Just as it Was
Our post-Enlightenment civilization, enamored of reason and resplendent with science, conceives for itself the rather dubious project of obtaining perfect knowledge in all domains of human endeavour. This has been the argument ever since those pesky Frenchmen first put together their Encyclopédie. Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, noted contributor to that august publication, writes in its introductory essay that their program will “expound the true principles of things and will note their relationships, that it will contribute to the certitude and progress of human knowledge, and that by multiplying the number of true scholars, distinguished artisans, and enlightened amateurs, it will contribute new advantages to society as a whole.” Tolstoy’s second epilogue of War and Peace is a contribution to d’Alembert’s aspiration in that it seeks progress toward and certitude of human knowledge concerning the subject of history. Such undertakings as those of d’Alembert and Tolstoy, if we are equipped with only the apish tools of human intelligence, are probably bound to fail.
The frustrations are already apparent. Yesterday, Tolstoy asked the question of what force moves nations and found no satisfactory answers in the works of history up to his time. Today, probing further into the work of historians, he approaches the beginning of an answer to his question. History, for Tolstoy, at its root, is the movement of people and nations. “The only conception that can explain the movement of the peoples,” he writes today, “is that of some force commensurate with the whole movement of the peoples.” The only commensurate force historians have been able to discover so far, according to Tolstoy, is power.
Tolstoy is not satisfied with the historian’s account of power though. He believes their insight is incomplete and counterfeit. He’ll spend a few more chapters fleshing this argument out but, clearly, he believes that the candidacy of power as the prime mover of history is a losing ticket.
Perhaps seeking such a candidate is a fool’s errand the first place. Perhaps we are mistaken in believing that the Enlightenment instruments of reason and the scientific method are adequate for the job of obtaining human understanding. All human understanding anyway. It’s certainly the case that these tools offer solutions in mathematics and the sciences. Less clear is the idea that they help in the realm of the so-called humanities like history, morals and politics. The notion of human perfectibility is much older than the Enlightenment, after all, and despite all these millennia of attention there is just as likely to be progress made in these fields as there is to be regression.
Some things might be beyond our understanding. Same as it ever was.
All things are the same, familiar in experience, and ephemeral in time, and worthless in matter. Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations