The Two Handles of His Story

Day 276 of A Year of War and Peace

Human beings suffer from a demand to understand complex systems and a lack of the supply of the cognitive tools necessary to develop that understanding. Consider, for instance, the financial crisis of 2008. While that disaster percolated up through the cracks of the global economy the world’s foremost economists patted themselves on the back for having ushered in the Great Moderation by means of their theories, models and wise central bank stewardship. Very few predicted the crisis while it developed. Very many, on the other hand, supplied explanations after it occured.

Tolstoy identifies the same problem with historians and historical analysis. “The human mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their complexity,” he writes, “but the desire to find those causes is implanted in the human soul.” Early historians held the gods to be the causes of events. Historians contemporaneous with Tolstoy shifted the focus down to the secular plane, assigning the causation of events to the will of the great men of history. Tolstoy disagrees. His sees history, much like Adam Ferguson sees the development of societies, as more of a spontaneously emergent, bottom-up phenomenon.

To support this idea Tolstoy points to the movement of the Russian army from the Ryazan road to the Kaluga road. Like the economists of the early twenty-first century and the financial crisis, nobody at the time saw how vitaly decisive this movement was for the Russian war effort. It was only after the war that they were able to identify its importance and only then with an incomplete understanding. The reason for their blindness, Tolstoy writes, is that historical events emerge “moment by moment, step by step, event by event — from an endless number of most diverse circumstances” and can only be seen in their entirety once they are accomplished and belong to the past.

Readers of War and Peace are often confused by these historical discourses. What have they to do, after all, with the narrative novel we started out with? It might be useful to think of Tolstoy’s fictional characters as the bottom-up emergent properties that combine — moment by moment, step by step, event by event — to form the historical record he turns the book towards in these later chapters. As such it’s interesting to note that the characters are also prone to the same confusion and blindness that plagues Tolstoy’s historians.

Just as historians are blind to the multivariate causes of history so too are the characters of War and Peace blind to the personal, inarticulable motivations of each other. In fact, the entire tale of the novel is largely the story of how the characters react to the misunderstandings and complications that arise as a result of their interaction. Think back to Pierre and Dolokhov, Princess Marya and her father, Nikolai and literally everybody he has encountered. It might be, looking back, that perhaps our characters failed on some level to optimally negotiate the complexities of their social relations. For there are few systems more complex than the human mind and our limited human intelligence often precludes us from truly understanding why people act the way they do. To make matters worse we often take the least charitable view of other people. Perhaps we should, as Tolstoy suggests the historians do, acknowledge our imperfect understanding and consider a broader range of explanations for people’s behavior. Imagine how much better things could have turned out for Prince Andrei, for instance, if he would have adopted a more forgiving understanding of Natasha and Anatole’s fling.

But that’s easy to say in retrospect.


Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

Epictetus, Enchiridion

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

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