skip to Main Content

Consciousness, Memory, and History in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

The Second Epilogue

Although nearly all have admired Tolstoy’s War and Peace since its publication, critics have been divided over whether the novel has an organizational principle. Some have found it troublesome for its lack of structure, and especially point to the Second Preface which outlines a philosophy of history that distracts from the novel’s artistic achievements.[1] Other critics have claimed an organizational principle does exist in the novel—whether certain characters or specific literary techniques—but agree with their colleagues that the Second Epilogue mars Tolstoy’s masterpiece.[2] Practically all critics of War and Peace have interpreted the Second Epilogue as an aberration in the work that distracts from the merits of the novel. Instead of taking Tolstoy’s comments in the Second Epilogue about God, freedom, and history seriously, to see whether his artistic creation coincides with his philosophical project, critics either have attacked Tolstoy’s arguments in the Second Epilogue or have provided a condensing rationalization of it.

But from the drafts of the novel, it is clear that Tolstoy understood the Second Epilogue as the crucial principle to the organization of his work: “What I have expressed in the epilogue of the novel, without quotations and references, is not the momentary fancy of my mind but the inevitable conclusions of seven years of work which I had to do” (PSS 15:238).[3] Although Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is scattered throughout War and Peace, the most important parts of it are in the Second Epilogue, where Tolstoy addressed the reader directly. The Second Epilogue itself is divided into three main sections: Chapters 1-3 criticize various historiographies; Chapters 4-7 examine the nature of power and the movements of people; and Chapters 8-12 propose a scientific approach to the study of history.

In the first section of Second Epilogue, Tolstoy makes a distinction between ancient and modern historiography, with the former believing that the divine was the prime mover of history and the latter that it was not. Without the divine as a force in history, the problem for the modern historian was to locate an adequate explanation of the movements of people. According to Tolstoy, there have been three attempts to locate this explanation: 1) specialists of single nations, usually attributing a great leader as the cause of history; 2) generalists of numerous nations, usually attributing the interactions of people as the cause of history; and 3) cultural intellectuals who attribute ideas as the cause of history. But each of these attempts has problems that ultimately led to their inability to explain the movements of people. The specialists disagreed about whose power it was that was responsible for what event, not to mention that they ignore the fact that great leaders are more a product of their time than the cause of them. The generalists faced the same problem but at the level of nations; and, finally, the cultural intellectuals’ claim was simply absurd: people may act out of a variety of motives but not from “simply reading a book.”

For Tolstoy, power, as examined in the second section of the Epilogue, was the relationship between the ruler and the ruled that resulted in the movements of people. Again, modern historians and thinkers have offered several explanations for coordinated actions—the presumption of a collective identity, the creation of a social contract, the realization of history’s teleological goal as led by a great leader—and again, all these theories have shortcomings because of a shared underlying and wrong assumption that a person can command others to act in a certain way. According to Tolstoy, humans do not operate in a vacuum: they exist in the context of space, time, and causality with others. Because of this condition, no command truly can be ordered and followed, for people make an infinite number of decisions that result in an incalculable number of actions. These actions, in turn, affect other human beings, making it impossible for any one person to locate, much less comprehend, all of the decisions and actions of human beings involved in one incident. Consequently, it was not a leader like Napoleon who controlled his army, but rather the reverse.

Since human action is always and everywhere present, the question that truly interested Tolstoy is the relationship between freedom and necessity. For Tolstoy, freedom was merely an illusion, since humans were subject to the laws of space, time, and causality. Because human reason was limited in its knowledge of the external world, i.e., it was able to grasp only a fraction of the infinite number of human decisions and actions of a single incident, a person would never be able to understand the cause of anything. A person would never obtain knowledge of whether he could be free in the external world because knowledge of the infinite variety of causes at work was not possible. Historians, therefore, should follow the model of the natural sciences, with its object of inquiry as human life and action: they should study not the essence of freedom but how freedom became manifested in the context of space, time, and causality.

Tolstoy’s unconventional approach to history was not only controversial but ignited criticism from his contemporaries and subsequent scholars. A typical representative is F. F. Seeley who rejected Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. Seeley offered three main criticisms: 1) Tolstoy’s initial distinction between classical and modern history was a false one: there were historians, like Thucydides, who also did not believe in the divine as the prime mover of events and people; 2) Tolstoy was unable to provide a clear and distinct definition of cause in relation to human actions; and 3) Tolstoy did not provide any justification of why history should be conceived as a scientific discipline; and if it became one, why it should focus on the problem of freedom and necessity.[4]

A more sympathetic view of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was that of Isaiah Berlin, who categorized two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes. The former embraced principle to inform thinking; the latter pursued unrelated and contradictory ends. According to Berlin, Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but he believed himself to be a hedgehog when confronted with the problem of freedom and necessity. For Berlin’s Tolstoy, the historian’s task was not to provide a political, moral, or “great man” account of events but to describe human subjective experience. The historian would discover a natural law from these subjective human experiences; but, when he discovered this law of historical determinism, people would refuse to accept it and thereby create the illusion of free will.[5]

Those who rejected Berlin’s historical determinist interpretation claimed that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was rooted in a notion of contingency or the divine. Chiaromonte and Craig understood Tolstoy’s philosophy of history as lacking ontological foundations: history was nothing more than contingency and relativity. Instead of history, the reader must look at “the realm of action” as a foundation of “facts and acts.” From this realm, the reader would be able to evaluate political, military, and violent actions from an absolute moral viewpoint.[6] Likewise, Mossman saw Tolstoy’s philosophy of history not as determinist but as contingent. History, according to Mossman, was a metaphor of thinking about complex processes with the expectation that new and unexpected narratives would emerge.[7] Orwin also believed that Tolstoy’s account of history was contingent and therefore inaccessible to human reason.[8] The best humans can hope for is self-knowledge, usually accompanied by suffering and an awareness of oneself and one’s own environment.

Clay and Wasiolek also concurred that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was non-determinist but not rooted in contingency but the divine. For Clay, Tolstoy’s philosophy of history could be understood within a “phoenix” paradigm: the relationship between freedom and necessity was expressed in the characters’ experiences of the cycle of birth and resurrection throughout the novel.[9] Out of these experiences, the characters recognized the illusionary nature of free will as influencing events and tried to juxtapose their instinctive desires for life with God’s aims for humankind. However, these characters developed this awareness unconsciously, so they are taken by surprise by events and react to them not in a rational and calculating manner but instinctively and spontaneously.

Wasiolek’s interpretation of Tolstoy was similar to Clay’s in that history was nothing more than human resignation to God’s grace: freedom and necessity intersected in the individual act of consciousness.[10] External action always was qualified and conditioned by other human choices and actions, creating “a totality of free choices,” which human reason could not penetrate. However, this “totality of free choices” could be perceived by consciousness (soznanie): an awareness of reality that was distinct from rational cognition. Humans therefore were both free and not free to the degree:

“One becomes conscious of the world to the extent that one withdraws one’s control over the world . . . True freedom then is not the power to initiate events abstractly, as if one were exempt from space and time and from preceding conditions, but the consciousness of reality” (PSS 16:125).

Freedom consequently was the recognition of the reality where the divine intersected with the human in man’s consciousness. Tolstoy’s philosophy of history therefore was nothing more than the recovery of the relationship between human and the divine in man’s memory and consciousness.

Consciousness, Cognition, and Memory

According to Love, and to lesser extent Wasiolek, Tolstoy’s thinking was Christian-Platonic as influenced by Schopenhauer: humans were both free and not free in the sense that two epistemological modes were available to them.[11] The first was consciousness (soznanie), where humans saw themselves as subjects and therefore believed themselves to be free; the second one was cognitive reason that understood oneself and others as objects that must conform to the laws of space, time, and causality. Tolstoy himself made this distinction in the Second Epilogue: “. . . consciousness is a source of self-cognition completely separate from and independent of reason. Through reason a person observes himself; but he only knows himself through consciousness.”

This distinction between consciousness and cognitive reason also was found in the drafts of the novel, as Tolstoy had written that “[b]eing conscious of myself, I am free, representing myself (to myself), I am subject to laws” (PSS 16:255). In Russian this distinction is even clearer, with the words sonavat’ and nabliudat’ to describe the subjective aspect of knowledge and predstavliat’ and zant’ to refer to cognitive knowledge. Although the roots of this “divided” self lies in Cartesian and Kantian philosophy, Tolstoy understood this problem in terms of Schopenhauerian concepts like consciousness and cognition. From the drafts of the Second Epilogue, Tolstoy wrote:

“Schopenahuer, in my opinion, is the greatest thinker of the present century and the only direct heir of the great thinkers of modern philosophy, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, having proved just as successfully as they, using the new tool of our century, the natural sciences in his essay on free will crowned by the Academy, the law of necessity, to which man is subject, in deciding the question. By a complicated path of reasoning, he comes to recognition of the source of unmediated knowledge—the very same Ding an sich, which for Kant remained or was understood as pure reason, and the source of this knowledge he sees in the unmediated consciousness of the will—Der Wille zum Leben which in essence is the very same as Kant’s reason and Ding an sich—it is nothing else than unmediated consciousness, the very unmediated consciousness which these two great thinkers, through enormous and majestic labor, arrived at by way of thought but which in all its force and clarity lies in the soul of everyone, even the most crude person, the very same consciousness against which Schopenahuer in his Preischrift über die Freiheit des Willen not infrequently takes up arms and to which he constantly returns” (PSS 16:255).

Consciousness was not understood either as a prior unity or teleological goal but as a way of thinking that understood reality in an unreflective manner; or as Tolstoy wrote in the Second Epilogue:

“To understand, observe, and draw conclusions, a person must first be conscious of himself as a living being. As a living being a person knows himself in no other way than as willing, that is, he is conscious of his own will. His will, which constitutes the essence of his life, a person is conscious of, and cannot be conscious of, other than as free.”

In other words, one cannot be conscious of oneself other than in freedom. But since humans were subject to the external laws of space, time, and causality, they were not truly free in their choices and actions, although they believed themselves to be. The fundamental problem was that humans cannot step outside of their consciousness to view themselves as conscious beings (as opposed to cognitive beings which consciousness allowed them to see themselves as objects). The quote from the Second Epilogue explicitly makes this point:

“But having learned with certainty that his will is subject to laws, he does not and cannot believe it.”

“However often experiment and reasoning may show a man that under the same conditions and with the same character he will do the same thing as before, yet, when, under the same conditions and with the same character, he approaches for the thousandth time an action that always ends in the same way, he feels as certainly convinced as before the experiment that he can act as he pleases. Every man, savage, or sage, however incontestably reason and experiment may prove to him that it is impossible to imagine two different courses of action in precisely the same conditions, feels that without this irrational conception (which constitutes the essence of freedom) he cannot imagine life. He feels that, however impossible it may be, it is so, for without the conception of freedom not only would he be unable to understand life, but he would be unable to live for a single moment . . . A man having no freedom cannot be conceived of except as deprived of life.”

However, this problem between consciousness and cognition needed no resolution, since history “concerns not the very essence of the will of man, but representation (predstavlenie) of the appearance of this will in the past and under known conditions.” This representation was found in human action (proizvedenie) that united the contradictions of consciousness, with its experiences of freedom and necessity. Tolstoy did not provide a justification for why freedom and necessity must be unified, leaving this task to theologians and philosophers. What he did do was examine the foundation of these representations and categorized them into three types: 1) the relation to someone who has completed an action in the external world; 2) the relation to time; and 3) the relation to the causes that produce the event. These three categories made possible cognitive knowledge, which was grounded in consciousness. Thus, consciousness was the content, and cognition was the form of all human experience.

But how could consciousness—the experience of the unreflective immediacy of reality—assume content? Love argued that the content of consciousness was freedom as a negative concept, i.e., freedom that could not be defined.[12] This freedom was not absolute, for it would be pure nothingness, which would make freedom impossible for human consciousness to relate to cognition. Yet the fact that humans can conceive of pure nothingness in the first place suggested that this relationship between consciousness and pure nothingness already existed. But upon closer examination, humans discovered that it was infinite plentitude, instead of pure nothingness, that was the source of the relationship between it and their consciousnesses. Since consciousness must be aware of something, it was infinite plentitude rather than pure nothingness of which it was aware. Consciousness therefore was the immediate intuition of life’s overflowing possibilities. By becoming aware of this infinite plentitude, humans could use their cognition to transform the infinite plentitude into something finite in order for them to understand it. But in its transformation, humans never will be able to understand comprehensively the infinite plentitude. The result was a chasm that would never be overcome between consciousness, with its immediate intuition of infinite plentitude, and cognition, with its rational transformation of the infinite plentitude into finite knowledge.

This notion of infinite plentitude, which was the content of consciousness that took the form of cognition, came from human memory of God’s existence. As being outside of space, time, and causality, God was an infinite being whose love for creation was one of plentitude—the overflowing of possibilities, diversity, and existence into temporal-spatial-causation reality. But humans became aware of life’s infinite plentitude only when they first examined themselves. Augustine described this experience in his Confessions: “Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean and the motions of the stars: and yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves.”[13]

Yet the infinite nature of memory may become not only a source of strength but also one of anxiety for humans:

“This memory of mine is a great force, a vertiginous mystery, my God, a hidden depth of infinite complexity: and this is my soul, and this is what I am. What, then, am I, my God? What is my true nature? A living thing, taking innumerable forms, quite limitless . . .” (X.xvi)

Because of the infinite nature of human memory, a person could become conscious of the infinite plentitude but could never be able sufficiently to understand oneself and therefore God, as Augustine wrote: “I beseech You, God, to show my full self to myself” (X.xxxvii). Finite human consciousness therefore must return to itself in order to understand the plentitude of life.

For Augustine, this inability of consciousness to comprehend comprehensively the infinite plentitude caused humans to cognate this experience in confession: “Be Thou, O our God, judge between my confessions and their contradictions” (XII.xvi). Because humans were separated creatures from God due to the Fall, they could not know the infinite plentitude perfectly, even if they wished to explain it; or as Augustine put it famously, si explicare velim nescio. The experience of God was neither epistemological nor psychological but internal with the mind touching eternity:

“For even then shall You so rest in us, as now You do work in us; and thus shall that be You rest through us, as these are Your works through us. But You, O God, ever work, and are ever at rest. Nor sees You in time, nor move in time; and yet You make the scenes of time, and the times themselves, and rest which results from time.” (XIII.xxxvii)

Because humans recognize that they will never be able to understand the infinite plentitude, they necessarily must fall back upon the epistemological form of cognition to understand it. Only God epistemologically can understand the infinite plentitude: humans only can hope for a mere sliver of it.  Humans must resign themselves to this insurmountable chasm between consciousness (awareness of the infinite plentitude and therefore of freedom) and cognition (recognition that external reality already is determined by necessity). But does this position constitute that freedom that was illusionary?

Tolstoy did not believe so, as he wrote:

“Our view not only does not exclude freedom but necessarily establishes its existence, based not on reason but on immediate consciousness. Whatever might be the general laws governing the world and man, the infinitely small moment of freedom always is inseparably part of me” (PSS 10:231).

This freedom was rooted in human consciousness’s unreflective identification with the infinite plentitude and not with the external laws of space, time, and causality. What was behind this drive for communion with the infinite plentitude, as recollected in human memory, was human desire. Freedom therefore was human desire to accept or reject the infinite plentitude. Like Augustine’s Confessions, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was nothing less than a study or a confession of human desire for the infinite plentitude as realized in human action. It is the record of human desire that, at times, accepted the infinite plentitude, and, at other times, rejected it.

It is clear that Tolstoy’s philosophy of consciousness and memory informed his philosophy of history in distinguishing two types: a history of human consciousness, desire, and memory; and a history of cognition, space, time, and causality. Although his philosophy of history appeared to be similar to Augustine’s distinctions of the “city of God” and the “city of man,” Tolstoy did not take into account Biblical history in the Second Epilogue; rather, he only showed the absurdity of a scientific approach to  history based on a cognitive epistemology. The logical conclusion from this position was that a historical body of knowledge became impossible, because the infinite number of factors and variables resist any attempt of rational systemization. The result was that history, and any existential significance derived from it, cannot be located in the world of necessity. The only resort humans have was the realms of their consciousness in their memory of the infinite plentitude.

Given Tolstoy’s concepts of the infinite plentitude and the limits of human cognition, historians, like natural scientists, became limited in studying only the external phenomena of human life and action. People’s desires in their acceptance or rejection of the infinitude plentitude were inaccessible to historical study. Just as the natural scientist could develop rational laws and procedures to study his object of inquiry, the historian must follow suit but be content with the limitations of his understanding the subject. However, literature, unlike history, can speculate about the interior dimensions of characters’ consciousnesses and thereby imagine whether they accept or reject the infinite plentitude. This is exactly what Tolstoy did in War and Peace. Tolstoy not only could study human life and action as external phenomena in the manner of the natural sciences, but he also could speculate about people’s consciousnesses. His novel therefore was a philosophy of history, with its own rational laws and procedures, which examined consciousness and memory, freedom and necessity, in human action. Literature consequently was superior to both history and the natural sciences in understanding human desire as realized in life and action.

The Infinitude Plentitude in History

According to Tolstoy, literature was the historical record of human desires in their acceptance or rejection of the infinitude plentitude in their consciousnesses. This approach to history was superior to the current historiographies and sciences, and, by implication, was able to account for the role of the divine in history. The divine manifested itself in history in the infinitude plentitude, which human consciousness could access through memory and imperfectly translate by their cognition into thought, feelings, and action. In his descriptions of hundreds of characters and a multitude of plots, Tolstoy was able to demonstrate how his philosophy of history could better account for life than historiography or science. A few selected examples from the novel will illustrate Tolstoy’s larger, philosophical project.

Perhaps of all the characters in the novel, Natasha is the most central. Her actions are spontaneous, charming, and occasionally rude, but they are genuine and sincere, thereby avoiding ridicule and scorn. However, she is incapable of constancy and reflection because she perpetually embraces the immediacy of life wholeheartedly and impulsively. These deficiencies in her character are exposed during Natasha’s debut at the Grand Ball, with her mother continually smoothing over Natasha’s inattention to other people’s vulnerabilities and concerns. When she meets Andrei at the Ball, Natasha’s reaction to life becomes more complex—attraction to the prince combined with a fear of rejection—and starts her on the path towards maturity in the recognition that life is neither all happiness nor all sadness but a combination of both. This insight of life’s contradictory experiences again becomes evident to her when Andrei later proposes that they marry in a year. She sobs and says, “I shall die, waiting a year; it’s impossible, it’s awful . . . No, no! I’ll do anything! . . . I’m so happy” (6:14).[14] For the first time, Natasha is confronted with the fact that life does not correspond to her perception of it and accepts that both happiness and sorrow can be triggered by the same experience.

Natasha’s eventual acceptance of the infinite plentitude is an arduous and long process, which includes a reversion to her impulsive and immature nature in her failed elopement with Anatole Kuragin. When she discovers that Anatole already is married, Natasha’s desires, and perception of those desires, become the opposite of what she had originally imagined: a romantic elopement now is a despicable act scorned by society. Both her encounters with Andrei and Anatole have revealed to Natasha that her instincts and intuitions have failed her, transforming her from one whose emotional response dominates her perceptions, to one who accepts the contingency of the world around her. This receptivity to reality reaches its apex in Natasha’s taking Communion, where both Andrei and Anatole “for whom her feelings were as nothing compared with her devotion to God” (9:18). Unfortunately, she quickly reverts to her capricious and self-absorbed nature until the deaths of Andrei and her brother, after which she learns to empathize with other people:

“Terrible anguish struck her heart, she felt a dreadful ache as if something was being torn inside her and she were dying. But the pain was immediately followed by a feeling of release from the oppressive restraint that had prevented her from taking part in life. The sight of her own father, through the door, made her immediately forget herself and her own grief.” (15:1)

With her newly discovered empathy, Natasha is able to accept the paradoxical nature of life, with its happiness and sorrow, and eventually consents to become Pierre’s wife.

Whereas Natasha sought to impose her emotional and instinctive response to life on her surroundings, both Andrei and Pierre searched for reason and knowledge to control their destinies in the world. Andrei understands life as the quest for eternal fame that can be achieved only in temporal existence, for nobody knows what to expect “beyond the grave” (13:13). This ambition causes him to scorn gossip and balls and to enlist into the Russian military to fight Napoleon at Austerlitz, where he defends the unrecognized hero, Captain Tushin. Yet instead of feeling satisfaction, Andrei experiences sadness and depression because his defense of Tushin conflicts with his career ambitions, which he could have advanced at Tushin’s expense. This encounter with reality produces results contrary to his expectations and forces Andrei to confront the fact that he knows nothing. When injured at Austerlitz, he asks himself:

“Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know until now, but saw today?” was his first thought. “And I did not know this suffering either,” he thought. “Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all until now. But where am I?” (3:13)

Andrei’s disillusionment with his desire to become as famous as Napoleon is complete, when injured Andrei listens to French Emperor:

So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him. (3:13)

When compared to the transience and contingencies of life, Napoleon’s march to immortal glory and fame appears to Andrei insignificant.

This lesson rejuvenates Andrei’s will to live as he retires to his estate. Unfortunately for him, his wife Lise dies in childbirth, causing Andrei remorse, depression, and guilt about his previous callous treatment of her. When Pierre, who is excited about freemasonry, visits him, Andrei almost becomes convinced that an afterlife exists:

“. . . he looked up at the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, everlasting sky he had seen while lying on the battlefield; and something that had long been slumbering, something that was the best within him, suddenly awoke, joyful and youthful, in his soul. It vanished as soon as he returned to the customary conditions of his life, but he knew that this feeling which he did not know how to develop existed within him.” (5:10)

Although he ultimately is not persuaded by Pierre, Andrei does seek to discover new meaning in life, even if he does not know what should constitute this appreciation for it. Initially, Andrei tries to seek political fame by working for Speransky, who was laboring on constitutional reform for Alexander I. But after meeting Natasha at the Grand Ball, his ambitions and search for meaning radically change.

At the Grand Ball, Andrei becomes so enraptured by Natasha’s contagious spontaneity that he, in turn, abandons his rational approach to life for irrational impulses where he says to himself, “If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife” (6:9). However, this impulse quickly passes as Andrei reverts to his rational and goal-oriented mindset, asking Natasha “to make me happy in a year,” after he has accomplished the various objectives he had laid out for himself (6:14). Instead of accepting the infinite plentitude—a harmony between consciousness and cognition—Andrei rejects it, as he thinks about “the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable and that limited something he, and even she, was” (6:11). Rather than accepting life as transient and contingent, Andrei withdraws from it and consequently loses his military, political, and domestic ambitions. These defeats prevent him from summoning the will to live at the Battle of Borodino after he becomes injured. Andrei’s inability to accept the infinite plentitude—in spite of his recollection of his joyful childhood when he was on his death bed—leaves him with the final conclusion that God is death, since God is divine love which cannot be realized on earth (12:4). He remains defiant to the infinite plentitude to the very end.

Whereas Andrei’s ambition dictates his actions, Pierre’s desire for abstract perfection guides his thoughts and behavior. An initial supporter of Napoleon, Pierre defends the French Emperor’s execution of aristocrats on the abstract ideas of liberty and equality, refusing to enter the mundane details of life where good and evil is mixed. After he becomes rich, an aristocrat, and married, Pierre abandons his support of Napoleon and decides to become a freemason in the hope of “reforming the human race.” He actually tries to implement some of these ideas on his estate with his serfs but ultimately fails to accomplish any genuine reform. Although it appears that Pierre has changed his political position, he still approaches life abstractly, whether it is liberty, equality, or reforming the human race. This abstract approach to life becomes shattered, his self-improvement programs are rendered absurd, when Pierre experiences happiness “without any apparent cause suddenly felt it impossible to go on living as before” when he sees Natasha at the Grand Ball (8:1). However, this happiness soon dissipates, when Andrei becomes engaged to Natasha, and reveals to Pierre that in spite of his honorable and virtuous intentions, he can be unhappy.

Despondent, Pierre withdraws to the Moscow English’s Club in wine and books where he reaches the conclusion that life is meaningless. This abstract resolution, however, is replaced when Natasha needs his support after she had broken her engagement with Andrei. The image of Natasha “transferred him instantly to . . . a realm . . . in which no one could be justified or guilty—a realm of beauty and love which it was worth living for” (9:19). In spite of the evil and injustice that Natasha has committed, Pierre finds meaning from her because she provides a real and concrete contact with life for him. The image of Natasha—the recollection of her presence at the Grand Ball—provides a meaning of life for Pierre that is not beyond good and evil but is both good and evil. Pierre accepts the contradictions inherent in life when he remembers this image of Natasha and thereby provides him a conduit into the concrete world.

Like the other characters, Pierre relapses to his preoccupation of abstract perfection by joining the soldiers at Borodino in the hope that “truth, simplicity, and strength” will provide the pure goodness in life that he is seeking. Yet, as a prisoner of war, Pierre sees that the soldiers can become murderers, in spite of their training, as they indiscriminately execute helpless prisoners. It is only his encounter with Platon Karataev, a peasant soldier who has resigned himself to the external laws of necessity, that Pierre finally abandons his pursuit of abstract perfection. Karataev tells Pierre that he should accept the fact that people are a mixture of good and evil and that he should not ignore the good in a person because he is unjust, rather, he should wait patiently, “suffer the hour,” because God demands it (12:3). According to Karataev, humans are subjects of fate, and it is impossible to determine whether an event eventually will be good or bad, such as Napoleon’s conquest of Moscow, because only God knows the complete context and the ultimate outcome.

This resignation to external necessity does not necessarily mean humans should consign themselves to fatalism, for they have control over their attitudes and approach to life, as Karataev maintains a positive disposition, even before his execution. The example of Karataev has a lasting impact on Pierre, where:

“For a long time Pierre did not sleep, but lay with his eyes open in the darkness, listening to the regular snoring of Platon who lay beside him, and he felt that the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on new and unshakable foundations.” (12:3)

As a prisoner of war, Pierre remembers the lessons of Karataev to be immersed in the immediate and accept both good and evil in human beings and life. Pierre tries to practice Karataev’s lessons for the rest of the novel.  This acceptance of both good and evil of life is best shown when Karataev is shot. Pierre at that instance:

“. . . the recollection came to his mind of a summer he had spent with a beautiful Polish lady on the veranda of his house in Kiev. And without linking up the events of the day or drawing a conclusion from them, Pierre closed his eyes, seeing a vision of the country in summertime mingled with memories of bathing and of the liquid, vibrating globe, and he sank back into the water so that it closed over his head.” (14:3)

The memory of this a beautiful summer evening in Kiev juxtaposed with the death of his friend infuse Pierre with a sense of meaning in life that is concrete. After Karataev’s death, Pierre acts with kindness, naiveté, generosity, and enthusiasm—qualities that made him a mockery of high society—that bring out the innate goodness of the French soldiers and the admiration of his fellow prisoners. This in turn places a sense of responsibility on him, which he accepts and embraces.

Quos vult perdere dementat

In contrast to Natasha, Andrei, and Pierre, Kutuzov does not undergo any significant change, since he already has accepted the infinitude plentitude. When Kutuzov inspects the troops, he recognizes Timokhin as a brave officer in spite of “predilection for Bacchus” and tries to buoy the spirits of Dolokhov who now was a disgraced officer hoping for redemption (2:1). Unlike Andrei or Pierre, Kutuzov recognizes the mixture of good and evil in people and tries to encourage his soldiers to act nobly, even if they had dishonored themselves in the past. As one who has fought wars and lost an eye from it, Kutuzov knows from experience that war is not simply a matter of men acting nobly or basely but a combination of both motives. This is evident at the Council of War before the Battle of Austerlitz, where various officers and generals jockey with one another to draw up the best battle plan against Napoleon. During the debate, Kutuzov falls asleep and only awakes to end it, saying, “there is nothing more important . . . than to have a good night’s sleep” (3:11).

Like Karataev, Kutuzov’s acceptance of the infinite plentitude does not necessarily result in fatalist resignation. Earlier, he had tried to convince Alexander I not to engage in battle, but was overruled and was compelled to attack Napoleon (3:10). Knowing that the battle probably would be lost the next day, no matter how much planning was conducted beforehand, Kutuzov understands the importance of “a good night’s sleep.” The strength and character of individual soldiers rather than military strategy and tactics, which will have to be abandoned tomorrow given the contingent nature of warfare, will determine the outcome of the battle. Kutuzov’s prediction turns out to be correct, as fog enters the battlefield the next day, creating confusion on both sides and destroying any possibility of following yesterday’s battle plans. Kutuzov does his best to improvise but has incompetent officers as well as the Emperor himself interfering with his command, ordering Kutuzov to march against Napoleon even when the Russian army is not properly prepared (3:13). Despite his best efforts, the Russian army was defeated, with most of the blame falling on Kutuzov.

While Kutuzov recognizes the contingencies that confront generals and that they must try their best to adapt, Napoleon believes himself to control political events and military outcomes (10:27-28, 33-34, 38). Strolling on the battlefield at Austerlitz, Napoleon looks about him and proclaims credit for the French victory, even though Andrei knows his role was insignificant to the outcome (3:13). As the narrator writes directly to the reader:

“The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event [of the War of 1812] seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldiers who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power—the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns—should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.” (9:1)

Each individual “lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action.” Therefore, history is the “unconscious, general hive of humankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.” The notion that Napoleon could be responsible for the outcome of a massive military operation was inconceivable to Tolstoy. As he wrote, Quos vult perdere dementat: for God compels humans to strive for their personal goals without them knowing what the end result will be (9:2; 10:1).

As Tolstoy noted, the destruction of the French army was not clear to either side when the War of 1812 began, and both sides initially did the opposite things that would lead to Napoleon’s defeat (10:1). There was no wish among the Russians to draw Napoleon into the heart of their country: from their French army’s first entry, the Russians did everything to try to stop them. Napoleon was not afraid to extend his line but welcomed it as a step forward to conquer Moscow. The notion that the War’s outcome depended upon the million decisions made by individual human beings rather than by great men is best illustrated at the Battle of Borodino, where Kutuzov acted “involuntary and irrationally” but later, when evaluated by historians, his actions are seen as evidence of his “foresight and genius” (10:19). As Tolstoy meticulously demonstrated, the battle was fought not according to either Napoleon’s or Kutuzov’s plans, contrary to what historians had declared, it was determined by the contingency and choices made by thousand of individual people who had nothing to do with either generals’ plans (10:19).

This debate takes place between Andrei and Pierre right before the Battle of Borodino, with Pierre describing a skillful commander as “one who foresees all contingencies . . . and foresees the adversary’s intentions” (10:25). Andrei outright rejects this notion and instead claims that success depends on the “feeling that is in me and in him,” pointing to Timokhin. Whoever has the stronger resolve will triumph, for, as Andrei puts it: “A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed but all that is being done at present is only play.” (10:25)

This lesson Kutuzov already knew and applies at the Battle of Borodino:

“By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannons or of slaughtered men, but by the intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power” (10:35).

In spite of heavier causalities, the Russian army won the moral victory over the French (10:39). Kutuzov alone understood the importance of the moral victory and restrained his army from useless engagements by withdrawing and abandoning Moscow to Napoleon (13:1). When Napoleon is forced to leave Moscow, Kutuzov engages in guerilla tactics against the French army and eventually destroys it (14:1).

The paradox of the War of 1812 can be summed up as a “series of French victories brought the French complete destruction, while the series of Russian defeats led to the total destruction of their enemy and the liberation of their country” (14:5). Kutuzov’s motto of “patience and time” allowed the Russian army to be victorious when he was able to embrace, as opposed to try to know, the contingencies of war and prepare his soldiers as best he could for such battle. When Kutuzov was forced to attack, the attempt to dominate events rather than accept and react with them, the Russian army was defeated. Tolstoy thus seemed to indicate that even human acceptance of the infinitude plentitude did not always guarantee success, as is the nature of contingency. There are times when some, like Alexander I, will command people to do things contrary to their desires that lead to disastrous results.

It is important to emphasize that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history does not equate into a passivism among Russia’s military and political elite that undermines outstanding statesmanship or effective military leadership. Although such an account of history would later be adopted and vulgarized into Marxist-Leninist ideology in Russia, Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is neither historically determinist nor politically passive; rather, it narrows the scope of what elites can claim to have accomplished while, at the same time, broaden the horizon of responsibility and freedom to everyone.[15] Individual decisions do matter for Tolstoy, but these choices are tangled into a network of an infinite number of other decisions that makes it difficult to discern whether elites are ultimately responsible for historical action. In this sense, Tolstoy’s philosophy of history could be interpreted as a democratization of responsibility and freedom rather than a precursor to Marxist-Leninist philosophy.

For example, Alexander I was responsible for the Russian defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz because he failed to heed to Kutuzov’s advice of not attacking Napoleon (3:10). If the Emperor had followed Kutuzov’s advice, Napoleon would not have emerged victorious. Having been overruled, Kutuzov recommends a “good night’s sleep” instead of twenty-four planning for a war that ultimately is determined by contingency and choices made on the ground. The next day fog creates confusion and makes yesterday’s plans useless: the war will be determined by choices made by the common solider as well as elites, such as Alexander I who ordered Kutuzov to attack Napoleon (3:13). Instead of political passivism or historical determinism, it is the recognition that choice and contingency, freedom and necessity, colors all human experience that underscores Tolstoy’s philosophy of history.

This experience of the separation between human consciousness and cognition creates the contradictory feelings of joy and frustration at life, with its seemingly infinite possibilities of freedom and inherent limitations of necessity. Humans believe themselves to be free in their choices and action until they are confronted with necessity that offers them neither choice nor action. It is at this moment when humans can come to the realization, which humans either can accept or reject, that their pre-conception of freedom are illusionary because of the insurmountable separation between consciousness and cognition. Freedom, therefore, is that moment of human acceptance or rejection of life’s infinite plentitude; and history becomes nothing more than a narrative of this perpetual struggle between, on the one hand, consciousness and in its belief of freedom, and, on the other hand, cognition and the recognition of necessity. It is this dynamic rather than a circular or eschatological one that drives history.

According to his draft of the Second Epilogue, Tolstoy wanted to write a book about the past; but since the past was unknowable, he was required to provide a justification of his work (PSS 16:241). War and Peace, consequently, should be approached not as a literary work with philosophical aspects, but as a philosophical work that has literary elements within it. Although the anti-determinist critics interpreted Tolstoy’s theory of history as one of contingency and human incompleteness, they still treat War and Peace as a work of literature instead of a work of philosophy, with their arguments about what constitutes the “center” of the work other than the epilogue. But Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is the very organizational principle of the work, and one must approach War and Peace as a philosophy of history to understand the novel properly.



[1] An example of this type of criticism can be found in the following works: Garnett, Edward. Tolstoy: His Life and Writings (London: 1914); Fausset, Hugh I’Anson. Tolstoy: The Inner Drama (New York: 1928); Muir, Edwin. The Structure of the Novel (New York: 1929). Logan and Gunn have continued in this tradition: Speir, Logan. Tolstoy and Chekhov (Cambridge: 1971) and Gunn, Elizabeth. A Daring Coiffeur: Reflections on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina (Totowa, NJ: 1971).

[2] For those critics who believed that War and Peace has an organizing principle, refer to the following works: Lavrin, Janko. Tolstoy An Approach (New York: MacMillan Company, 1946); Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction (New York: Peter Smith, 1947); Berlin, Isaiah. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1953); Albert Cook, “Unity of War and Peace,” Western Review 22 (Summer 1958): 243-55; Steiner, George. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959); Christian, R. F. Tolstoy “War and Peace”: A Study (London and New York: Oxford University Press at Clarendon Press, 1962); John Hagen, “On the Craftsmanship of War and Peace,” Essays in Criticism 13 (January 1963): 17-49; Jerome Thale, “War and Peace: The Art of Incoherence,” Essays in Criticism 16:4 (October 1966): 398-415; Spence, Gordon William. Tolstoy the Ascetic (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1967); Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967); Eichenbaum, B. M. Levi Tolstoi, vol. 1 (Munich: Nachdruck der Ausgabe, 1968); Gustafson, Richard. Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Strange, a Study in Fiction and Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Davis, Helen E. Tolstoy and Nietzsche (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971); Crankshaw, Edward. Tolstoy: Making of a Novelist (New York: The Viking Press, 1974); Morson, Gary Saul. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in “War and Peace” (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1987); Silbajoris, Rimvydas Silbajoris. Tolstoy Aesthetics and His Art (Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1990); Feuer, Kathryn B., Tolstoy and the Genesis of War and Peace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); Sankovitch, Natasha. Creating and Recovering Experience: Repetition in Tolstoy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Andrei Wachtel, “History and Autobiography in Tolstoy,” in Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 176-190; Hugh McLean “Could the Master Err? A Note on ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits,’” Tolstoy Studies Journal XVI (2004): 77-81. (3).

[3] PSS 15:238. Tolstoy, L. N. Polnoe sobranie sochineii (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1928-1953). All subsequent citations to this work will be abbreviated as PSS. Translations are mine own.

[4] Seeley, F.F. “A Philosophy of History,” in New Essays on Tolstoy, ed. Malcolm Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978): 175-93.

[5] Berlin, Isaiah. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1953), 21-28. Subsequent critics would continue in Berlin’s historical determinist interpretation of Tolstoy, such as Christian and Raleigh. Christian, R. F. Tolstoy “War and Peace”: A Study (London and New York: Oxford University Press at Clarendon Press, 1962); Raleigh, John H. “Tolstoy and the Ways of History” 211-244 in Towards a Poetics of Fiction, ed. Mark Spilka (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977).

[6] Chiaromonte, Nicola. The Paradox of History Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak and others (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.), 47; Craig, Scott Craig. “The Hunt for Truth in War & Peace,” Tolstoy Studies Journal III (1990): 120-123.

[7] Mossman, Elliott. “Metaphors of History in ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago’” 247-262 in Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies, ed. Gary Saul Morson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 247-62.

[8] Orwin, Donna Tussing. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought 1847-1880 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 171-202.

[9] Clay, George R. Tolstoy’s Phoenix: From Method to Meaning in “War and Peace” (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 30-31.

[10] Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 121-25.

[11] Love, Jeff. “The End of Knowing in War & Peace,” Tolstoy Studies Journal XV (2002): 35-49.

[12] Ibid., 41-45.

[13] (X.viii). Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Double Day, 1960). The citations are book and chapter numbers.

[14] The citations of War and Peace are the book and chapter numbers.

[15] In August 1914 Solzhenistyn rebuts this vulgarized Tolstoyanism. Vladislav Krasnov, “Wrestling with Lev Tolstoi: War, Peace, and Revolution in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s new Avgust Chetyrnadtsatogo,” Slavic Review 45.4: Winter 1986 (707-19). Also refer to Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (New York: Penguin, 2010). I would like to thank the referee to bring this question to my attention.


Also see “Reflections on Tolstoy’s ‘What is Art? Relevant to Our Times“; “Marriage and Modernity in Anna Karenina“; “Tolstoy and the Errors of Scientific Certainty,” and “Vengeance is Mine: Levin’s Obscured Faith Journey in Anna Karenina.”

This article was originally published with the same title in Perspectives on Political Science, 40: 1 (2011): 35-43.

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

Back To Top