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.

One-Year War and Peace E2.1 – What Drives History?

Reading for Wednesday, June 17

And here we go into the philosphical appendix. This will either be the straw that broke the camel’s back for some readers – who will be happy to just put the book down at this point – or, if you’re like me, you’ve read this far, and you figure you can cope with 12 more chapters. What’s 12 chapters more, out of 365?

Anyway, the basic gist of this whole section is working out what drives history. And Leo begins by talking about what doesn’t drive it. So he gives the big potted overview of the standard history of 1812 (which, I must admit, still sounds pretty similar to what you’d read about today), before pulling it apart.

His main question is that modern historians have trashed the idea of God running the show, but then they put forward specific individuals as the drivers of history.  But what is the power behind those individuals? There are a number of ways you could answer this, and they will all be dealt with in the next chapter . . .

One-Year War and Peace E1.16 – Natasha and Pierre’s Last Bow

Reading for Tuesday, June 16

And here we have the last appearance of Natasha and Pierre. This chapter is actually a little bit oblique, because it feels as if it’s setting things up for some historical events that were to occur in the future (of which Russian readers may have been well aware), whereas I’m not so sure.

We have three strands – the first two intertwine simultaneously, and this is Natasha’s happy prattle about her husband – which gives us a glimpse of the old Natasha, actually. There’s hints about a few things – that Pierre might have been unfaithful, that despite how much she loves him, his ideas may not be all that accepted in public. It’s hard to say – they’re glimpses only in this strange, overlapping conversation.

Pierre meanwhile has one big idea that he keeps returning to. As Ian pointed out in a comment a few posts back – it’s Pierre’s big idea that “if vicious people are united and form a power, honest men must do the same. It’s simple, you see.”

It’s those words, if anyone has seen the Sergei Bondarchuk film – and if you’ve been reading with us this far, you owe it to yourself to see it – that open and close the film.

But the final strand is young Nikolai Bolkonsky, dreaming of his father. His dream is abstract, but it shows him siding with Pierre over Nikolai Rostov – representing really that he is fighting against the tradition of the past and fighting for a new future. And overseeing this is his father, Andrei, who is proud of him – at least in his dreams.

The question is – did this young boy grow up to be one of the soldiers in a Russian uprising somewhere?  I’m just referring now to my notes way back i Volume 1 of my four-volume translation tha talked about the year of 1856. I’ll give you these quotes:

Count Leo Tolstoy once said that those who were not alive in the Russia of 1856 did not know what life was. If any one event of that year seemed to Tolstoy to signal a sea change in Russian politics … it was the announcement at the coronation of the new emperor, Tsar Alexander II, that the Decembrists could return from their long exile in Siberia. The Decembrists were a somewhat chaotic coalition of reform-minded officers and gentlemen who had taken to the streets at the last change of power in 1825, trying to turn Senate Square in Petersburg on the night of December 14th into a Russian version of the Place de la Révolution. Although their bungled attempt at a rising is often seen today as a slightly slapstick prelude to the much more serious revolution of October 1917, Tsar Nicholas did not see anything comical about it at all, questioning hundreds of suspected conspirators, exiling dozens and executive five. Tolstoy was one of many in the late 1850s and early 1860s who also took the Decembrists quite seriously, regarding them as an earlier generation of resolute constitutional reforimsts and hoping that their amnesty meant a return to the reforms first begun under the new tsar’s great-grandmonther, Catherine the Great, nearly a century before.

Not long after the Decembrists were welcomed back from their exile in Siberia, Tolstoy began work on a book that would eventually become known as War and Peace. It was to be set in the present and its hero was to be one of those early reformists, returning with his family, considerably sadder and somewhat wiser, to the drawing-rooms of Moscow and Petersburg after so many years away. However, Tolstoy soon discovered that he could not write this volume until he had written another volume set in 1825, describing the events that led up to the rising. Even then, he thought, his hero would be a grown man whose formative years would have been those of the Napoleonic Wars and yet another volume was needed to tell the whole story.

So it may be that Pierre and young Nikolai were representative of this force for change that was about to break out in 1825. We finish up the story in 1820, so in five years’ time, Nikolai would be 19 – well and truly old enough to take part in a revolution, and Pierre could have been in the same boat.

So that’s my reading on the dream that finishes this thing off – it’s a nod by Tolstoy to the Decembrist uprising of 1825 – the original inspiration for the book and, as we have seen, never really making an appearance in this story.

However, I don’t think you need to know all that history to “get” the ending. It’s enough to know that history keeps rolling on – people think about ideas, it inspires them to action – and then things happen as a result. History moves on.

We have the second part of the epilogue to go, which is entirely devoted to philosophy, where Tolstoy will expound one more time, his ideas on history.

One-Year War and Peace E1.15 – Nikolai & Marya’s Last Bow

Reading for Monday, June 15

Now this is a strange sensation – this is the very last chapter in which we shall read about Nikolai and Marya. Which actually means that yesterday’s chapter was the last with Denisov, now that I think about it …

But this is it. After this chapter, we don’t come back to them.

So I guess what makes it so interesting is that there’s nothing to really indicate that Tolstoy is about to stop the book. Marya shows her child-rearing diary to Nikolai, he talks about how he was treating Nikolai Bolkonsky a bit badly (and apologises for it), and it ends with them both the same – Marya spiritual and transcended, Nikolai not really getting his wife, but loving her just the same – his interests in much more of the real world.

It was kind of nice that  Nikolai is shown in slightly a better light than yesterday – but even then, it doesn’t feel like a final chapter for them.

Which is exactly what it should feel like. For Tolstoy’s view of history, there is no magical beginning or ending moment when you can say an event really happened. There is just the flow of history.

So we began by being dropped into Anna Scherer’s party. We didn’t know anyone, and as readers, we had to put a fair bit of work in for a couple of books just to keep up. (It’s like moving to a new job or a new church and trying to learn everyone’s name.)

But we did – or else we dropped out of reading a long time ago – and we started to catch up with a history that was well and truly flowing before we joined in. And now we suddenly are lifted out of it by the end of the book – but we know that it’s going to keep on going without us.

That is War and Peace. That is life.

Tomorrow, final chapter of narrative, and our farewell to Pierre and Natasha. If you’ve gotten really attached, you might need to bring tissues.

Book Review: Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Jeremy Begbie)

I got given this book last year when I turned 30, but I really wish I’d read it a lot earlier, because it deals with a subject that has played a major part in my life over the last five or six years. And that is – what is the relationship between Christianity and music?

This is not an academic question for me. As some of you may know, when I finished school, I went to study mathematics and statistics for four years, and then worked as a statistician for five years after that.

And then, all of a sudden, I decided to switch over to working in the classical music industry. (Partly, this was inspired by another fantastic book called What Color is Your Parachute? but that’s for a different review.)

It took me two years to get into the arts, and I’ll tell you now – it wasn’t an easy journey. It was hard on two fronts. One, it was hard logistically. Only having maths and statistics on my resume and no arts experience at all, it was hard to get even an interview when I first went job hunting.

However, running parallel with this logistical issue was a theological issue – why should a Christian work in the arts? If you’re not a Christian, or you’re not familiar with those circles, you may not understand why this was an issue. If you are a Christian, and you can’t see how it is a problem, then you may well hang around with some very well thought-out Christians.

But the basic problem was something like this – Christians are called to follow Jesus Christ in all things – so where does music fit into that? Sure, there’s what’s known as “Christian” music nowadays, which refers to specific genres of music, usually set apart by having lyrics that refer to various Christian themes. And certainly, there is a role for musicians in church.

But working for a classical music company? For music that not only has no Christian lyrics, but no lyrics at all? To just put on music for people to listen to? How on earth would that be bringing glory to God?

I really struggled with this issue, because it was even suggested to me by some people that it’d be a bit of a waste if I went into the arts, compared with, say, working for a Christian organisation that was directly spreading the Gospel.  I wasn’t quite sure how to answer these sorts of objections and it left me with another dilemma – if music was a bit of a waste, then being a statistician probably wasn’t all that great either.

So thus began an on-and-off again study of Christianity as it related to work in general, and now with this book – music in particular.

It’s an enjoyable book to read, because the author, Jeremy Begbie, has done an immense amount of research – but at the same time is also a musician himself. So he provides insights that couldn’t be offered by just a theologian alone.

The first half of the book is an overview of the history of thought in Christian circles regarding music. He first of all gives a comprehensive overview of pretty much every verse where music appears in the Bible, and then looks at various thinkers over the last couple of millennia, from the early Greeks to the Reformers to the current day.

Then, in the second half, he sets out a basic theology of music, and how it fits in.

I’m going to give a very simple paraphrase of his position, but really, the book has so many more interesting detail and side tangents to follow (well, interesting if you like music) that this is really only providing a rough overview.

Begbie’s basic point is that, because there’s not a hard and fast theology of music spelt out in the Bible (ie there are no verses which say, “Thou shalt listen to” or “thou shalt not listen to”), we need to follow the larger themes of the Bible to understand where music fits in.

He starts with Creation. God created the world to bring Him glory. He created man, in His image, to be the primary being in this created world that would bring glory to God. The way God wanted man to bring glory to Him is in working with the materials in this world to improve the world (part of the “have dominion over the earth” command).

And so God created the world with various potentialities that we can tap into. For instance, wood is found in trees. But there is also the potential for us to use it to make things – from furniture to houses. Likewise for music. There is the potentiality for us to create certain sounds that blend together and combine in ways that our ears would find interesting.

In fact, interesting is an understatement. Music speaks to us in a language all of its own. It moves our emotions, it inspires us, it saddens us, it uplifts us, it depresses us, it puzzles us, it makes us smile. It does all these things. Just from making a few sounds and combining theme together.

Begbie really brings out that the potential in the creation for us to make musical sounds and the way our bodies are designed to respond to music is something that God planned all along. So therefore, there is an onus on music makers to remember that music is not just something that is man-made, but is actually something that exists in God’s created order that we can tap into and use to bring God glory.

However, because of the Fall, the Bible teaches that the world has become imperfect. And the way we use the world, and the potentialities there, becomes imperfect as well. We don’t always compose good music, we don’t always listen to good music, and we can use music for a lot of purposes that don’t glorify God.

But, Christians believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is reversing the effects of the fall. This is not completed yet – and all Christians look forward to a time when things will finally be perfected – but in the meantime, Christians are called to work in this world to improve it, bearing witness to Christ.

Christians have realised this throughout the ages – it’s no surprise that Christians back in the medieval days and onwards were heavily involved in hospitals, helping the poor, fighting for justic, improving people’s standards of living, etc. (Which is not to ignore, in any way, the many people who also called themselves Christians but seemed to have confused the situation by acting in the exact opposite of that.)

Christians naturally are called to contribute to this world in ways that restore the world, albeit imperfectly, from its flawed state. Music is no different.

So that’s the general groundwork, but there are all sorts of interesting analogies that Begbie draws between music and theology that are worth reading.

However, the book ended with a bit of a cliffhanger – how do you judge what is good music or bad? Begbie says that he’s run out of room in this book and is working on another one.

This is a bit of a shame because, of course, the highly controversial questions are all around “good” vs “bad” music. Is rock music bad? Or if you’re a Christian, can you listen to whatever you want? (As long as you remind yourself that you might not agree with all of the lyrics?)

Then, of course, there is the perennial church music question. Are hymns  better than modern church choruses? What makes any church music particularly great? Should we just play whatever is the latest music so people want to come to our church? What do you do about old “traditional” church services where anything that’s not an organ is considered sacrilegious?

I had an interesting discussion this week with a couple of people about the church music question, and I’d like to come back to it soon, but I thought I needed to get this book review out first, because I would say that it’s overall framework is where I stand on the music issue. God gave us the potential to make music, and we make it to his glory.

The question is, what does that look like?

These are the bigger questions and, like Jeremy Begbie, I’m going to leave this with a bit of a cliffhanger and come back to them some other time – hopefully in the not too distant future.

One-Year War and Peace E1.14 – Debates

Reading for Sunday, June 14

I think this chapter is where the famous quote that opens the Bondarchuk movie comes from, but I’m not sure because my translation was not that good. You realise also that it’s taken a bit out of context as well.

At the opening of the film, the line about good men joining together to oppose evil sounds like a really noble thing. But in this context, it’s more Pierre thinking of a society that uprises against corruption in government and a weak Tsar. (Which, according to my endnotes, was to happen in 1825.)

Politics aside, this most unusual epilogue (which reads like a continuation of the novel, and doesn’t at all feel like it’s wrapping things up) showing us Nikolai and Pierre’s disagreement, and young Nikolai Bolkonsky’s desperate urge to cling on to something that reminds him of his father – anything at all.

I wonder if it’s young Nikolai’s relation to Andrei that makes Nikolai Rostov irritated with him?

One-Year War and Peace E1.13 – People You’re Interested In

Reading for Saturday, June 13

And now we have another (I guess one of the last) domestic scenes as the Rostov family sit around the table talking. Despite my earlier worryings a few months ago about whether Denisov was still alive, there he is – I really did read it fast last time, didn’t I?

I’ve never actually considered whether older people are less interested (or get more confused by) the people we’re talking about – but then again, it is kind of how we treat them, isn’t it? When we’re talking to old relatives or grandparents, we ask them questions about their day, we swap stories about aunties and uncles they used to know. Very rarely do we burden them with the worries and cares that might be facing us today.

So I think there probably is something universal in that thought.

Anyway, all of that was swept aside by the servant, Anna Makarovna, who knows how to knit two stockings simultaneously and then pulls one out of the other . . . a pretty impressive feat.

There’s a tutorial I discovered on how to knit two socks at once, but it doesn’t have the impressive magic trick where one is pulled out of another . . . maybe it could only happen in fiction. But I like to think that Tolstoy knew a magic knitter somewhere who knew how to pull off that trick.

One-Year War and Peace E1.12 – The Household

Reading for Friday, June 12

In a very Tolstoy-like chapter, we get a snapshot inside the heads of all the main characters in the Rostov/Bezuhov household. The most interesting (and moving) of these is Andrei’s son, Nikolai. It’s a strange character, because Andrei (and Tolstoy for that matter) showed no interest in Nikolai for quite a long while, so all of a sudden, to find out that he’s 15 and worships the father he’s never known is quite interesting.

Was anybody else unsurprised that he much prefers Uncle Pierre over Uncle Nikolai? I certainly would . . .

Finally, a description of the ailing Countess Rostova. This could be milked for all its worth and made to be quite sentimental (for some reason, I’m thinking of Sally Field as the dying Mrs Gump . . .) but instead it’s portrayed as the cycle of life. I think we get a bit sheltered from the onset of old age and dementia, because people of that age get shunted off to nursing homes and we don’t have to think about them. So in some ways, it’s quite helpful that Tolstoy shows us that the same youth and beauty which we’ve seen in many different facets in this great novel is just one of our lives – the other end is ailing bodies and ailing minds.