Monday, 7 July 2014

The philosophical part in "War and Peace"

As I've said, War and Peace is 3 books put together: a novel, a historical chronicle and a philosophical work on life, religion and history. 
1/ Life: 
In volume IV part III chapter 13 of War and Peace, God Sees The Truth, But Waits appears in skeletal form.
Here, the story's told by Karatayev, a man Pierre befriends in prison. He seems to be Tolstoy's peasant ideal- an embodiment of Christian virtues, simplicity, acceptance, firmness, endurance, strength, forgiveness, directness, etc, or, in Pierre's words, "an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth". All the values Tolstoy considers essential and stresses many times in later works are found in this character: Karatayev lives a simple life, works, finds happiness in simple things, accepts life as it is, forgives, chooses not to judge and never complains.
Having read this story gives me 2 advantages: 1st, I know the full version of the tale, with the details missing in this version; 2nd, reading it now in a context gives me perspective and therefore has more meaning. Whatever one thinks about the story and Karatayev, it does have more meaning when one considers the context that Pierre and Karatayev are both in prison; wider: away from society and luxury, Pierre contemplates the life he has lived and realises what he truly needs and thinks about the people in his life; and the wider context is the book as a whole. Tolstoy's works are always didactic, but they are also real and full of life. It's difficult, and perhaps not a good idea, to try to put it into words, but take forgiveness- Tolstoy writes about forgiveness but also describes how hard it is to forgive that sometimes only under unusual circumstances (such as in deathbed) can one forgive. This makes me think of the revelation I had when reading Anna Karenina- the line "Thou shalt not judge" had meant nothing until I came to understand it through Anna Karenina, through the way Tolstoy slips into the mind of each of his characters and lets us know what they think, how they feel and why they do what they do. Now, War and Peace gives me something else. 

2/ Religion: 
Tolstoy's critical of organised religion. 
Pierre joins the Freemasonry, then what happens? He continues living exactly as before, with lust, sloth, gluttony, perhaps also wrath. The only thing that changes is that from then on he meets other freemasons and participates in rituals- the rituals are meaningless, Pierre doesn't change and some people join the organisation for the mere purpose of gaining contacts and acquaintances, such as Boris. 
Tolstoy makes his point clearer by creating Marya Bolkonskaya and later Platon Karatayev. They perform no ritual and hardly preach anything- they practice the teachings. 

3/ History: 
Tolstoy begins volume III poking fun at historians, and repeats many times later. The main ideas are: 
- There are no single causes. Everything's caused by numerous factors. 
- Something happens because it's supposed to happen. 
- Nothing happens according to plans. No one can control everything, or even anything. 
- There's no such thing as military genius. Historians are mistaken to attribute everything to the will of 1 man. 
- Very little of what the leaders order is carried out, there are always unforeseeable circumstances, communication issues, competition between soldiers, etc. 
- Commanders-in-chief matter more than top leaders such as Napoleon or Kutuzov, and less than the soldiers that are in battle. 
- Some people who look ordinary and get forgotten may have a vital role in the army. 
- The size of the troops is not the most important factor. 
- Morale may be more important than the number of soldiers and the generals' strategies. 
- Historians have hindsight- they may praise someone for a correct theory/ prediction because it's proven right, but it's just 1 of the many theories and predictions they had, many of which turned out wrong. 
These points make sense and provoke some interesting thoughts. He makes one question history and think differently about the explanations for historical events. 
After all, how much of history (the study) is facts? There's no such thing as fiction or nonfiction, only narrative.
Update on 9/7: 
- The concepts of chance and genius cannot explain historical events. 
- Intellectual activity cannot be singled out as the cause or the expression of an entire historical movement. 
- The transfer of popular will to leaders is a fallacy. 
- "The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have supposed, by the exercise of power, or the intellect, of both together, but by the actions of all involved; all the people who come together in such a way that those who participate most directly in the activity assume the least responsibility for it, and vice versa." 
- Actions are partly free, partly a product of necessity. Freedom and necessity are independent- neither is absolute. 
- The extent of free will or necessity changes as we examine an action from different perspectives- there are 3 variables: "the relationship between the man committing the act and the external world, his relationship to time and the relationship between him and the causes which led to the act." 
- Free will is an illusion. 


  1. Platon Karataev is a good man, perhaps even a saintly man. But I think we must remember that Pierre encounters him when he is, mentally and physically, on edge. Pierre is easily impressed, and easily led. He feels at the time that the meeting with Platon Karataev will change his life, just as he had felt earlier that freemasonry will change his life. To anticipate a little, when, in the conclusion of the novel, we see Pierre some 8 years later, we find that he hasn’t really changed that much. He is older, yes, but he has not become another Platon Karataev, or anything like him. One cannot become a saint merely by willing oneself towards sainthood. (There’s a magnificent short story on this theme called “Father Sergius”.)

    1. I agree- he's easily impressed and easily led. I haven't finished volume IV though, obviously writing this post early isn't a good idea but sometimes it's precisely because I may change my mind that I'd like to write down my impressions right away. Right now, Pierre seems to change, a little.