The Calculus of History

Day 226 of A Year of War and Peace

History relates only the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind according to Schopenhauer. For Stephen Dedalus it’s the nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Professor James Darcy Piexoto believes it to be a great darkness, filled with echoes from which voices may reach us though they be imbued with the obscurity of the matrix of which they come. Clearly, for these men at least, the subject of history is approached with great difficulty. Tolstoy explains why in today’s chapter.

He begins with Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. The absurdity of this paradox results from arbitrarily dividing continuous motion into discontinuous elements. For Tolstoy, historians engage in the same error when thinking and writing about their subject.

This error manifests itself primarily in two ways. First, historians take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine them apart from all other events. This is silly for Tolstoy because one event necessarily flows from other events. Secondly, historians err in believing that the actions of one man, typically a military commander or a political leader, are equivalent to the sum of many individual wills.

For Tolstoy this simple arithmetic is too blunt an instrument to make sense of history. History demands instead the integrals of calculus: infinite sums of infinitesimal widths. “To study the laws of history,” he writes, “we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.”

Keep this passage in mind as we move forward in the novel, reading about the lives of Russians during Napoleon’s invasion of their land.

For now, however, let’s assume Tolstoy is correct that history is the sum of individual units. How then should the individual live in order to ensure that the integrated sum is a positive sum?


There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is the two hundred and twenty sixth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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