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.