there) says to us ‘well, what do you want to do on earth this time? Do you have any negative things you’d like to re-work? Are there any positive things you’d like to re-experience?’

    And we choose – one of us (we souls) might say, ‘oh, I think I’d like to be the leader of a Russian army in the early 1800’s, please. The last time I was on earth I was an astronaut and went to the moon.’

    Then God says – ok, but you’re not going just to enjoy yourself – you’re going to have to mount some difficulties while you’re there.

    That’s a long way of saying ‘we’re here for a reason’.

    It’s like going to school just to enjoy playing baseball after classes are dismissed. You’ve got to work too!

    I realize at any time, God can figure ‘ok – Carly’s talking too much – thinks she knows everything’. That’s when He’ll reach down and put my laptop out of order so I’ll shaddup’ for a couple of days.

    ‘Scuse my sacrilegious comments – hope nobody’s offended.

    As for fatalism – it’s a darn good way to get to sleep. You quit worrying about what you’re going to do about this, what you’re going to say about that, what somebody else is going to do or say . . . then you remind yourself – whatever’s going to happen, is going to happen.

    And enjoy a good night’s sleep!


    As for American Writers, I don’t agree; I think anybody on this side of the world could do something like this. But the publishers wouldn’t offer to pay us by the word – ha ha!

    Seriously though . . . I’ve often read books in which the civil war has figured strongly; there’s a bit of war and a bit of social life – it’s just not as long.

    Had Margaret put more ‘war scenes’ into Gone With the Wind, she would have had the western version of ‘War and Peace’.


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