A Man’s Own Judgments
Today Tolstoy begins by offering a summary of his conclusion from the previous chapter. This is the argument that, “our conception of free will and inevitability gradually diminishes or increases according to the greater or lesser connection with the external world, the greater or lesser remoteness of time, and the greater or lesser dependence on the causes, under which we contemplate a man’s life.”
Something about this bothers him. If perfect knowledge is assumed, he says, then mankind must be wholly without freedom and, similarly, if mankind is assumed to be independent of all relations then mankind lives with total freedom. Either total freedom or total inevitability, for Tolstoy, however, is impossible. Mankind’s individual existence and his place in the sweep of history must therefore be some combination of the two, freedom on one hand and inevitability on the other.
Working through this problem he eventually settles on the idea there are two fundamentals of which “man’s whole outlook on the universe is constructed — the incomprehensible essence of life, and the laws defining that essence.” For the individual reason is an expression of the laws of inevitably and consciousness is the expression of the essence of freedom.
Tolstoy will continue with this idea in the concluding chapters of War and Peace but for our purposes today let’s focus on his notion of freedom as human consciousness. Our project with A Year of War and Peace has been to elevate our consciousness by means of daily reflection upon the trials and tribulations of our characters. Our characters are now gone. All we are left with is this abstract and difficult discourse on history. Tolstoy’s main thesis in today’s chapter is, however, similar to a major philosophical tool we’ve developed over the course of our year together. He says that while the flow of history is largely inevitable and outside the realm of our control our own consciousness is the expression of the essence of freedom. It follows then that we should make every effort to guide our consciousness, the only sphere of existence we truly control, always and forever towards virtue and tranquility.
What is by nature free, cannot be disturbed, or hindered by anything but itself. But it is a man’s own judgements that disturb him.
Epictetus, The Discourses