Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace – Book 2, Part 3

After reading a few hundred pages in War and Peace a reader can identify at least half a dozen main themes. Some of these themes are identified in the “Great Ideas” essays. These can be found in the Great Books of the Western World series. WAR AND PEACE is one of those great ideas, but WEALTH, LOVE, and RELIGION are also great themes in this story. War is a major theme of the book but war can’t cover all that Tolstoy wants to say about the human condition. There are times of peace too. Tolstoy points out that even in times of war the best stories take place in “the actual life of men with their real interests of health and sickness, labour and rest…apart from the political amity or enmity…” What people are really interested in are their own affairs. Some people don’t want anything to do with the war. However, for most people that’s not an option. Another famous Russian, Trotsky, is reported to have said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

One way or another people of all ages and both sexes get infected by this grand clash of civilizations called war. For Prince Andrey it’s a call to glory but for his wife it’s a sentence to go through her first pregnancy with her husband gone. For old prince Bolkonsky it’s a chance to relive his martial memories through his son but for Marya it means the loneliness of having a brother away for months on end. For Berg it’s a chance for quicker military advancement up the ranks and for Vera that means they can get married sooner. For Nikolay it provides an opportunity to get away from home for awhile but for the Rostovs it means having a household without its favorite (and only) son around. For Boris it’s an opportunity to make contacts that can assist his climb up the social ladder and for Anna Mikhaylovna that means her son will be provided for and he won’t have to live in abject poverty. For almost everyone in Russia it means some sort of discomfort or separation. For a few it means death and grief.

But war may also have a meaning far beyond any human comprehension. What is this vast conflagration of war anyway? More specifically, on a personal level, what does it mean for me? After Prince Andrey gets wounded his whole outlook changes. No longer is he interested in glory. His little princess died giving birth to their son. Can glory soften that blow? Andrey realizes his true interests don’t lie out there on the battlefield or in the stately government halls of Moscow or Petersburg. When Bitsky reveals an important political announcement from the Tsar, Andrey wonders to himself: “’What is that to me and Bitsky,’ he thought, ‘what is it to us, whatever the Emperor is pleased to say in the Council? Can all that make me any happier or better?’” Good question. Can military service or government programs make any of its citizens happy or make them better people?

Prince Andrey isn’t the only one who’s disillusioned. Pierre’s initial infatuation with his secret society soon begins to fade. Pierre divided his brother Masons into four classes: (1) those occupied exclusively with the secrets of the order, (2) those (like himself) seeking and not yet finding, (3) those who followed the strict performance of the ritual, and (4) those who didn’t have any religious faith but wanted the social connections. It’s crystal clear to Pierre that the order needs a reformation and his zeal is renewed. He gives a speech to inspire his fellow brother Masons but they weren’t inspired and Pierre is stunned. How can this be? Pierre was for the first time at this meeting impressed by the endless multiplicity of men’s minds, which leads to no truth being ever seen by two persons alike.” Because we’re human, we’ll never agree about the Great Idea called RELIGION. Or WAR AND PEACE either and for the same reason.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Tolstoy doesn't think much of war, although it's the first word in the title of his magnum opus. He seems to imply that wars are mainly fought for trivial reasons or to satisfy the whims of a few misguided rulers. In 1812, Russia lies on the brink of war with France as Napoleon's army marches to the frontier. Instead of preparing for battle, the Russian nobility gives a lavish party in honor of the Tsar. Everyone wonders what it all means. When the Tsar calls for sacrifice, Prince André asks, "what is this to do with me?" No one is even sure why war is coming. The way Tolstoy describes it you almost believe that Napoleon and Alexander happened to blunder into a war without any idea of how to avoid it. In other words, the whole affair was just a tragic mistake. But you can't help wondering whether Tolstoy believes that all wars are mistakes, or whether some wars are unavoidable and need to be fought to resolve deeper issues.

Can you imagine Alexander of Macedon or King Leonidas of Sparta saying about the great Persian invasion, "what has this to do with me?" Or consider whether the Roman general Scipio would say of Hannibal's invasion of Italy, "how will this war make me happy?" We must ask of Prince André (or Tolstoy), what in the world has personal happiness got to do with war? Where is civic virtue and duty? These qualities don't seem to matter much to Tolstoy. Fortunately for Russia, many peasants and serfs in 1812 still had strong feelings about protecting the "motherland." Tolstoy is clearly disillusioned with Russian society. But it is one thing to become disillusioned over the mismanagement of the state, yet why does he pontificate about the failure of reason to solve human problems. If reason is insufficient to guide us, then what will? Faith? Emotion? Surely we can do better than follow the example of Dolokov. On the other hand, when you find yourself in a war, then brutes like Dolokov come in handy. But you wouldn't want your sister to marry him.

3/26/2008 7:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home