Literature Philosophy

Reading “War and Peace”: The Tyranny of Historicism and Tolstoy’s Philosophical Reflections

Philosophy of History is a major sub-theme that runs through the work; it begins to appear more readily in the second half of the story and a dedicated second epilogue by Tolstoy is nothing more than reflections on the philosophy of history. War and Peace, therefore, is more than just a story, more than a novel, more than an epic. It is, in many ways, a work of philosophy which comes to us through the unfolding of a story.

Tolstoy was, of course, writing War and Peace in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the writings of Georg W.F. Hegel and Thomas Carlyle. The “idea of History” was now all the rage across the intellectual circles of Europe. Progressives, socialists, and nationalists were all obsessed with chasing after History to its preordained conclusion; thus, as Tolstoy began to recognize in writing War and Peace and reading the many histories for his historical sources of the campaigns of 1805, 1807, and 1812, most—if not all—of the history books were tacit works of biased propaganda from the hands and minds of their authors. The pro-Napoleon historians, like Adolphe Thiers, tried to absolve Napoleon of his failures in Russia. The pro-Russian historians, as Tolstoy amusingly notes, depicted Kutuzov and the Russian general staff as geniuses in deliberately and intentionally luring Napoleon into the trap at Borodino and Moscow which eventually broke his army.

Part of Tolstoy’s monumental work is the discussion of history and what a meaningful life is about. This principally plays itself out through Pierre, but all the characters are equally part of this struggle for life. In Russian, War and Peace can also mean War and the World. In a very real sense, Tolstoy’s story is about warring in the world to find meaning in life. That is the whole arc of the story with its many multifaced characters.

As Napoleon invades Russia, Tolstoy pivots from a story of characters to a commentary on philosophy and history. It is here that Tolstoy really begins to develop his esoteric commentary on philosophy and history which was, in times past, merely prefigured or contained in a very small way. He begins to discuss, by name, post-Napoleonic historians like Adolphe Thiers. He comments on the partisans of the Emperor Alexander and the pro-Russian historians who mythologized the genius of the Russian high command in the War of 1812.

Tolstoy critiques the Historical School epistemology by linking it to a chess player and chess game. A chess player, once defeated, begins to look back over the game to find the moment when he lost. He looks back in “retrospectiveness” to see if he can deduce how it all went wrong, “A good chess-player, who has lost a game, is genuinely convinced that his failure is due to his blunders, and he seeks the blunder at the commencement of the game, forgetting that at every move during the whole game there were similar errors, that not one piece has been played as perfectly as possible. The blunder on which he concentrates his attention attracts his notice simply because his opponent took advantage of it.”

Tolstoy’s critique of the law of retrospectiveness in War and Peace has been a focus of critical commentary. Some readers of War and Peace see Tolstoy’s philosophical and historical commentary as subtracting from the story. Others see Tolstoy’s commentary as adding to the text and giving readers more to chew on and consider. I fall into the latter camp; but perhaps that is become I’m a philosopher and literary critic instead of one or the other.

From Pierre to Napoleon to the partisan historians, those who look over the carnage and bloodshed of history to discuss “grand ideas” and the general march of the spirit of history are truly blind. “Thiers is as right as the Russian historians,” Tolstoy writes. Given the oppositional views presented by the partisan historians of Napoleon and the partisan historians of Russia, Tolstoy’s statement would seem to be a contradiction. But it’s not. Tolstoy is saying that those who only see the grand ideas and claiming that Napoleon didn’t want to fight or that that the Russians lured him into a trap are both right because they are both wrong. History, you see, is a subjective endeavor.

When we were introduced to Pierre he was chasing after ideas. Napoleon, undeniably, was chasing after the Geist. Those chasing after History were the toiling servants and slaves of History. Reflecting upon Napoleon in exile, Tolstoy writes concerning the apologists of Napoleon, “Napoleon, predestined by Providence for the gloomy role of executioner of the peoples, assured himself that the aim of his actions had been the peoples’ welfare, and that he could control the fate of millions by the employment of power confer benefaction.” Continuing onward, “The Russian war should have been the most popular war of modern times: it was a war of good sense, for real interests, for the tranquility and security of all.” Napoleon learned nothing and the historians of the French Revolution and defenders of Napoleon have learned nothing. Their marriage with the world of abstract ideas makes them blind to the realities of the bloodshed, horror, and genocide that was enacted ‘in the name of liberty and equality.’

Pierre is the hero who escapes the tyranny of history. Enslaved to the world of ideas at the beginning of the novel, he manages, through the fire and horror of war, come not to romanticize it or defend it. Rather, he is broken by it. In his brokenness he is given life by union with Natasha. Their love for each other brings them together as one, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and mouth-to-mouth in a spirit of adoration (adoratio). In the broken world of War and Peace, those who slaved after, and chased after, History, die alone and bring carnage wherever they went. Those who were cleaved together in love found the meaning they always desired.

In Greek, diabolical (διαβολικός) means to tear asunder. Symbolic (συμβολικός) means to bring together. True life and meaning are not in being torn asunder in the grand quest after History but in being brought together in symbolic participation of the Triune Godhead which consummates and manifests itself in love. Pierre and Natasha, and Nikolai and Princess Marya, were brought together in this symbolic participation and brought forth life into the world. “I love you awfully, awfully, awfully,” Natasha says face-to-face before Pierre. Meanwhile, the great generals, officers, and “great men” of the story and era, look over the heaps of nameless and faceless dead. The great persons of history are those men and women, like Natasha and Pierre, who find love looking and smiling into each others’ eyes.


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