Few productions of art capture the cataclysmal nature of the loss of faith better than John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. In that novel Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian pastor, rests in his parsonage one hot afternoon and witnesses the cause of his whole world leave him behind. Updike describes it as Wilmot feeling “the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct — a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” Wilmot, woefully ill-equipped to compete in a job market for which he has no discernible skills, is reduced to selling encyclopedias, trading in the causal Word for mere words of descriptive explanation.
Something similar happens in Tolstoy’s exploration of history today. In today’s chapter he abandons his search for the cause of history. That, he concludes, is a question without an answer. His problem with the issue of human freedom leads him to this position. For, as he argues, if “any single action is due to free will, then not a single historical law can exist, nor any conception of historical events.” So he reduces free will to a manageable infinitesimal amount so that individual man’s action is subject to the same laws and operations as history as a whole. For Tolstoy then the object of historical analysis is not the search for an ultimate cause but, rather, to set “aside the conception of cause [and seek] the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.”
The search for a cause is one of the great questions of human life. Just look at how this question moved our characters. Prince Andrei with his moody intellectualism. Pierre with his frenetic mania. Marya and the calmness of certainty. A Year of War and Peace cannot pretend to offer any solutions to this great question. Our goal has always been merely to offer simple secular helps to aid the seeker along her way.
Whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.
Seneca, Epistle XVI