War and Peace (Tolstoy)

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Pevear translation.

The book isn’t difficult to read, but you have to get the characters straight. The following is a brief guide to the first 100 pages. After that it is really easy.

A good portion of this book is in French (translations are in footnotes). France was the intellectual capital of the world. The Russian aristocracy often spoke French better than Russian. This points to a deeper divide in Russian society: the depraved Petersburg elite vs. the common Russian.

Anna Pavlovna: hostess of high class soirees. Basically a conversation machine.
Anna Mikhailovna: Boris’s mother
Pierre: a good natured bumpkin.
Prince Andrei: Pierre’s friend. Somewhat cynical. Very similar to Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Good guy, but has the potential to be a complete boor.
Helene: Prince Vassily’s daughter and Anatole’s sister. She is the archetypal pretty yet stupid individual.
Anatole Kuragin: Vassily’s son. Wastrel. Needs to be shot.
Boris is initially attached to Natasha, whose sister is Vera.
Nikolai and Sonya are in a relationship.

Can we identify the most important event in the book? No, not in a book that is 1200 pages long and covers 7 years among five different families. There are key moments from which there is no return, though. There are several: when Pierre learns to live for others, when Andrei meets Natasha, etc. Another moment is when Nikolai learns true valor instead of mere bluster.

Do great men move history? This is the idea Tolstoy wants to attack in volume 3. His argument, and it is fascinating if somewhat wrong, is that the real movers of history were the thousands of nobodies who actually did the fighting. In fact, the higher in rank and class one is, the less freedom he has to act. This article nicely summarizes the problem.


You can’t pin it all on one cause. If you do that, you risk missing the thousands of smaller causes that actually got it done. Here is where Tolstoy’s argumentation gets sloppy. He says, “And consequently, none of them was the exclusive cause of the event, but the event had to take place because it had to take place.” In other words, it just is, man. If that’s the case, then Tolstoy doesn’t need to bother with explaining the causes made by the common people.

Further, Tolstoy’s argumentation comes very close to saying “Because Napoleon wasn’t the exclusive cause, he didn’t play a causal role.” That’s just erroneous. I agree with Tolstoy that the higher in class you are, the less free your actions are. That is an important point. That doesn’t mean, though, that you don’t have any freedom. Take Napoleon completely out of the picture and the other causes are irrelevant.

That’s not to say all of Tolstoy’s analysis is wrong. He’s often quite insightful. Take the question after the Battle of Borodino: should Kutuzov defend Moscow or abandon it? Normally, a man would make that decision based on a calm evaluation of the evidence. Tolstoy points out that in battle, you have a dozen plans of action. Which one do you take? How do you know? The key point: knowledge is always moving.

Perhaps Tolstoy’s real point is not a criticism of the Great Man view of history. He might just be saying that men cannot get a grasp of the whole at the expense of the parts. He correctly notes that causes always function within a larger causal nexus. Apply that to human freedom. We normally ask, “Am I free, or are my actions caused?” The question is a wrong one. It’s not that my actions are caused, but that my actions are already within a causal framework. Have you ever felt that one of your actions was inevitable? That might be because it was embedded in about 30 different causes. Even if you could change those causes, you won’t be able to in the heat of battle.

In other words, you can’t take one major person and from that person deduce a set of logical causes that explain the whole.

Great literature evokes. Reading Tolstoy I was reminded of moments when I drove along cotton fields. I had mental images of the antebellum South. The battles surrounding Moscow (and its subsequent burning) aren’t that different from various Civil War Battles. Countess Rostov’s inanity is no different from the Southern Belle who “gets the vapors” (also, remember that scene from the Patriot when Mel Gibson blows up the ship and the British woman starts clapping, “Fireworks! Marvelous”?).

Tolstoy, at least in his early work, is soul-work. We see how the soul manifests the pure spirit of human feeling. This cannot be done if there are wars in the soul. What really matter is not finding some architectonic theory of the universe, or rallying to the latest political fad, but tending to your own farm (or business or whatever).


Puritan Board Doctor
I've read the novel twice, and I'm thinking of reading it again. I've read Constance Garnett's 1904 translation - the first English translation of the novel (which surprised me, since the original was published in 1869).


Puritan Board Freshman
I need to read it sometime. Dostoevsky's always been my go-to Russian novelist. The Idiot is my favorite, for personal reasons. :)
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