Book Review: War and Peace, “Second Epilogue…”

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace, “Second Epilogue: A General Discussion on the Historian’s Study of Human Life, and on the difficulty of Defining the Forces that Move Nations. The Problem of Free Will and Necessity” (Norton Critical Edition, 1867). 

In the second epilogue to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy argues that describing the “life of nations,” otherwise known as “history,” appears impossible because both ancient and modern historians fail to account for “forces” that adequately explain all the movement of nations (1313-4). The difficulty for the historian can only be resolved by giving up the futile search for causes and instead be satisfied with generally applicable “laws” that can explain the remaining unknown forces at work in causing an event that Tolstoy designates as “free will” (1348).   

In support of this purpose, Tolstoy maintains that: 

1.     Ancient historians appealed to leaders and the will of the gods, while modern historians appeal to leaders and an equally amorphous concepts of “culture,” “the good of civilization,” or “mental activity” to explain why an event happened. Both fail because they posit causes to explain the behavior of leaders and nations that appear to make the leader or nation a slave to inevitability and that do not adequately account for all the results observed. For the ancient historian, the leader or nation is a slave to the will of the gods. For the modern historian, the leader or nation is a slave to the force of an idea or pressure from their “social location.” The behaviors appears inevitable given enough distance in time. However, decisions and events in close proximity of time appear to be the result of free will choices. The historian’s reconstruction of causes is only convincing so long as there is only one historian. “As soon as historians of different nationalities and tendencies begin to describe the same event, the replies they give immediately lose all meaning, for this force is understood by them all not only differently but often in quite contradictory ways…” Historians, “by mutually destroying one another’s positions, destroy the understanding of the force which produces events, and furnish no reply to history’s essential question” (1317). Tolstoy is thus forced to conclude a sort of historical agnosticism. “In the last analysis we reach the circle of infinity…we cannot say why this occurs…We only know that to produce the one or the other action, people combine in a certain formation in which they all take part” (1336). 

2.     The necessary implication of this conclusion is a kind of determinism in which every human is knowingly or unknowingly constrained by the chain of events leading up to their own existence. This is the answer to “why do I exist?“ that all history is ultimately aiming to ask. Tolstoy sees this and so turns to address free will. It seems self-evidently true that events are the result of prior causes. However, human beings do not feel as if they are merely the result of causes but rather act as causes themselves. That is to say human beings operate as if they actually do have free will. For Tolstoy, from the perspective of outside observation, it seems clear that there is a law governing humanity, “but regarding him from within ourselves as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves to be free” (1337). History is unique in that examines not “man’s will itself but our presentation of it…History surveys a presentation of man’s life in which the union of these two contradictions has already taken place” (1340). For the historian, freedom and inevitability exist side-by-side in a “relation that is always one of inverse proportion” (1341). “Thus our conception of free will and inevitability gradually diminishes or increases according to the greater or lesser connection with the external world, the greater or lesser remoteness of time, and the greater or lesser dependence on the causes in relation to which we contemplate a man’s life” (1344). Therefore, for the historian “all that we know of the life of man is merely a certain relation of free will to inevitability…in history what is known to us we call inevitability, what is unknown we called free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the loss of human life” (1347-8). 

3.     Tolstoy’s conclusion is that history must progress down the same path as mathematics and physics which abandoned the search for a cause in favor of articulating laws. Tolstoy writes, “history stands on the same path. And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the question of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimally small elements of free will” (1349). 

In my view: 

1.     Tolstoy provides a valuable tool in evaluating historical reconstructions of all sorts, both ancient and modern. Tolstoy trains us to ask of the historian the following questions: What “force” do you see causing or driving the event you are retelling? What effects remain unexplained by your cause? To what “force” or “forces” have other historians appealed in retelling the same event? Are you answering the questions that really matters, “what does this mean?” and “why did it happen?” or questions that are compelling but insignificant, “what is the narrative of this life or event that is emotionally moving?” or “how does this event confirm my view of the world?” The value of these questions is not relegated to reading history books. His insights apply to all history, even very recent history which goes by a different name, “news.” Every journalist is essentially a historian of the very recent past, and thus we can ask of them the same questions we do historians of the more distant past. 

2.     Tolstoy provides helpful clarity on “two sources of cognition,” “reason” and “consciousness” (1347), but his taxonomy is ultimately incomplete. His contribution can be illustrated in the following ways. 

a.     If I operate on the basis of reason alone, then I must cling to the ground for fear of flying off the earth into space. My reason tells me that I am at risk of falling since I am suspended upside down in space. However, my experience or “consciousness“ tells me that my world is flat, and I am standing on top of it. Therefore, I walk and drive and conduct my business without fear of falling off the ball suspended in space. I need reason to help me understand my world, but reason must be governed in practice by my consciousness. 

b.     In jurisprudence, reason tells me that every man’s action is an effect produced by prior causes. Therefore, when he acts wrongly, he is not morally responsible but instead acting as his circumstances dictated. However, consciousness demands moral responsibility. He appears to have been a free moral agent and thus can and should be held accountable for his actions. No society can exist without moral responsibility and accompanying justice being provided. 

c.     In theology, a person may declare on the basis of reason that they are free agents acting in this world as an individual operator. There is no God verifiably available to their reason to whom they must give account. However, their consciousness continues to be haunted with the presence of an Other. They continue to experience beauty and love. They cry out against injustice. All of these imply a Divine Being. Their reason might deny that Divine Being, but they cannot in actuality operate in this world without some concept of the Divine. 

d.    In summation, for Tolstoy and the materialist, reason without consciousness is absurdity, while consciousness without reason is superstition. 

e.     What Tolstoy is missing is the third source of cognition, namely revelation. By dismissing a Divine Being from the equation, he cuts off this third source of revelation to which theists appeal. The third source provides an answer from the haunting Other in theology, a grounding to the moral necessity in jurisprudence, and a foundation for epistemology in history. With respect to history, we seek along with the ancient and modern historian an answer to the question, “why am I exist?” and “what does it all mean?” We too appeal to an outside “force” guiding history but that force is not the conflicting and capricious will of the gods nor the conflicting and meaningless “culture” of the moderns. Our appeal is to the ordered Will who works with and through the free will of humanity revealed in Holy Scripture. The Bible is thus the only true history in that it alone respects and reflects both reason and cognition, necessity and free will while at the same time evidencing the third source, revelation. As such, it answers why I exist and what it all means satisfactorily if not comprehensively. Reason and consciousness do not end in absurdity or superstition but in the mystery of the Divine. That is to say that both my reason and consciousness/experience find their limit in the limitless One.   

3.     With respect to method in history, Tolstoy is right to say that methodologically we must operate from reason and thus construe historical events as the result of more or less inevitable causes. However, we must never forget that reason alone leads to absurdity. Therefore, our reason and historical method must be engaged with humility and recognition of operations outside of our ability to observe. We can discern “laws” that appear across human history that helps to makes sense of why people think, act, and will as they do. One example of such can be seen in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973), when he writes, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” Solzhenitsyn’s historical method led him to articulate a “law” displayed throughout human history. Not inconsequentially, it is a law revealed in Scripture as well (Romans 3:23). An epistemology of three sources of cognition (reason, consciousness, revelation) may be a fruitful framework that could be applied not only in theology but also in other disciplines such as physics, law, and/or ethics. 

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