War & Peace is a war novel centered around Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars, which culminated in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In parallel, the book also serves as a philosophy of history and war, where Tolstoy dived into long asides to share a multitude of opinions, some astute and some heretical.
Lamentably, my assessment of the underlying philosophy in War & Peace is that Tolstoy denies free will to subject human behavior to pre-determined unexplained forces, similar to his American peer Mark Twain in the essay What Is Man. I don’t believe these men ever corresponded with each other, but denial of free will must have been “in the air” in the late 19th century.
The clashing of Tolstoy’s philosophy with dogmatic Orthodox theology should not be surprising in light of the fact that he broke with the Church later in life to create a religious cult around the heresy of total pacifism. Nonetheless, Tolstoy was an eminently gifted writer and channeled unsurpassed technical skill in this masterpiece of a novel. To whet your appetite for this 1000-plus page work, here are my favorite ten passages.
Man’s apparent powerlessness before a beautiful woman
He got up, wishing to go around, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox right over Helene, behind her back. Helene leaned forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.
She turned, looked straight at him with her shining dark eyes, and smiled.
“So you never noticed before how beautiful I am?” Helene seemed to say. “You never noticed that I am a woman? Yes, I am a woman who could belong to anyone, even you,” said her gaze. And at that moment Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must be his wife, that it could not be otherwise.
He knew it at that moment as certainly as he would have known it standing at the altar with her. How it would be and when he did not know; he did not even know whether it would be good (he even felt that it was not good for some reason), but he knew that it would be.
Pierre lowered his eyes, raised them again, and wanted to see her once more as a distant, alien beauty, the way he had seen her every day before then; but he could no longer do that… She was terribly close to him. She already had power over him. And there were no longer an obstruction between them, except for the obstruction of his own will.
If you’ve made women out to be a false idols, and a beautiful woman begins to flirt with you, you have no chance, for behold, your false god is here, not to save you but to destroy you, and you will give consent for her to do so because you place the female flesh above God.
Kings are the slaves of history
Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.
“The hearts of kings are in the hands of God.”
Kings are the slaves of history.
History, that is, the unconscious, swarmlike life of mankind, uses every moment of a king’s life as an instrument for its purposes.
Who is the primary cause of history?
To every administrator, in peaceful, unstormy times, it seems that the entire population entrusted to him moves only by his efforts, and in this consciousness of his necessity every administrator finds the chief reward for his labors and efforts. It is understandable that, as long as the historical sea is calm, it must seem to the ruler-administrator in his frail little bark, resting his poke against the ship of the people and moving along with it, that his efforts are moving the ship. But once a storm arises, the sea churns up, and the ship begins to move by itself, and then the delusion is no longer possible. The ship follows its own enormous, independent course, the poke does not reach the moving ship, and the ruler suddenly, from his position of power, from being a source of strength, becomes an insignificant, useless, and feeble human being.
What is power?
Power is the sum total of the wills of the masses, transferred by express or tacit agreement to rulers chosen by the masses.
Does God give us each a specific lot?
“Well, let’s argue, then,” said Prince Andrei. “Schools, you say,” he went on, raising a finger, “instruction, and so on—that is, you want to lead him out of his animal condition, he said, pointing to a muzhik [serf] who took off his hat as he passed by, “and give him moral needs. But it seems to me that the only possible happiness is animal happiness, and you want to deprive him of it. I envy him and you want to make him into me, but without giving him my intelligence, or my feelings, or my means. Second, you say lighten his work. But in my opinion physical labor is as much a necessity for him, as much a condition of his existence, as mental labor is for you and me. You cannot not think. I go to bed past two o’clock, I have thoughts and can’t sleep, I toss about, I don’t fall asleep until morning, because I’m thinking and cannot not think, as he cannot not plow or mow—otherwise he’ll go to the pot-house or fall ill. Just as I could not stand his terrible physical labor and would die in a week, so he could not stand my physical idleness, he’d grow fat and die. Third—what was it you said?”
Prince Andrei raised a third finger.
“Ah, yes. Hospitals, medicines. He has a stroke, he’s dying, but you let his blood, you cure him and he’ll go around crippled for another ten years, a burden on everyone. It’s far more simple and easy for him to die. Others will be born, there are lots of them as it is. You might be sorry to lose an extra worker—that’s how I look at him—but no, you want to cure him out of love for him. And he doesn’t need that. Besides, what is this fantasy that medicine has ever cured anybody… Killed, yes! He said, frowning spitefully and turning away from Pierre.
Denial of human authority leads to the denial of God
Suddenly, to the words of one of the officers, that it was offensive to look at the French, Rostov began shouting with a vehemence that was in no way justified and therefore surprised the officers very much.
“And how can you judge what would have been better!” he shouted, his face suddenly suffused with blood. “How can you judge the sovereign’s actions, what right have we to discuss it?! We can understand neither the goals nor the actions of the sovereign!”
“But I didn’t say a word about the sovereign,” the officer defended himself, unable to explain Rostov’s outburst otherwise than by his being drunk.
But Rostov was not listening.
“We’re not diplomatic officials, we’re soldiers and nothing more,” he went on. “We’re told to die—and we die. If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge. If it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him—it means it has to be so. And if we start judging and reasoning about everything, then there’ll be nothing sacred left. Next we’ll be saying there’s no God, no anything,” shouted Nikolai, banging the table, quite inappropriately in his interlocutors’ opinion, but quite in keeping with his own train of thought.
“Our business is to do our duty, to cut and slash, not to think, that’s all,” he concluded.
It is futile to seek happiness in this life
The longer Princess Marya lived, the more of life she experienced and observed, the more astonished she was at the shortsightedness of people who sought pleasure and happiness here on earth; who worked, suffered, struggled, and did evil to each other to achieve this impossible, illusory, and fallacious happiness. “Prince Andrei loved his wife, she dies, it’s not enough for him, he wants to bind up his happiness with another woman. Father doesn’t want it, because he wants a more aristocratic and wealthy marriage for Andrei. And they all struggle and suffer, and torment and ruin their souls, their eternal souls, to achieve blessings that last a moment. Not only do we know it ourselves—Christ, the Son of God, came down to earth and told us that this life is a momentary life, a trial, yet we keep holding on to it and hope to find happiness in it. How is it no one understands that?” thought Princess Marya. “No one except these contemptible people of God, who come to me at the back door with bags over their shoulders, afraid of being noticed by the prince, not because they would suffer from him, but so as not to lead him into sin. To leave family, birthplace, all cares for worldly goods, so as to walk, without clinging to anything, in coarse rags, under an assumed name, from place to place, without harming people, and praying for them, praying for those who persecute and for those who protect: there is no truth and life higher than this truth and life!”
Are all women the same?
The sweet impression of Natasha, whom he had known since she was a child, could not be combined in his soul with the new notion of her baseness, stupidity, and cruelty. He remembered his wife. “They’re all the same,” he said to himself, thinking that he was not the only one to have the sad lot of being connected with a vile woman.
The difference between European peoples
A Frenchman is self-assured because he considers himself personally, in mind as well as body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows that everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it possible to know anything fully. A German is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth.
How are military battles won?
[Russian General Kutuzov] listened to the reports brought to him, gave orders when his subordinates demanded it; but, as he listened to the reports, it seems that he was not interested in the meaning of the words being said to him, but that something else in the expression of the face, in the tone of the reporter’s speech interested him. By many years of military experience he knew, and by his old man’s mind he understood, that one man cannot lead hundreds of thousands of men struggling with death, and he knew that the fate of a battle is decided not by the commanded in chief’s instructions, not by the position of the troops, not by the number of cannon or of people killed, but by that elusive force known as the spirit of the troops, and he watched this force and guided it, as far as that lay in his power.
The defeat of Napoleon
It was not Napoleon alone who experienced that dreamlike feeling that the terrible swing of the arm fell strengthless, but all the generals, all the participating and nonparticipating soldiers of the French army, after all their experience of previous battles (where the enemy had fled after ten times less effort), experienced the same feeling of terror before an enemy who, having lost half his army, stood as formidably at the end as at the beginning of the battle. The moral strength of the attacking French army was exhausted. It was not the sort of victory that is determined by captured pieces of cloth on sticks, known as standards, and by the amount of ground the troops stood and stand on, but a moral victory, the sort that convinces the adversary of the moral superiority of his enemy and of his own impotence, that was gained by the Russians at Borodino. The French invasion, like an enraged beast mortally wounded as it charges, sensed its destruction; but it could not stop, just as the twice weaker Russian army could not help moving aside. After the shove it had been given, the French army could still roll on as far as Moscow; but there, with no new efforts on the part of the Russian army, it was to perish, bleeding from the mortal wound it had received at Borodino. The direct consequence of the battle of Borodino was Napoleon’s causeless flight from Moscow, the return down the old Smolensk road, the destruction of an invading army of five hundred thousand men, and the destruction of Napoleonic France, upon which had been laid for the first time, at Borodino, the hand of an adversary stronger in spirit.
While I haven’t tackled many war books, War & Peace has the best battle descriptions I’ve ever encountered alongside a clear and poignant narrative. Many books of Russian literature have struggled to keep my attention, but Tolstoy did a magnificent job to draw me into the story itself, which alternates between scenes of war and—you guessed it—peace. His non-theological philosophical musings were also engaging even if I didn’t always agree with them. As long as you have an interest in history, I’m sure you’ll enjoy War & Peace.
Learn More: War & Peace on Amazon