The Sovereign and the Swarm
This is the chapter where Tolstoy introduces history as one of the major characters of the book. Tolstoy’s treatment of history is just as involved and thoughtful as is his treatment of Natasha, Pierre, Prince Andre, Nikolai, Marya, and all our other favorite characters. While most of the character of history is developed much later in the book during the infamous second epilogue, Tolstoy introduces us today in order to pose a simple question: What caused France and Russia to go to war in 1812?
The answer, it turns out, is not so simple.
Tolstoy first asks what the reasons for the war seemed to be for contemporaries. He lists a whole range of reasonable explanations: the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the ambition of Napoleon, the Continental System itself. And, yet, Tolstoy writes, despite these countless reasons for war all of them somehow seem insufficient.
Moving along, he asks what historians, at a remove in time, see as the cause of the war. First he dismisses historians in language Adrian Goldsworthy endorses when he writes in Augustus that “History readily excites emotions and even the most sober and serious of scholars is not immune.” This excitement, writes Tolstoy, produces an “incalculable number of causes” of war. “The deeper we delve,” Tolstoy continues, “in search of the causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence — apart from the co-operation of all the other coincident causes — to occasion the event.”
This magnitude of explanations argues in favor of historical fatalism. That is, the war happened because the war had to happen. But this is a problem because each individual seems a sovereign actor exercising her will freely in the world. These two seemingly contradictory ideas — historical fatalism on the one hand and individual free will on the other — leads Tolstoy to the conclusion that, “There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental swarm-life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.” Call this Tolstoy’s physics of history: the individual is the quantum level with all its randomness, uncertainty, and mystery whereas history, the broad sweep of aggregate human action, is classical Newtonian physics with its reliable laws and clockwork machinations.
Tolstoy closes the chapter with his first argument, one of many to come, against the idea of the Great Man theory of history. The Great Man theory has it that history is moved by the will and action of the big names of history. Think Napoleon. For Tolstoy this is completely wrong. For Tolstoy, “A Tsar is a slave.” That is, the more important a person in history the less freedom the person has to act. Rather, he is acted upon. Leaders are no more than mere tools of the “unconscious, general, swarm-life of mankind.”
In conclusion, Tolstoy believes that there is no cause of history. Everything that happens is merely a large coincidence of conditions.
Do you think that gets it right? Is history fatalistic? Or is it moved by human agency? Does it matter?
Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence. And even if the tempest carries you away, let it carry away the poor flesh, the poor breath, everything else; for the intelligence at least it will not carry away.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations