Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tolstoy's Idea of History

Hegel once said that with Napoleon's rise to power history was finished. But what kind of history was he referring to? Surely, not the mundane sequence of events that we often describe as daily life. For that goes on, ad nauseum, until the human species either destroys itself or, through a weary process of de-evolution, transforms its own future into historical irrelevance. What mattered to Hegel, just as it did to classical Greeks and Romans, was not the mere prolongation of life, which is a function of biology, but the evolution of consciousness, which is distinctively human, as expressed in our political and moral beliefs. How we behave is always a direct corollary to how we think. Thus, the argument for reason implies a corresponding development in manner. So concludes Immanuel Kant, who shows that morality is futile in the absence of rational thought. For without reason, the voice of human judgment is mute. And without judgment, moral choice is impossible.

For Hegel, the only history worth talking about is the movement of society towards self-realization (i.e, the perceiving subject fully conscious of itself), which leads in the direction of freedom. Tolstoy, on the other hand, believes that human freedom (or free will) is an illusion. World events unfold in ways that cannot be predicted or rationally understood. The forces that move human destiny are mysterious and ultimately beyond our control. For Tolstoy, the power of the human will is nothing but a fantasy generated by irrational desires for love or social approval. Appearances to the contrary, Napoleon had no more influence on human affairs than the lowest foot soldier in his army. Tolstoy rails against the notion that great men alone make history. He argues that thousands of individuals make decisions that cause events to flow in a particular direction. No one individual, not even the general of the army, can dictate how battles are fought, who lives or dies, or which side is victorious. One can find numerous causes for every action in the world and who can say for certain which cause is the most important. If any credit is given for victory, it should go to that army of nameless foot soldiers, not Napoleon. In the final analysis, only God knows (and controls) the outcome of any human endeavor. And no one can explain God's reasons for allowing or orchestrating the affairs of mortal men.

But history, as such, belongs only to the affairs of men, not gods, and not men living apart from one another, but men living in society. A solitary life has no history because it cannot overcome the boundaries of nature, of its own mortality. The substance of history being remembrance, no individual lives beyond the memory of his people. So that man's desire for immortality requires deeds worthy of remembrance. Not all deeds are deserving of memory. But great accomplishments bring honor and fame to one's people and are rewarded with immortal fame.

The problem for Tolstoy is to explain why certain individuals succeed in life while others fail. Is it simply blind luck or divine intervention? If, as Tolstoy claims, human will power (or free will) is an illusion, then it seems to be a necessary illusion. We like to believe that our actions in the world make a difference. But if God, or the law of necessity, controls our actions, where does that leave moral responsibility? What about individual acts of courage? If Christianity substitutes piety for fame, the immortality we once acquired through great deeds (performed in the public arena) must now be obtained through divine grace, in the privacy of one's own conscience. And since grace is proclaimed to be available to all, we see a transformation from a secular society (Greek or Roman) which honors great deeds into a sacred community (the Catholic Church) which demands pastoral obedience and humility. It is this democratization of social life that Tolstoy esteems over the classical celebration of the hero. In war, as in peace, Tolstoy seems to say, no man deserves credit or blame for the vicissitudes of chance, for the only history we need concern ourselves with is the record of our own sins and the redemption (or damnation) that awaits us on the Day of Judgment. Thus, we find ourselves in the age of the anti-hero where no one is great and everyone carries the same burden of our original fall from grace.

We recall that Spinoza once said that "nothing in nature is contingent." In other words, everything is causally related to everything else. Thus, freedom is an illusion created by the human desire for autonomy. But when we examine nature, we find that nothing is self sufficient. Everything is part of a larger, more complicated design, whether that design be written in the genetic code of the species, or the quantum forces beneath visible matter. If this is so, then from where do we get this notion of freedom? Is it just a mental construction, like Kant's categories of space, time and causality, which we impose on the external world (the "ding an sich")? Even if our will is guided by unseen forces (e.g., gravity waves, neutrinos, angels from God, etc.) in the universe, we live our lives with the conviction that personal choice matters, just as we live with the knowledge that our sensory organs are limited. Other animals in nature see and hear better than we do; they have a better sense of smell, taste, and touch. The world we experience with our human senses is the only one available to us, and in this particular world we find that human initiative has tangible effects. Some people are stronger, faster, wiser or more talented than other people. This is an obvious fact. Whether this is because of Darwinian selection or God's will must remain beyond our tiny grasp of reality. But the causal chain of our human choices is what we finally come to recognize as history, and will stand, for better or worse, as the fossil record of our fragile civilization.