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  • The Causes of War and Peace
  • Ermanno Bencivenga

Tolstoy's War and Peace is a magnificent work; as any such work, it can be read in a variety of ways and be found to teach us important lessons at a number of independent levels. Here I want to look at it as an extended meditation on historical causality—and, by implication, on causality, period. So I will not be taking it for granted that it is a novel; I will be treating it as if it were an outcome of the conceptual reflection philosophers engage in—though, when all is said and done, I will be able to shed light on some of its structural features as a novel (including the fact that it is a novel).

There is no question that Tolstoy is looking at a majestic and terrifying historical event, and that he is deeply puzzled both by what is majestic and by what is terrifying about it:

On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began: in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.

(p. 715) 1

One obvious candidate for how this event came about, and one that gets repeatedly torn apart throughout the work, is the Hegelian reference to world-historical individuals, who at key times within the universal narrative of Spirit get to impersonate that very Spirit and carry the rest of the passive universe in their powerful wake. On the contrary, Tolstoy thinks, kings and emperors and great generals are like the proverbial [End Page 484] fly sitting on a racing horse, which thinks that, just because it's sitting there, it is also riding the horse: "[Rostopchin] tried with his puny hand now to speed and now to stay the prodigious tide of popular feeling that was bearing him along with it" (p. 989). "Napoleon, who is presented to us as the leader of all this movement backwards and forwards (just as the figure-head over the prow of a ship seems to the savage to be the power directing the vessel in its course)—Napoleon in whatever he did throughout this period was like a child holding on to the straps inside a carriage and imagining that he is driving it" (p. 1193). "The powers of any commander-in-chief are very inconsiderable" (p. 1218). Kings and emperors and great generals, of course, think that a lot depends on their will, and so do, often, the historians accounting for what took place; but such evocations of individual wills are vain. "It only seemed to Napoleon that it was all happening because he willed it so" (p. 933). "The theory of the transference of the collective will of the people to historical personages may perhaps explain much in the domain of jurisprudence and be essential for its purposes, but in its application to history, as soon as revolutions, conquests or civil wars make their appearance—as soon as history begins, in fact—this theory explains nothing" (pp. 1416–17). As with the fly (or the child) going for a ride on the horse (but definitely not riding it), all there is (at best) is a coincidence between the mental contents of these important characters and what happens anyway (in total independence of those contents): "to say that Napoleon sacrificed his army because he wished to, or because he was very stupid, would be as inaccurate as to say that he brought his troops to Moscow because he wanted to, and because he was very clever and a genius. In both cases his personal activity, which was of no more consequence than the personal action of the meanest private, merely coincided with the laws that guided the event. Quite falsely (and simply because consequent happenings did...


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pp. 484-495
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