We Fishermen Caught in the Net

Day 358 of A Year of War and Peace

On the ninth night of her millenary tales of deliverance Dinarzade shares the story of the fisherman. The fisherman, according to the story, is an unsuccessful and impoverished man. The poor bastard can’t even catch a break, let alone a fish. His typical practice is to cast his nets four times per fishing expedition. On one such day, having thrown out his nets three times to no avail, save the capture of silt and slime, he lifts his head to the unforgiving heavens above and exclaims: “O fortune! Be not angry with me, nor persecute a wretch who prays thee to spare him. I came hither from my house to seek for my livelihood, and thou pronouncest against me a sentence of death.”

This is a curious complaint. The fisherman at once admits his freedom of action and the inevitable certainty of God’s edict of fate. This type of deterministic compatibilism is the subject of Tolstoy’s historical explorations in today’s chapter. Though, upon close reading, it seems as if the logical conclusion of his argument is that a hard determinism rules the day.

In yesterday’s chapter Tolstoy argued that history must answer the question of whether the past life of nations should be regarded as either the result of the free or the constrained activity of man. Today he declares that in order to do so historians must develop a definition of freedom and inevitability based on historical phenomena that contains some inversely related combination of the two. He takes up the challenge himself and determines that our conception of freedom and inevitability, within the context of historical events, must necessarily rest on three considerations.

The first consideration is an historical actor’s relation to the external world. Here Tolstoy argues that if we consider the actor alone then her actions appear to be completely free. If, however, we consider her actions within the context of the external world, then they seem decidedly less free. Further, the deeper our knowledge of events goes the less our perception of the actor’s freedom is. That is, the more inputs we are aware of the more certain an actor’s output will be.

Secondly, we must consider our actor’s relation to time. Here Tolstoy argues that the further back in time an event takes place the less free it seems and vice versa. Napoleon’s march east, for instance, given its distance in time from the present and the related plethora of contextual evidence available to us now, appears to be more the work of fate more than, say, your decision right now to think that this second epilogue nearly ruins your reading experience of War and Peace.

Finally, there is the relation between an actor and the causes leading to her action. Tolstoy writes: “The better we are acquainted with the physiological, psychological, and historical laws deduced by observation and by which man is controlled, and the more correctly we perceive the physiological, psychological, and historical causes of the action, and the simpler the action we are observing and the less complex the character and mind of the man in question, the more subject to inevitability and the less free do our actions and other of others appear.”

It follows that if our consciousness were to expand to deity-level understanding of these three relations — that is, total understanding — then all notion of freedom would collapse and we would be left with only the inevitability of hard determinism. Under this cosmic comprehension of events we become not so much the fisherman choosing to fish but, rather, the net tossed about into the sea.

And this, perhaps, is how we should approach our relationship with others, particularly those who are strangers to us or those whose behavior is, at first glance, poor. For if we assume the deity-level consciousness in our relationships with others it becomes easier, inevitable, to forgive them and to avoid unwarranted frustration over their antics.


The periodic movements of the universe are the same, up and down from age to age. And either the universal intelligence puts itself in motion for every separate effect, and if this is so, be content with that which results from its activity; or it puts itself in motion once, and everything else comes by way of sequence in a manner; or indivisible elements are the origin of all things. In a word, if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not also be governed by it.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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

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