Friday, November 04, 2011

War and Peace

In a mammoth reading session, I managed to reach the end of "War and Peace" last night, a little ahead of schedule. In all, it has taken just under 100 days to get through.

It was an interesting novel, not least because it had a very clear agenda - Tolstoy wanted to argue that history was not a result of the actions of Great Men, but rather an inevitable procession of events that just aren't under anyone's control.

I disagree, mostly. While history is not just the story of Great Men, and while looking for a single ultimate cause of any historical event is rather foolish, this does not by itself negate free will, nor does it make history inevitable.

Tolstoy's argument is rather flawed, in a number of ways. In particular, he makes the assumption that the universe is infinite (it isn't) and that time is infinite (it isn't, in either direction). He also argues that historical events are inevitable, based on the fact that once you've done something you cannot take them back and do them differently. The faulty logical leap here is obvious - just because you cannot now go back and change things doesn't mean that at the time you couldn't have acted differently.

He also attacks historians based on their search for an ultimate cause of historical events. His argument here is that every cause is, itself, the result of some other cause, and so on back in time. This is correct, as far as it goes. However, what he neglects to consider is the possibility of 'windowing' history - when studying the causes of the Second World War, historians won't go back to the Roman Empire and work from there, but rather will go back just a few decades. Having doen this, they'll note the starting conditions, and work from those. In effect, this means that all studies of history are at best a simplification of reality... but that's inevitable. The only totally accurate map of history would be identical to the events themselves!

I think he's also wrong to discount the actions of Great Men entirely. Indeed, he argues that such figureheads are actually the least free figures in history, as they have to act in accordance with the inevitable path of events. But this just isn't true, either.

Arguably, the course of events will be directed by the sum of the will of the seven billion people on Earth. That makes sense (although even that is a simplification, since it neglects factors we do not control, such as the weather). However, it is also true that some people have a greater or lesser impact than others - if Barack Obama decides we're going to attack Iran, that counts for rather more than if I decide we won't!

Tolstoy's counter-argument here is that any movement of armies is dependent on the many people in the army - if the men and women of our armed forces refused to attack Iran, then the will of our politicians is moot. This is true, as far as it goes. However, it depends on many thousands of people exercising their will to countermand the will of one other, and it depends on them doing so even when they're strongly incentivised not to do so. They could refuse to fight, but they won't - if only a few refuse, they will be punished harshly, and a mass refusal is highly unlikely in anything but the most extreme circumstances.


If the purpose of literature is to make us think, then this was a great book, even if I disagree. If the purpose is simply to entertain, then I'm afraid it was little better than okay. I'm glad I read it... but I won't be reading it again in a hurry!

#30: "War and Peace", by Leo Tolstoy (a book from The List)

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