Tolstoy, History, and Mutual Will

Which offers more, a good movie or a good novel? Many would answer that a good movie offers more – pictures in motion, sounds, dialogue, close-up facial expressions, special effects, and mood-setting music.

But the viewpoint of a movie remains external, and with few exceptions the thoughts of the actors must be evoked through audible speech and visible expression or action. By reading a good novel, a person can enter the minds of multiple characters interacting with each other.

Virtual reality movies like The Matrix and Avatar bring the audience into the thoughts of characters in a science fiction landscape, but they do so by transferring the action entirely into thought-scenes, and then switching back and forth between thought-scenes and the physical world.

Our actual experience of life is an experience of (1) thoughts from within and (2) images, sounds, smells, and other sensations from without, all occurring simultaneously and without a hint of strangeness. No movie reproduces this actual experience. Words on a page can represent both inner thoughts and outer pictures, sounds, and sensations. The reader transfers into the fictional world and through the medium of words sees what the character sees, hears what she hears, feels as she feels, and discovers what she thinks at each critical moment. So a good novel can deliver reality in a way that no movie can.

In a great novel the characters make choices entirely as if multiple wills express themselves and respond to the course of events. Sometimes an author gives witness to the sentiment that the wills of the characters, not the will of the author, guided the hand that penned the book.

In life and in novels that reflect life, a new kind of will might emerge, a mutual will that is more than a negotiation between two or more individual wills. A previous blog described briefly a philosophic position called ontologic individualism, which denies the possibility of such a will expressed in groups. According to ontologic individualism, mutual decisions, whether arising from two people or from millions, always amount to negotiation, intimidation, manipulation, or some other kind of social mechanism, but they never have the primal authority of individual choice.

I see no reason to regard the individual, myself or any other, as a special ontologic category. Pragmatic thinking has little regard for ontology – the understanding of being or essence – in any case. Pragmatism opens up the possibility that will can be expressed in groups.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy did not state explicitly that free will can arise in a nation or in an army, but he did imply it. He insisted forcefully and repeatedly that the decision to invade Russia in 1812 was not made by Napoleon the individual. He cast it in terms of historical necessity, as in these words:

Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and common sense, had to march from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had moved from east to west, slaying their fellows.[1]

Compared to action scenes in movies commonly watched today, one might expect Tolstoy’s description of war to seem sketchy at best. However, the thoughts and emotions of participants combine with description of movements, sounds, and chaos to make reading Tolstoy’s words in many ways more real than plain audiovisual display can deliver.

In the novel Tolstoy describes battle through the sensations and thoughts of familiar characters such as Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov. One remarkable passage begins with a blow to Prince Andrei’s head from a bullet or shrapnel, then this:

‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the Frenchmen and the gunners ended…whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now only the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, the grey clouds creeping softly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful and solemn! Quite different from when I was running,’ thought Prince Andrei. ‘Quite different from us running and shouting and fighting…. How differently do these clouds float across that lofty, limitless sky! How was it I did not see that sky before! And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes, all is vanity, all is delusion except these infinite heavens. There is nothing, nothing but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but peace and stillness. Thanks be to God!’[2]

The climactic battle of Borodino marks a turning point in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in history the first major failure for the Napoleonic Empire. Borodino eclipsed every other battle in Napoleon’s campaigns for total casualties, over 60,000 dead and wounded counting both armies. On the following day the Russian army under General Mikhail Kutuzov abandoned the field, and Napoleon subsequently marched forward to occupy the city of Moscow. However, Kutuzov’s Russian force remained intact, and Napoleon’s Grande Armée was weakened too severely to compel surrender from the Tsar in Petersburg. Due to French supply lines stretched too far and a scorched earth strategy from the Russians, the fortunes of war turned quickly. Less than 2 months after Borodino, Napoleon left Moscow to retreat westward through the early Russian winter. As he left Russia, 80% of his huge army remained behind, either dead or captured.

Tolstoy introduces us to Kutuzov, the 67-year-old general who led the Russian army. He argues that the people of Russia, not the Tsar, chose Kutuzov as their commander-in-chief:

For Russian historians…Kutuzov appears…as some colorless, pitiable being, and whenever they speak of him in connection with the year 1812 they always seem a little ashamed of the whole episode.

The procrastinator Kutuzov, whose motto was always “Patience and Time”, the sworn opponent of precipitate action, gives battle at Borodino, investing the preparations for it with unparalleled solemnity. This Kutuzov who at Austerlitz, before the battle began, declares that it will be lost, at Borodino, in the face of the conviction of the generals that the battle ended in defeat and the unprecedented instance of an army having to retire after winning a victory – he alone, in opposition to everyone else, persists to his dying day that Borodino was a victory. He was alone during the whole of the retreat [the subsequent French retreat from Russia] in insisting that battles which now had no point should not be fought, that a new war should not be begun nor the frontiers of Russia crossed.
– – –
How came that old man, alone, in opposition to universal opinion, so accurately to appreciate the import of events for the nation that never once throughout his career was he untrue to it?

This extraordinary power of insight into the significance of contemporary events sprang from the purity and fervor of his identification with the people.

It was their recognition of this feeling of his of oneness with them that led the people by such strange paths to choose him, an old man out of favor, to be their representative in the national war, against the wish of the Tsar. And it was this feeling alone which lifted him to the lofty pinnacle from which he, the commander-in-chief, exerted all his efforts, not to maim and exterminate men but to spare and have pity on them.[3]

The decision to select Kutuzov as commander-in-chief, early in the war after several Russian defeats, was made, per the historians, by less than 10 grand councilors, generals, and princes, against the initial preference of Tsar Alexander I. According to Tolstoy, however, a whole series of small colluding events made their deliberations inevitable. As noted in the passage above, Tolstoy’s opinion was that Kutuzov was chosen by the people of Russia, not by a small governing group. The Battle of Borodino, which Kutuzov considered a victory, came to be recognized as a pivotal reversal for the short-lived Napoleonic Empire.

In the passage quoted above, the words that the narrator most emphatically wants us to remember are “his identification with the people” and “their recognition of this feeling of his of oneness with them.” These are the bonds that allow a person to speak of our desire, our passion, our country. The truest leader is one who does not set himself or herself apart.

Every individual person might like more power, respect, and security, attributes that commonly belong to the elite of a region or a nation. But these attributes often conflict with the desire to connect and to belong to the general community rather than to the elite. A new word from the early 20th century – solidarity – has emerged to echo the relation of oneness with other people identified by Tolstoy and others. Every person has to decide when the call to distinguish yourself, urged by every human parent, runs counter to the goal of solidarity and then make a choice. The victory of Borodino, Tolstoy tells us, was a victory of the will exerted by millions of Russians acting in solidarity.


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Header image:  Battle of Borodino. By Louis-François, Baron Lejeune – 1. bridgemanartondemand.com2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 4229, Public Domain, Wikimedia commons.

[1] Tolstoy, L.N. War and Peace, Book 3, Part 1, Section 1, 1869, transl. by Edmonds, R. Penguin, Baltimore, 1957, Vol. 2, p. 717.

[2] Ibid. Book 1, Part 3, Section 16. Edmonds transl., Vol. 1, p.326.

[3] Ibid. Book 4, Part 4, Section 5. Edmonds transl., Vol. 2, pp. 1287-1288.


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