The Tolstoy Cone

Day 355 of A Year of War and Peace

As promised in yesterday’s chapter, today Tolstoy explores first the continuity of movement in time between events and the person who commands said events, and, secondly, the inevitability of the connection between such a commanding person with those who execute his command. Surely, this is the page-turning reason you picked up War and Peace for in the first place?

In terms of his first point Tolstoy writes, “examining the relation in time of the command to the events, we find that a command can never be the cause of the event, but that a certain definite dependence exists between the two.” There is a soft determinism at work here that relates to Tolstoy’s second point.

In his second point he develops his theory of power a little bit more. For Tolstoy power is simply the relation of the commander and the commanded. He compares this relationship to a cone. At the bottom of the cone are the simple soldiers. These are the most numerous parties of the army and they do pretty much all the fighting. They execute, rather than issue commands. Then, the higher up you go the less individuals there are and the less direct action they take in battle. The higher up the person in the cone, however, the more commands they issue. At the top, obviously, is the commander-in-chief. All he does is issue commands. He takes no part in battles.

If we take into consideration what Tolstoy has already written concerning broad movements of people we can conclude that the members of the bottom of the cone exercise the highest degree of freedom while those at the top of the cone are entirely subject to fate and exercise little to no freedom. This tension between free will on the one hand and inevitability on the other is the central concern of Tolstoy’s historical analysis and he’ll develop it a bit further in the next few chapters.

For our purposes, let us place ourselves somewhere in the middle of Tolstoy’s cone. How, with our limited freedom, should we behave in a world whose constant whims commands us?


Fate directs us, and the first hour of our birth determines each man’s span. Cause is linked with cause, and a long chain of events governs all matters public and private. Everything must therefore be borne with fortitude, because events do not, as we suppose, happen but arrive by appointment. What would make you rejoice and what would make you weep was determined long ago, and though individual lives seem to differ in a wide range, the sum amounts to the same thing: what we receive is perishable and we shall ourselves perish. Why then are we indignant? Why do we complain? It is for this we were born. Nature may use her own bodies as she will; we must be cheerful and steadfast whatever befalls, in the thought that nothing that ours is lost.

Seneca, On Providence

For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.

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