History Isn’t Made by Great Men
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1867) is one of the greatest of great books, both literally and figuratively. It has more than 1000 pages, depending on the edition and translation, and 559 characters. In 1931, the critic Boris Eikhenbaum defined War and Peace as an historico-philosophical epic. It mixes several genres. It contains a meticulously researched historical account of the Napoleonic Wars and their effects on Russian society, a literary narrative centering around his fictional characters, and essays about the philosophy of history.
No summary or analysis could do it complete justice. And yet, here I am, attempting to add my two cents.
Tolstoy’s work is a prime example of great historical imagination, which can only fly in the confines of what actually happened. Tolstoy worked on the book for several years, consulting primary sources, history books, philosophy texts, and other historical novels. The historical accuracy and authenticity of the novel are bound to make any history lover happy. Yet, War and Peace is not only a meticulously researched history lesson but a deeply philosophical exploration of man’s place and destiny in the world. Against a backdrop of the world-historical conflict, the characters encounter love, loss, despair, spiritual confusion, and hope. Aptly, Henry James called Tolstoy “a monster harnessed to his great subject—all of life.”
The philosophical vision of War and Peace is deeply rooted in Tolstoy’s longing for the infinite and universal. Yet, the novel is still primarily an affirmation of our finite, splendid, tragic, beautiful, and ugly world, of life itself. For Tolstoy, we can grasp the universal only through concrete phenomena and the individual. If there is something like divine providence or rational meaning to history, it is well hidden. We do not—we can not—have knowledge of the origins of the end of history or the ultimate laws governing it. All we encounter in history is a continuous stream of individual people and events. We can only wonder with fascination at this riddle of life. Our understanding of it might always remain fragmentary and incomplete, but that’s all we have.
Read “Look for Things That Don’t Change“
The Engine of History
“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.”
Tolstoy’s most explicitly philosophical question, the one discussed in the essays, is: “What is the power that moves peoples?” Or, “What force moves the nations?” In other words, what is the engine of history? Tolstoy criticizes contemporaneous historians who ”laboriously reply either that Napoleon was a great genius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or that certain writers wrote certain books.” He argues forcefully against any Great Man theory of history, according to which history can largely be explained by the impact of the deeds or ideas of great men, heroes, and geniuses.
This becomes irrevocably clear in how Tolstoy portrays Napoleon as just some guy. Tolstoy’s Napoleon is both incompetent and overconfident, thrust in his role by sheer chance. There are no world-historical individuals. Great men are “but labels serving to give a name to the event.” Napoleon’s individual will cannot explain the activities of millions of men butchering each other on the battlefield or dying of cold and hunger in the Russian winter. This is what two of the most central characters, Andrey and Pierre, learn by the end of the book. They start out idealistic, believing that a great man like Napoleon stands for something. That he can bring about historical and political change in Russia. Pierre’s adoration is later transformed into a conspiracist conviction about how Napoleon is the beast foretold in the Apocalypse. But lo and behold, Napoleon brings neither a Brave New World nor the Apocalypse.
No individual alone turns the wheel of history, no matter how great in the eyes of others. And yet, there is an unavoidable deterministic tyranny at play, some force that makes things happen. History happens to us; it subjugates us. We cannot escape the flood of events—causes and effects—that shape the world around us. Toward the very end of the book, Andrei accepts this, deciding to wholly and entirely renounce his own selfhood to history. He goes to the last battle against Napoleon at Borodino not as himself, not as Count Andrei with his hopes and dreams, but as a pawn in the bigger game of history. He resigns himself to his fate.
Tolstoy is a better artist than a philosopher, at least, if we take conceptual clarity to measure philosophical skill. The essays are riddled with vague ideas and inconsistencies. The theoretical conflict between free will and determinism remains unresolved. Tolstoy (and Andrei) are left with an unsatisfying theory about the ultimate force behind causes and effects in history. They resolve it by postulating an “incomprehensible essence of life.” A vague appeal to some mysterious force might work in science fiction or fantasy, less so in the philosophy of history.
That said, the novel, as a whole, does provide an interesting answer. Tolstoy’s vision is better understood as a practical and ethical appeal, more so than as a systematic philosophical-historical theory. It is a genuinely radical view.
Read “A Progressive’s Take on Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant’“
Private Lives and the Ethics of History
“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”
What matters to Tolstoy, both as a novelist and a philosopher, are private histories. He is interested in the people trying to find their footing amidst the wreckage of history. No historical narrative or political story is more real than the people striving to get by in a world in chaos. Historians should examine the causes and conditions of man’s continuing inhumanity to man, not the causes and effects of Great Events and the lives of Great Men. Individuals should not be treated as mere instruments in a historical process. Every soldier dying on the battlefield has lived a life, has really existed, and so has a history.
Tolstoy’s vision brings to mind Søren Kierkegaard’s critique against the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel. For the Danish existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard, Hegel’s philosophy of history is overtly rational, elevating abstract reason above the ethically and existentially significant world of everyday existence. Searching for the absolute in history obscures the substantive character of the real world. We do not find human redemption in abstract rationalist or scientific speculation but in the concrete and real: namely, people living their lives. The same criticism also works against materialist-deterministic conceptions of history, which reduce human lives to statistics and trends.
Tolstoy is a master of describing subjective experiences and psychological realities. His characters feel authentic. This is because people falling in love and breaking their hearts, despairing and joyful, marrying and dying are, for him, the ultimate reality. History with a capital “H” is always an abstraction or a construct. No political or historical narrative or goal, no revolution or secular or religious eschatology justifies the suffering of individuals. Yes, individuals suffer and die for higher causes, sometimes even for good causes. Still, there is no meta-historical necessity that could explain or justify that. Beneficial results do not eliminate the tragedies of human life; they cannot justify crimes and terror. For Tolstoy, the ends do not justify the means.
Abandoning revolutionary utopianism does not have to mean political quietism and resignation to the status quo. Tolstoy himself was a political thinker. His lifelong commitment to pacifism and social reforms are rooted in his ethical views. A personal commitment to a set of principles can bring about a change for the better. We need to transcend historical narratives and grandiose politics that promise final answers, a new world to come, and prioritize the private and individual. To concentrate on the concrete and real, rather than the abstract and ideal.
Read “It’s All a Bit Absurd“
The Splendor and Misery of Life
“It’s not given to people to judge what’s right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more than in what they consider right and wrong.”
In The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche (1900), Lev Shestov, a Russian religious existentialist philosopher, describes War and Peace as Tolstoy’s only truly great work, irritated by Tolstoy’s descent from the “philosophical heights” of his earliest great novel. Later Tolstoy becomes an intolerant “fanatic,” “moralist,” and “preacher.” In War and Peace, he shows no indication that he intends to teach or to lecture. This is what Shestov finds so brilliant about it.
Although Tolstoy’s sharp psychological insight and artistic genius in Anna Karenina (1878) and Resurrection (1899) are unsurpassed, it is easy to agree with Shestov. Particularly as a woman, there is a disconnect when reading Tolstoy’s later books. Only men can be redeemed by religion and find any kind of existential fulfillment. Women are doomed to seek, agonize, and follow. For women, Tolstoy seems to offer only two options: either become a devout, self-sacrificing wife and mother or fail and, well, maybe throw yourself under a train.
This moralism is still absent in War and Peace. In the novel, Tolstoy does not want to condemn anyone but wants to acquit everyone. He remains open to the “tormenting problems of life,” as Shestov says, raw and curious. He does not pretend to have all the answers but is humble, and in that, “his soul has found rest.” Tolstoy treats even his most unlikable characters with benevolent irony and tolerance. He lets his characters live and die, succeed and fail, wallow in existential despair and then find hope again—everything without judgment. This makes War and Peace the world’s longest and, possibly, best self-help book. If going on a 1000-page journey exploring all facets of human experience with Pierre, Andrei, Natasha, Maria, and the others does not produce a sense of peace in this busy, hectic world, nothing will.
It is, of course, a different thing to be a compassionate and non-judgmental onlooker of the lives of others, so a reader of War and Peace, than to actually live one’s own life. The tension between the two main existential themes of War and Peace, history and life, is explicit in a discussion between Pierre and Andrei. After a dark period in his life, Pierre finds solace in Johann Gottfried Herder’s theology of history. The reference to Herder (a German philosopher and theologian from the nineteenth century) is noteworthy, as it resembles Tolstoy’s own philosophy of history:
“You say you can’t see a reign of goodness and truth on earth. Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if one looks on our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here on this earth” (Pierre pointed to the fields), “there is no truth, all is false and evil; but in the universe, in the whole universe there is a kingdom of truth, and we who are now the children of earth are—eternally—children of the whole universe. Don’t I feel in my soul that I am part of this vast harmonious whole?”
Much like the reader of War and Peace, Pierre takes an Olympian distance to the lives of ordinary people. It is not a promise of future redemption but rather an aesthetic attitude to reality: trying to find the good and the beautiful in the complex but harmonious unity of all things. The immanent splendor and misery of life disclose the perennial transcendence of human existence.
Andrei is not convinced. Instead, he says, “Dear friend—life and death are what convince.” Mourning the death of his first wife, Andrei faces the concrete, painful reality of love and death: “At once that person vanishes there, into nowhere, and you yourself are left facing that abyss, and look in.” No abstract harmony or philosophical heights can bring about solace when faced with the most fundamental and concrete questions in life. To live, really live, one has to step down from Mount Olympus.
Listen to “The Philosophy of Lived Experience w/ Henriikka Hannula”
Tolstoy on Love and Kindness
“But all that is only life’s setting, the real thing is love—love!”
“Platonic love, clouds . . .”
Later, the tables turn on Pierre and Andrei. Andrei wrestles with nihilism and self-hatred all his life. Throughout the book, the thing he is most interested in is finding a cure for this. He chases unattainable ideals—be it in history, death, or love. Infatuated with Natasha, a joyous and spirited girl who is always singing, Andrei’s love is not directed at her as a person but to the ideal she represents. In her, he sees a promise of a new quiet home life and tranquility, a cure for his disillusionment. Therefore, Andrei can’t forgive Natasha’s wandering eye, her childish yet all-too-human infatuation with the handsome Anatole Kuragin. Something that Pierre, Natasha’s other suitor and real love match, can do. For Pierre, Natasha herself, taken as an individual with her imperfections, is what matters.
Before his death, Andrei has a dream vision. He recognizes that death is merely a way of returning to the universal and eternal sources of love. Annihilation of the self. Even though he finds comfort and beauty in this idea, it also makes him lose his will to live. He finally forgives both Natasha and Anatole but actively chooses death. While no doubt an interesting and tragic character, Andrei’s choice is ultimately egotistical. Death, like everything else in life for him, is an escape. Living and dying for Platonic heights and ideals is not life. Annihilation is egotistical because love is directed at other people.
Tolstoy’s view of love is in line with his overall practical and ethical message of War and Peace. Love for Tolstoy is the love of life in all its fragile and imperfect forms. It is not about the individual’s redemption from suffering or self-hatred; it is about kindness and goodwill toward everyone. This is what Pierre, too, learns during his imprisonment in Moscow. He finds compassion and love even for his enemies, surviving side-by-side with other prisoners, sharing his meals and clothes. When Pierre and the French captain share a moment, a connection together, they come to acknowledge their common humanity. This commonality goes beyond the artificial differences between them imposed by the Great Men supposedly pulling strings behind the curtains. Finally, Pierre realizes this: “In the bright light of the emotion that shone within himself, and at once without any effort saw in everyone he met everything that was good and worthy of being loved.”
At the end of the novel, we meet the characters some ten years after the end of the war. Pierre has married Natasha. With endearing irony, Tolstoy describes how the heights of romance have turned into mundane, boring family life. The lovely, lively Natasha has gotten plump and dull (Tolstoy feels the need to tell us) and doesn’t sing anymore. The love between the spouses has become utterly unromantic and imperfect. Yet, the love is still there. Not as a promise of salvation and Platonic heights but as a fact of life. As a quiet acceptance of the loved ones as they are, with all their imperfections, and as a promise that it is better to exist together than apart.
Much like for the characters of War and Peace, history might seem like a catastrophe unfolding for us too. Maybe the future does not look much better. But if we concentrate on the experiences of ordinary people living their mundane lives amidst the wreckage, we find much to love.
Henriikka works on the history of late nineteenth-century German philosophy. In her dissertation, she is researching the concepts of historicism, naturalism, and Lebensphilosophie in the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey.
Besides that, her interests lie in the philosophy of the social sciences, the philosophy of history, and hermeneutics.
4 thoughts on “History Isn’t Made by Great Men”
I assume that in the Russian society of the 19th century there were deep problems associated with the nobility, its regressive role, serfdom, and the imperial institution in general. These things didn’t work well for Russia anymore like in previous centuries (times of Elizabeth of Russia, Katherine the Great, and before). And led to the tragic and quick emancipation of society at the beginning of the next century (revolution). And Piere like a representative of this nobility experienced difficulties finding his role in society. The interesting moment is when Piere after the chaos of the Borodino battle is wandering around and feels very comfortable living with ordinary soldiers from the common people. So Tolstoy somehow indicates the way for Piere. The brilliance of Kutusov’s military skills outplays Napoleon on 100 percent perfectly implementing tactics described by SunTzu. Tolstoy questions what this war is all about? – From a military and political point of view? If Napoleon is so brilliant why he came to Russia with the logistics of the 19th century? Some would look for parallels but there is one big difference. – Russian society is mentally very different now …
As far as I understand, Pierre is in many ways Tolstoy’s own alter ego. So I think you’re right that Pierre is a representative of Tolstoy’s new ideal for nobility. They should be humble, virtuous, and foster social and political programmes that benefit the poor. Who knows, if more of the nobility would have been tolstoyan, maybe Russian history in the past 100 years would have looked different.
At least if we trust Timothy Snyder’s analysis in “The Road to Unfreedom”, Putin’s favourite political philosopher is Ivan Ilyin. His philosophy is in explicit opposition to Tolstoy’s “sentimentalism” and “pacifism”. So yes, at least Putin is very far from being a tolstoyan…
I remember that when I read W & P many years ago thinking that it may have been the case in the 19th Century that the foot soldiers were more important than the generals or any other of the “great men” who decided the military policy. After all, in those days, if the soldiers wouldn’t fight in spite of any commands, there could be no war. But, I thought, absolute destruction is now so closely connected to a single button being pushed, that might not be true any longer. Perhaps pilots and ground crew are still required….but how much longer will that be the case?
Great essay, many thanks! Learned a lot as someone who hasn’t read any Tolstoy (yet).
One small trifle though. Herder, whose full name was Johann Gottfried Herder (though we was called Gottfried Herder during his lifetime), can’t really be called a “German philosopher and theologian from the nineteenth century”, given that he died in 1803, age 61.