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.

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

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Matt. Leaders seem great and powerful because historians have described them in that way … but what historians don’t describe is the millions of things that great leaders do that don’t have great consequences – orders that are not carried out, orders that are not even made in the first place. So historians have given us a selective view of history – telling us little bits, to tell a particular story – a story, that is, that fits the historian’s vew of how things happen. So it’s not so much that the average person on the street can change the world just in the same way that a general, or a dictator, or a President of the United States, can change it – but rather that neither of them can or do change it alone. They are each only part of a much bigger picture. Of course, it might well be argued that the general is a more “powerful”, or more significant, part of that picture than the nameless person on the street. Tolstoy doesn’t really address that distinction, as far as I can tell, because, in his view, both are ultimately so insignificant as individuals that it’s pretty pointless to think of one as more influential than the other. And, in a funny sort of way, this very point is kind of replicated in the way Tolstoy puts forward his argument – not in the bombastic way that the more traditional historians have done, but building his argument little brick by little brick – each piece fitting together to make what ultimately becomes a pretty powerful edifice.

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