War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy’s Views on History

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Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

At the beginning of Book Three Part III, Tolstoy introduces two methods to view history. The first regards history as flowing in a continuous process, in which there “can be no beginning to any event”, whereas the other method attributes historical events as the result of the will of a strong character–usually “a king or a commander” (882). He disagrees with the latter method. Tolstoy states that the “first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people” (ibid.). Additionally, he proposes that we “must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals”; he parallels historical observation to a nearly scientific process. During this study, historians dissect history into common small units “by which the masses are moved” to come closer to the truth (883). These units are periods of time when the masses stir great historical revolts and movements.

Tolstoy also suggests that history is propelled by the collective will of the common folk rather than just one individual. In Chapter 2, Tolstoy reiterates his point by describing the dilemma of the commander of chief during war: a lack of choice. Perhaps even self-consciousness over one’s choice. Contrary to public belief, a general or commander cannot clearly and immediately deliver the best, most efficient order amidst the dangerous battle time. Choices are difficult in this high-pressure environment. Faced with lack of sleep, poor diet, the rush during the “series of shifting events”, and other factors demand that the general react, so the commander’s task is undoubtedly harder (885-886). So when an order is given, it is one that is, in fact, bigger than the individual himself argues Tolstoy.

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.


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