From Thence All Things Flow
The movement of history swells along with the pace and persistence of river rapids. To the eye this movement appears violent and random but surely some hidden process accounts for it all. This is Tolstoy’s argument today as it relates to the tempestuous rise and fall of our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte.
Yesterday Tolstoy warned us about the tempting lure of chance and genius as explanatory tools in historical analysis. Today he develops his case further. His subject is the early 19th century movement of “European peoples from west to east and afterwards from east to west.” Great Man historians locate the genesis of this movement in the exploitative genius of individuals like Napoleon who take advantage of the chance events of history. Tolstoy disagrees. He believes that the table of history must first be set before any individual can feast on it. Or, as Herbert Spencer says about the great man, “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
According to Tolstoy chance and genius have very little to do with Napoleon’s career. Instead, there is a preexisting tripartite Spencerian making of the man at work. The first precondition is that there must be a readily available military group sufficient in strength to endure battle with the east. Finding such a group is never an issue. History, as Gibbon says, is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Men are as much up for slaughter as they are for breathing.
The second precondition for something as terrible as Napoleon’s career, according to Tolstoy, is that a nation must abandon all established traditions and customs. In a three paragraph passage that would make Edmund Burke fart with joy Tolstoy shows that the French Revolution does exactly this. Unbounded by inherited tradition and enduring institutions, mankind’s base instincts and barbarous predations are given full flower.
Finally, there needs to be a man who can justify to himself and to others the deceptions, robberies and murders that must be executed in order to facilitate the movements from west to east and then from east to west. This person, as we’ve seen, is Napoleon.
This is Tolstoy’s argument against the role of chance and genius in historical affairs. The events of the early 19th century are as the surface of a raging river. What appears to be the random surges and swells of untamed water is really the result of systematic, complex conditions the full comprehension of which is screened by the limitation of human understanding.
Even that which is from chance is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things that are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow; and there is also necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which you are a part. But what the nature of the whole brings is good for every part of nature, and serves to maintain it. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements so by the changes of things compounded of the elements. Let these principles be enough for you, let them always be fixed opinion.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations