One-Year War and Peace E2.10 – Freewill & Necessity

Reading for Friday, June 26

This chapter is really impressive more for the strength and beauty of its writing more than anything else. After having laid the foundation of free will being more or less observable based on our relation to 1. the external world, 2. time and 3. prior causes, Tolstoy proceeds to say that all of life is generated by necessity – in other words, everything that happens is definitely going to happen and no other option is possible, because of the laws of necessity. So in one sense, history is fixed from the beginning all the way to the end (assuming you belive in a beginning and ending of history – this was a distinctly Christian doctrine that used to set it apart from othe religions many centuries ago).

But, says Tolstoy, we are all conscious of our own free will. So, for Tolstoy, free will becomes the driver of necessity. It becomes the force.

Will an apple fall from a tree if it breaks off? Yes, it will. The apple will fall from necessity.

What is the necessity of the apple falling? The law of gravity.

Why does history happen a certain way (and no other)? Because of necessity.

What is that necessity that makes things happen? Tolstoy calls it freewill. We understand it as being free to make choices from a philosophical point of view. But for Tolstoy freewill is also another name for the force that drives history along.

At least I think that’s what he’s saying . . . it makes so much sense when I read it in the book, but gets fuzzy when I think about it later.

One-Year War and Peace E2.9 – External World, Time and Causes

Reading for Thursday, June 25

Well, here we go – Tolstoy delves even further into free will. Sadly, having left this since last week, it’s now even harder to pick up the thread, but I’ll do my best.

Basically, he’s talking about how we have this dual tension between seeing that the world is run by immutable laws (assuming that you’ve bought everything he’s said so far) and thus we have no real free will. However, we perceive we have free will . . .

…depending on how much we know about our relation to the external world, time and causes.

1. External World – so if someone grows up in external circumstances (such as you grow up in a rough neighbourhood with drug addict parents), then we’d say you have little free will if you became a criminal. If, however, you grew up in the good part of town – then we’d say you exercised free will in deciding to be a drug pusher.

2. Time – If you committed a crime a long time ago, we can kind of see the events that led to it. If you did it 5 minutes ago, it’d seem completely out of the blue.

3. Causes – if we understand all the events that led to something, we don’t attribute it to free will. If we do, then we are less likely to say someone had a choice about something.

Does all this make sense? What he’s really saying is that, in his view of the world, while it might seem like we have free will at any particular point, or it might look like someone else did, the more we understand about their environment, the more distance from the events, and the more we understand the causes behind things, the more we can explain everything away as being inevitable.

One-Year War and Peace E2.8 – Free Will

Reading for Wednesday, June 24

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Tolstoy tackles the issue of free will. If there is a law, he says, that governs all of man’s actions – then we’re not really free. Everything we do is pre-determined by our make-up, our past, everything. It’s a kind of fatalism.

But yet – inside us – our consciousness perceives that we are free and that we get to make our own choices. So how do we reconcile this?

He touches briefly on Darwinism at the end, which says that all our behaviour is explained by evolution. But, says Tolstoy, even granting that – it doesn’t answer the question. It just agrees with his main point – but doesn’t explain our consciousness.

I’m sure modern Darwinists would disagree, and will quite happily give reasons for why we think the way we do, based on evolution as well. I’m also sure that theologians would also be dismissive of Tolstoy’s attempt to put evolution on the same level as God’s predestination (which he tries to argue for near the end of the chapter).

For Tolstoy, whether you are controlled by your evolutionary history or you are controlled by the sovereign will of God, you’re still a product of forces outside of you. They’re not quite the same thing, but from the point of view of being forces that act outside our consciousness, it follows on.

Anyway, he’s on a roll, and he’s got four chapters left, so I wouldn’t argue too much . . . the book will soon be over.

One Final Rant About Harper’s Island & A New Book Project for the Blog

Look, I’ve got to do this – despite my earlier rant about the television show Harper’s Island, I must confess that I did end up watching the whole thing.

My complain last time was that I was five episodes in and nobody seemed to notice or care that people were vanishing left, right and centre.

I will credit the producers – by the time they’d hid the 13th and final episode, they’d managed to kill off over 20 characters. So they weren’t kidding when they said that somebody dies in every episode.

But still, the whole thing was badly done. From now, I’m going to drop some spoilers, so either happily read on, or you can just stop right here. To make sure nobody accidentally reads something they don’t want to, I’ll put the text in white, so you’ll have to highlight to read it.


Two main problems with this show:

1. The seeming lack of care of people disappearing.This was only in the early episodes, but it sucks the suspense out of things. In fact, the only way the filmmakers could hold our interest in between killings was to stick in raunchy scenes. This does not make up for suspense, but maybe it keeps teenage boys watching. I don’t know.

2. Too many bit players and an island that was too big. The closest thing to Harper’s Island is, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which brilliantly puts 10 people on a very small island. The point of that book is you realise very quickly on that there are only those 10 people, so as they start dying, the suspense is driven by the fact that it must be one of those 10 people. But in Harper’s Island, there are so many local townfolks wandering around the island (and probably a whole batch we never saw), that the suspects could have been almost anybody. See, there’s no sense of mystery, if the killer could potentially be a crazy man lurking out in the woods. A real whodunnit, to play fair, must have its killer be one of the main characters. And to do that, we must know that only a certain number of people could have committed the crime. But in Harper’s Island, any old person could have walked off the street and started killing people – thus the whodunnit side of things falls apart. Which brings me to:

3. The identify of the killers. Now having destroyed the suspense and the whodunnit mystery, it then proceeds to pick two killers (yes, two, which you’d know by now if you were watching) – and it picks the worst two people you could possibly have.

The first one is the Stereotypical Nicest Guy in the Show. I remember when I was a little kid, I’d watch Murder, She Wrote and I’d always pick the killer. I had no idea what the plots were about, but whenever you met someone nice for a few minutes, that person turned out to be the killer. (Actually, I think they picked that up from Scooby Doo.) So as soon as I started turning my mind to guessing who the killer was likely to be, he was the first person I chose. About halfway through, I started keeping my eye on him and sure enough – he was never around when killings took place, he was being really nice and supportive, etc.

And then – to throw me off the track – because I really thought it was a dead giveaway in Episode 7 – they do the unthinkable – the killer turns out to be a crazy man running around in the woods who everyone thought was dead seven years ago. Obviously, they hadn’t read my posts on what kills suspense in a whodunnit . . .

So then it turns out to be, in the end, the crazy man and the Nicest Guy. One is a cheater’s way of setting up a whodunnit, and the other is a Scooby Doo cliche . . . Horrendous, horrendous, horrendous.

Anyway, all of this has made me fix on a new literary project for the blog following on from War and Peace. I’ll take a month off in August, but coming in September, for anyone who wants to join me, we’re taking an interactive tour through possibly the greatest mystery story every written: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. More details to follow soon.

One-Year War and Peace E2.7 – The Law of Mass Motion

Reading for Tuesday, June 23

And Tolstoy rants a little bit more about power, before finishing off with the thought that you can’t actually find a single cause for why a war occurs (or anything for that matter). Well, not a single cause of one person anyway. Only in taking the sum total of all actions of the masses will you find the reason for something.

And we see now why this novel devoted so much detail to all the little characters. Even if they only appeared for an instant. Because, from Tolstoy’s view, every single one of them was important to the flow of history. Some may have actually changed things, some may have stood back and let things happen – but the sum total of all those interactions was the War of 1812, the invasion of Russia by the French.

The question is – when you’ve debunked a few people at the top as being catalysts for history – where do you go from here? What can you put in its place?

The solution is quite astonishing – Tolstoy says that there is a law that governs all our actions. Every little thing we do is caused by something else which is caused by something else. Thus, despite the fact that he’s thinking he’s doing whatever he wants – is really heading down a pre-ordained path.

So while you may have been reading these chapters, secretly enjoying Tolstoy cutting down the big man at the top – really, he’s cut down you. Because if a man at the top has no more or less influence over the course of history, then neither do you.

So the question he moves on to is: do we then have free will?

One-Year War and Peace E2.6 – Giving Commands

Reading for Monday, June 22

Here’s an interesting little twist on the whole thing – almost as if Tolstoy read my last post and decided to reply.

Last time, I was saying that in Western society, we are used to following orders and obeying the people at the top.

Tolstoy comes right back at me – okay, let’s assume there is a guy at the top who gives orders.

Two important things to know about orders:

1)  We only judge an order as successful if it was executed successfully. If someone gives an order or a law or a command and nobody obeys it, then what good was it?

2) The person giving the command is almost never the person doing the actions that occur. So therefore, the real power lies with the people who do the actions, not the person giving the command. And especially (as in the hecase of the army), the higher up the chain you go, the less likely that the person giving the commands will actually be involved in carrying them out.

So, if the person giving commands a) may or may not influence history with that command and b) has no hand in carrying it out – in what way can we say that the person at the top is in control?

You know, I’m starting to wonder how this might relate to the business world.  Or the church world, for that matter.

Is it really a matter of having the right visionary at the top, or a hard driver, and everything will work out? Or does it come down to the quality of your staff? There are many management books nowadays devoted to reversing the paradigm of workplaces being run by managers who order their staff around.

Now it’s all about empowering your staff, working with their strengths, getting everyone focused on a common goal.

Isn’t all of this starting to recognise that if you don’t have everybody aligned and moving as a common entity, one person giving orders at the top isn’t going to achieve much?

Hmm . . . will bear thinking about.

One-Year War and Peace E2.5 – More on Power

Reading for Sunday, June 21

Tolstoy actually picks up on the point I made in my last post – that if you’re going to assign power to the person at the top, this only works if people actually do what that person says. What about those rulers that nobody obeys?

And thus, because you can’t find a definite connection between having someone at the top and what the masses do, therefore, you can’t say the person at the top has any power.

At this point, my own thought leads me to think that what’s missing here is a recognition that people (generally) are brought up to understand and have some sort of respect (perhaps grudging) for authority figures. At least in normal Western society, we are brought up by our parents to obey them, and then to obey certain authority figures around us.

We learn to obey the law, we learn to obey those who enforce the law (the police and the law courts). For some, this respect might be willing – we know if we obey them it keeps the peace for everyone. For others, it might be grudging – if I don’t obey, I’ll get locked up. But either way, it leads to (most of) the population doing what they’re told.

And thus, in a social system like this, with everyone blindly obeying the laws of the land and respecting the law enforcers), the position of lawmaker (whether it be politician or Emperor or King) becomes very important indeed. In a society where most people do what they’re told, the person doing the telling wield immense power.

Yes, you can argue that the population got itself into this herd-like state by being conditioned that way by the circumstances of their parents and their upbringing. (Thus, why countries can struggle with maintaining social order amongst members of the population from different ethnic backgrounds – not everybody has been raised to be respectful to those in authority around them.)

From time to time, revolutions occur, and the people rise up against their rulers (just look at Iran at the moment), but unless they choose anarchy (rarely), they pick someone else to be the lawmaker that they can follow. So, under those circumstances, I think it’s pretty sane to say that the person at the top can cause a great deal more to happen than a person at a lower level.

Anyway, Tolstoy I’m sure will try to win me around to his thinking in the next seven chapters left in this book, so we’ll see how he goes . . .

One-Year War and Peace E2.4 – The Source of Power

Reading for Saturday, June 20

Okay, I’m starting to get on Tolstoy’s wavelength here, and starting to be intrigued by his argument.

So we read in the last chapter about power and whether that’s a good explanation for things. Now Tolstoy expands on his argument.

I feel a bit sheepish having to basically repeat his argument, because you can read it for yourself – but in case you couldn’t follow it – the idea is quite simply this:

Okay, let’s assume that history can be explained by a dozen guys at the top ordering everyone else around. Why do the millions of other people do what the guys at the top say?

You can either go down a path where the guy at the top somehow represents the will of all the people under him – but to what extent? (Tolstoy elaborates on this a lot more, but I’ve got to leave some things for you to read . . .) Does he really represent all people? Of course not. Some of the people? What percentage?

Once you get down that path – well, then, what huge impact does the leader at the top have? If history is made up of the millions of movements of the masses, and the guy at the top really doesn’t represent the masses, then to focus on the great man is not really to explain history. You can look back in hindsight and say, “So and so caused this to happen.” But that’s only because the masses chose to follow that person.

If they’d rebelled against the guy at the top (something Russians are fond of), well, then, it would be a completely different story.

The argument continues tomorrow . . .

One-Year War and Peace E2.3 – What Drives a Steam Engine?

Reading for Friday, June 19

The class in history continues. I always love Tolstoy’s examples that he uses to illustrate his philosophy, and this is no exception.

What drives a train? he gives us three answers – none of which really work – to explain that historians are a bit like this with history. We’re either looking at symptoms of history (like looking at smoke coming out a train), or we make up a cause we can’t prove (like a Demon driving a train) or we invent some force that still needs another explanation.

The particular force that Tolstoy is most keen on debunking is the concept of power. Basically, he asserts that we need an explanation of history that takes into account the movements of every single human being.

The problem with most historians, argues Tolstoy, is that they use the concept of power to explain the movement of the masses. Instead of having every single person contributing to the flow of history, historians imagine a handful of “great men” who wield power, and thus the movements of all the masses are controlled by the power wielded by this handful of men.

Obviously, this is not what Tolstoy believes in – in fact, he goes so far as to say it’s paper money that’s fine until it’s proved to be worthless. (An interesting insight back into the days when a paper currency not backed by some sort of gold standard was considered a bit suspect.) The argument shall continue . . .

One-Year War and Peace E2.2 – Three Bad Answers

Reading for Thursday, June 18

Tolstoy deals with the usual arguments put forward by historians – that rulers change the course of things, or philosophers, or ideas and he attempts to debunk them all.

I had a bit of trouble following this argument, but is that because I’m so ingrained into thinking that people in positions of influence have power to change things? It seems to me that if you’re a general and someone has placed you in a position of power, that you have a great deal more influence that you can wield on the destiny of a nation than, say, one of your soldiers.

But then Tolstoy would probably say – look what happens when the people revolt . . . and it does happen. Where is the influence of the great men then?

Hmm . . . I think I’m starting to get it as I type these words. For every great man we could point to, there could equally be a dozen reasons why he might not be a great man. It’s only in hindsight that we can point back and say, “Wow, that all worked because of that guy.” If the guy’s plans had failed badly and everything went wrong, he wouldn’t be special at all.

So, Tolstoy just takes that a step further – if you wouldn’t think he was a special influence if things didn’t go a certain way – why would you assume he was a special influence because things went the way they did? (You might have to read that twice.)

Again, you’re back to the question – what makes things happen, whether they be ideas or people? Back to that in chapter 3.