Review: Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

by Miles Raymer

War and Peace

After a captivating but ultimately bitter encounter with Anna Karenina last year, I was worried that Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace would produce similar results. To my surprise and delight, however, War and Peace helped me finally understand why Tolstoy’s work occupies such an important position in literary history. Those determined enough to commit to this epic novel will discover a masterful blend of narrative storytelling and historical theory.

War and Peace contains a huge cast of characters, centering on two aristocratic Russian families: The Bolkonskys and the Rostovs. These families become entangled in a web of romantic interests and exploits that are variously funny, tragic and endearing. Calling across vast spaces in time, culture, geography, and translation, Tolstoy’s drama dances with a strange and powerful vitality. Each conflict is animated by an endless fascination with humanity’s sins and virtues, and each character possesses a physical appearance and internal psychology rich in detail and complexity. While their pampered attitudes can be grating, Tolstoy’s writing is so adept and his compassion so inexhaustible that it’s difficult to condemn even his least likable characters.

Other than its intimidating length, there are two potential obstacles that may prevent War and Peace from winning over modern readers. The first is the gender politics, which are about as retrograde as one expects from a 19th-century male writer. Tolstoy’s empathetic depictions of female characters are enough to derail accusations of outright misogyny, but there is nevertheless quite a lot of uncurbed sexism in this novel. The second potential obstacle is that all the principle characters are wealthy, which means we don’t get more than the occasional glimpse of what life is like for those of lesser means. The Rostovs do face financial challenges that influence the plot, but direct representation of poor or minority citizens is sparse.

Looming over the hopes and dreams of these dysfunctional patricians is Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812. While Tolstoy indulges somewhat in the glorification of war that was typical of his era, he also demonstrates through my favorite character, Prince Andrei, an ironic assessment of war’s evil essence:

War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people…The military estate is the most honored. But what is war, what is needed for success in military affairs, what are the morals of military society? The aim of war is killing, the instruments of war are espionage, treason and the encouragement of it, the ruin of the inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to supply the army; deception and lying are called military stratagems; the morals of the military estate are absence of freedom, that is discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, depravity, and drunkenness. And, in spite of that, it is the highest estate, respected by all. (775-6)

At first glance, Tolstoy appears to pursue a straightforward contrast, with war and peace as two opposing states of life. As the novel progresses, however, we learn that his project is much more sophisticated. Like joy and suffering, war and peace are inextricably bound up with one another, their true meanings accessible only when understood as a single phenomenon rather than separate phenomena. One of the main characters, Pierre, learns that the challenges brought on by conflict can be the key to rediscovering the value of life:

In the devastated and burnt Moscow, Pierre experienced almost the final limits of privation that a man can endure; but, owing to his strong constitution and health, which he had not been conscious of until then…he bore his situation not only lightly, but joyfully. And precisely in that time he received the peace and contentment with himself which he had previously striven for in vain. (1012)

Pierre’s character arc and that of others helped me articulate the fundamental difference between Tolstoy’s worldview and my own, which is that Tolstoy is a champion of revelation, whereas I aspire to be a champion of reason and science. While it’s not accurate to say he rejects them entirely, Tolstoy disparages science and reason at considerable length, straw-manning science as “an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth,” and arguing that “the possibility of life is annihilated” if “we allow that human life can be governed by reason.” (639, 1131). His dismissal of naturalism, despite its lively analogical delivery, is particularly cringeworthy:

The naturalists and their admirers…are like plasterers assigned to plaster one side of a church wall, who, taking advantage of the foreman’s absence, in a fit of zeal smear their plaster all over the windows, the icons, the scaffolding, and the as yet unreinforced walls, and rejoice at how, from their plastering point of view, everything comes out flat and smooth. (1203)

Tolstoy knows that science––like any intellectual field––can overreach in ways it shouldn’t, but he fails to grasp the responsible incrementalism and intellectual prudence that form the bedrock of scientific progress. He prefers to put his faith in epiphanic encounters with “eternal truths” brought about by extreme grief or hardship, illuminating how the emotional and intellectual consequences of such experiences persist or dissipate over time. It was precisely this penchant for revelation that made me haughtily reject the end of Anna Karenina, but this time around I was able to make peace instead of war with this aspect of Tolstoy’s writing. Though I’ll never follow him into religious territory, Tolstoy has convinced me that revelation has a meaningful role in human psychology and personal development.

While I enjoyed War and Peace’s storyline, its theoretical sections were my favorite part of the book. Many chapters are devoted to Tolstoy’s dense cogitations on battle strategy, the politics of war, and––most profoundly––the proper application of historical analysis. Tolstoy displays a deep preoccupation with the question of what history can and can’t teach us. In general, he heralds the retreat from the “Great Man Theory” of history and embraces the structural approach that eventually superseded it. At best, national and military leaders provide merely the initial impetus for events that, once set in motion, unfold as deterministically as the movements of a clock:

The concentrated movement which began that morning in the emperors’ headquarters and gave a push to all subsequent movement was like the first movement of the central wheel in a big tower clock. Slowly one wheel started, another turned, a third, and the wheels, pulleys, and gears were set turning more and more quickly, chimes began to ring, figures popped out, and the clock hands started their measured advance, showing the result of that movement.

As in the mechanism of a clock, so also in the mechanism of military action, the movement once given is just as irrepressible until the final results, and just as indifferently motionless are the parts of the mechanism not yet involved in the action even a moment before movement is transmitted to them. Wheels whizz on their axles, cogs catch, fast-spinning pulleys whirr, yet the neighboring wheel is as calm and immobile as though it was ready to stand for a hundred years in that immobility; but a moment comes––the lever catches, and, obedient to its movement, the wheel creeks, turning, and merged into one movement with the whole, the result and purpose of which are incomprehensible to us. (257-8)

Tolstoy’s understanding of diffusion of responsibility and the importance of aggregate causes in historical events is especially keen:

On the twelfth of June, the forces of western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began––that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature. Millions of people committed against each other such a countless number of villainies, deceptions, betrayals, thefts, forgeries and distributions of false banknotes, robberies, arsons, and murders as the annals of all the law courts in the world could not assemble in whole centuries, and which, at that period of time, the people who committed them did not look upon as crimes.

What produced this extraordinary event? What were its causes?…

For us it is not understandable that millions of Christians killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was a lover of power, Alexander was firm, English policy cunning, and the duke of Oldenburg offended. It is impossible to understand what connection there is between these circumstances and the fact of killing and violence…

For us descendants––who are not historians, who are not carried away by the process of research and therefore can contemplate events with unobscured common sense––a countless number of causes present themselves. The deeper we go in search of causes, the more of them we find, and each cause taken singly or whole series of causes present themselves to us equally correct in themselves, and equally false in their insignificance in comparison with the enormity of the event, and equally false in their incapacity (without the participation of all other coinciding causes) to produce the event that took place. The willingness or unwillingness of one French corporal to enlist for a second tour of duty appears to us as good a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his army beyond the Vistula and give back the duchy of Oldenburg; for if he had been unwilling to serve, and another had been unwilling, and a third, and a thousandth corporal and soldier, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army, and there could have been no war. (603-4)

This already-overwhelming predicament is further complicated by the dubious status of free will. Tolstoy describes how freedom is a temporal illusion that arises from our always-incomplete view of the present and disintegrates as the present becomes the past:

If I examine an act I committed a moment ago, under approximately the same conditions as I am in now, my action seems unquestionably free to me. But if I review an act I committed a month ago, I involuntarily recognize, being in different conditions, that if that act had not been committed, many useful, agreeable, and even necessary things which resulted from that act would not have taken place. If I transport myself in memory to an act still more remote, ten years back or more, the consequences of my act will appear still more obvious to me; and it will be hard for me to imagine what would have happened if the act had not been done. The further back I transport myself in memory, or, what is the same, ahead in my judgment, the more questionable my argument about the freedom of the act will become.

In history we find exactly the same progression of convincingness about the portion of free will in the general affairs of mankind. A just-accomplished contemporary event appears to us as unquestionably proceeding from all known people; but in a more remote event we see its inevitable consequences, aside from which we cannot imagine anything else. And the further back we transport ourselves in examining events, the less arbitrary they appear to us. (1206)

Following this passage, Tolstoy captures beautifully the contradiction at the heart of the human condition: We can never directly experience pure freedom, which would require existence outside the confines of space and time, nor pure determinism, which would require a comprehensive awareness of all causes. We can only ever occupy an ambiguous, hallucinatory middle ground where an event’s closeness in time makes it appear more free, and its distance in time makes it appear more determined.

This tunnel gets very dark, but I think there is a ray of sunshine that can light our way out. The inescapable tension between freedom and determinism guarantees that there will always be unanswered questions and work to be done. The mission then is to determine which questions are worth pursuing and what work is worth doing. Both of these activities play out under the shadow of power, which is the social/political/economic mechanism through which certain questions become pursuable and certain work becomes doable. Those seeking to become empowered, then, will need a theory of power. War and Peace’s final chapters contain such a theory:

Having renounced the view of the ancients on the divine submission of the will of the people to a chosen one and on the submission of that will to a divinity, history cannot take a single step without contradiction unless it chooses one of two things: either to return to the former faith in the direct participation of the divinity in the affairs of mankind, or to explain definitely the meaning of that force productive of historical events which is known as power.

To return to the first is impossible: belief has been destroyed, and therefore it is necessary to explain the meaning of power. (1187-8)

Several chapters later, Tolstoy provides his definition:

(1) Power is that relation of a certain person to other persons in which the person takes the less part in the action the more he expresses opinions, suppositions, and justifications for the jointly accomplished action.

(2) The movement of peoples is produced, not by power, not by intellectual activity, not even by a combination of the two, as historians used to think, but by the activity of all the people taking part in the event and always joining together in such a way that those who take the greatest direct part in the event, take the least responsibility upon themselves, and vice versa. (1199, emphasis his)

I can’t speak to how these insights were received in Tolstoy’s time, but their importance for a 21st-century audience seems difficult to overstate. Our collective ability to comprehend and solve global problems is undercut by hierarchical systems that consolidate power without accepting the inherent responsibility that power confers. This produces the anesthetizing feeling that responsibility for any particular outcome is so diffuse that responsibility itself is a meaningless concept.

Tolstoy’s theory reveals the root of modernity’s malapportionment of power, which compounds as the distance grows between those who must directly participate in events and those who make consequential decisions without getting their hands dirty. To achieve a more equitable distribution of power, and thereby restore a legitimate sense of personal responsibility to common citizens, we must reverse this trend and build a society with as little distance as is practically possible between those who “do” and those who “decide”.

Rating: 10/10