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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Explained: Reading Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ in our times

At a time when political "strong men" in several countries are seen as larger-than-life heroes (or villains), and are extolled (or denounced) for having single-handedly brought about sweeping change in their countries, Tolstoy's ideas about historical determinism are especially relevant.

Written by Pooja Pillai , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 29, 2019 4:58:17 pm
Leo Tolstoy’s masterful novel ‘War and Peace’ (1869), one of the brightest jewels of world literature, chronicles the 1812 French invasion of Russia.

Justice Sarang Kotwal of Bombay High Court, hearing the Elgaar Parishad case, asked activist Vernon Gonsalves on Wednesday: “Why would you keep a book about a war in another country at your home?”

Leo Tolstoy’s masterful novel ‘War and Peace’ (1869), one of the brightest jewels of world literature, chronicles the 1812 French invasion of Russia, and how it affects — and is affected by — individuals from some of Russia’s most prominent families. Its relevance is timeless, not restricted to any one country or epoch.

A theory of history

Apart from being a close examination of the bloodiest campaign of the Napoleonic Wars (which would lead to a major shift in European politics and eventually to Napoleon’s defeat and exile), ‘War and Peace’ is a challenge to the so-called ‘great man theory’ of history, which has had a persistent hold over the popular imagination since it was first outlined by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle is a series of lectures delivered in 1840.

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” reflected Carlyle in ‘On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History’, a compilation of his lectures published in 1841.

He wrote: “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and, in a wide sense, creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”

Tolstoy’s critique

War and Peace is not just a novel about war. It is also a philosophical treatise and a critique of Carlyle’s theory. “In historical events, the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself,” Tolstoy wrote.

At another point in the novel, he elaborated, “…It was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle, he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will…”

An enduring relevance

At a time when political “strong men” in several countries are seen as larger-than-life heroes (or villains), and are extolled (or denounced) for having single-handedly brought about sweeping change in their countries, Tolstoy’s ideas about historical determinism — that all events can be traced back to previously existing causes and have little do with individual free will, including that of Heroes — are especially relevant.

At the same time, Tolstoy understanding of free will is not monochromatic. He does recognise that free will is an operational force, although only on the individual level, whereas the larger events that shape individual destinies are driven by pre-existing conditions. This is a debate that he has with himself, in the second Epilogue of War and Peace — it is also a debate that adds to the relevance of his work to our times, when social media algorithms reinforce confirmation bias, encouraging individuals to cling to previously held beliefs, and discouraging most things that pose a moral or intellectual challenge.

* On Thursday, Justice Sarang Kotwal clarified he was aware of the literary classic and that  he didn’t mean to suggest it was incriminating to own it.

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