The movement of people cannot be accounted for. This is Tolstoy’s main thesis today. That means all our activity, at least in the aggregate, according to the author, amounts to nothing more than an inexplicable mess of chaos and confusion. Basically, we’re a post-pubescent pajama party with access to father’s whiskey collection.
Tolstoy comes to this conclusion after first articulating a working definition of power — yesterday’s proposed primary cause of history — and then, by means of that exciting historical exegesis of War and Peace we’ve come to know and love, dismissing it just as quickly as he introduced it. Tolstoy’s definition of power is “the collective will of the people transferred, by expressed or tacit consent, to their chosen rulers.” Such a transfer is, after consideration, evident nonsense. Are we to believe, Tolstoy argues, that the people unconditionally transfer their will to their leaders? Conditionally?
If unconditionally, how do we account for times of strife and revolution when multiple parties vie for control of a nation? What side have the people transferred their will to? In such a situation the theory of transfer becomes so malleable that historians with opposing partisan sympathies may assign the people’s will to opposing parties.
If conditionally, “the historians are obliged to admit that some of these transfers are not normal delegations of the people’s will but are accidents, dependent on cunning, on mistakes, on craft, or on the weakness of a diplomatist, a ruler, or a party leader.”
So we see that no satisfactory account exists for the transfer of the people’s will to those in power. Therefore no rational explanation of history, the movements of the people through time and space, is apparent. All that remains is a feral humanity. In this inscrutable life, then, the individual must embrace the confusion and live well within the few pockets of control available to her.
There are two rules we should always have at hand: That nothing is good or evil, but choice; and, That we are not to lead events, but to follow them.
Epictetus, The Discourses