Read a Book Every Day
Historians compose their prose for public consumption with an instructive purpose. Herodotus wrote so that the memory of the past would not be blotted out from among men by time. Thucydides because the war between Athens and Sparta was, he felt, noteworthy as an example of power dynamics within the context of international relations. Livy so that his Roman contemporaries, having lost the moral fortitude that formed the foundation of their greatness, might rejuvenate their spirits and culture by exposure to its former virtues. Gibbon, lastly, desired to document, reflect upon, and advertise, “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.”
Today’s chapter of War and Peace reads a bit like a history book. What, then, is Tolstoy’s purpose?
It’s clear with chapters such as today and Day 164, for example, that he intends his book to be more than, or at least different from, a typical novel. Indeed, on multiple occasions he writes that the book is not quite a novel. “This work of mine is not a tale,” he writes in his second draft for an introduction to War and Peace. “No idea is being put forward in it; nothing is being proved; no single event is described in it. Still, it cannot be called a novel — with a plot that has growing complexity, intrigue, and a happy or unhappy denouement, at which point interest in the narration ceases.” In the third draft for his introduction he still maintains that it is not a novel though it is somewhat similar to one. What sets War and Peace apart from most other novels are chapters like today’s where the book becomes more a history — or at least a critique of historical analysis — than a simple yarn of fiction. In these chapters the fictional narrative is abandoned and an historical argument is assumed.
The argument, at this stage in its development anyway, is that history is the principal while individual actors are history’s unwitting agents. Tolstoy supports this idea in the opening paragraphs by presenting human action as compulsive rather than directed by self-ruling decision. Next he moves to the larger picture of history. He agrees with the historians that the destruction of the French army in 1812 was caused, first, by its advance into Russia late in the season without winter preparations and, second, by the hatred the French created as they burned down Russian towns. Historians believe these two conditions arose from the action of free-willed individual actors. Tolstoy disagrees. He thinks that no one could have possibly foreseen what their actions, in retrospect, make absolutely clear. “Not only did no one see this,” he writes, “but on the Russian side, every effort was made to hinder the only thing that could save Russia, while on the French side, despite Napoleon’s experience and so-called military genius, every effort was directed toward pushing on to Moscow at the end of the summer, that is, to doing the very thing that was bound to lead to its destruction.”
This chapter, and the ideas found in it, are mere overture to Tolstoy’s deeper historical analysis found later in the second epilogue. Despite all the words he devotes to history here, however, the majority of the book still follows the general conventions of fiction: imagined characters engaged in action and conflict with themselves and others against the backdrop of plot and setting.
What’s important, to me at least, is what Tolstoy is building here. His book is some odd combination of fiction and history.
It is this profoundly ambitious design that makes War and Peace one of the most important books we can read. The unique amalgam of fiction and history presents humanity in both its constituent and whole parts. Novels, after all, as the narrator of Northanger Abbey has it, are “Only some work in which the greatest powers of mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” If novels are the individual human then works of history are humanity in whole.
It is incumbent upon us, then, to read fiction and history and read each widely. Senator Ben Sasse recently said that reading encourages empathy development, transports the reader to foreign times and places, and in so doing enables us to see the world through the lenses of other protagonists. Literature, particularly novels and history, is therefore something more than mere books. Literature is a mirror reflecting the self-same image of the other. And we can look into it not only to see ourselves and others but also to see what might need improving.
War and Peace, with its singular combination of history and fiction, is a good place to start.
Since nature allows us to participate in any age, why should we not betake ourselves in mind from this petty and ephemeral span to the boundless and timeless region we can share with our betters?
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life