Tolstoy’s Emerging Philosophy Seen in “War and Peace”

Mostly coincidentally, while I was in the middle of my Tolstoy essay explosion hereabouts, I was also reading War and Peace.

War and Peace is, among many other things, the way Tolstoy chose to demonstrate some of his theories about the science of history, and his understanding of fate, destiny, free will, self-awareness, and related topics. Every once in a while he drops in a few words about some of the topics that were the major concerns of the essays and letters I’ve reproduced here.

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in the 1860s, and these other works of exhortation and political philosophy mostly in the late 1890s and early 1900s, so keep that in mind. (Also, I was reading the Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation, but the links I’m giving on this page are to the now-public domain Aylmer & Louise Maude translation, so you may get confused if you search for my quotes there.)

Pierre’s Search for Purpose

Pierre Bezúkhov is one of the major characters in War and Peace. He starts off as a very aimless young man, without any confident motives of his own or any ambition for his own destiny, just allowing himself to be tugged this way and that by other peoples’ ideas of propriety. Superficially, at least, this turns out okay for him, as he stumbles into an enormous inheritance and marriage to a capable, ambitious bride. A bit too ambitious, as, against (what’s left of) his inclinations, he enters into a duel over her questionable honor and nearly kills a man.

This shocks him into something closer to wakefulness, and he begins to think he ought to pay a little more attention to how he is going to live his life, in a pretty good summary of your garden variety Existential Crisis:

“…What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything,” he asked himself. And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: “You will die — and everything will end. You will die and learn everything — or stop asking.” But to die was also frightening.

Just then, Pierre meets a traveller on the road who knows about him and has heard about the recent turmoil in his life, and who offers to give a word of advice. The traveller is a freemason, and he scolds Pierre, saying that it’s no wonder he’s come to hate his life, since he’s been mistreating it so badly: “If you hate it, change it, purify yourself, and insofar as you purify yourself, you will learn wisdom.”

Pierre answers, “I wish with all my soul to be what you want me to be; but I’ve never found help from anybody… However, I am to blame for it all in the first place. Help me, teach me, and maybe I’ll…” This is just what the freemason has been waiting to hear, and he gives Pierre his introduction to freemasonry.

Pierre, suddenly infused with zeal, plunges into the masonic world, taking very seriously its goal “to set to rights the whole human race, offering it, through our members, an example of piety and virtue, and thereby trying with all our might to oppose the evil that reigns in the world,” and not giving much thought to the esoteric trappings and weird rituals that decorate the package.

“In our temples we know no other distinctions,” the grand master read, “than those between virtue and vice. Beware of making any distinction that may violate equality. Fly to aid your brother, whoever he may be, instruct him who errs, raise up the fallen, and never nurse any malice or enmity against your brother. Be gentle and affable. Arouse the fire of virtue in all hearts. Share your happiness with your neighbor, and let envy never cloud this pure delight.

“Forgive your enemy, take no revenge upon him, unless it be by doing him good. Having thus fulfilled the higher law, you will recover the traces of the ancient majesty you have lost”…

Parenthetically, he notes later on that his Masonic oath prevents him from joining the military since it “preached eternal peace and the abolition of war.”

Later, still in the glow of born-againness, Pierre tries to explain his conversion to Prince Andréi Bolkónsky:

“…Masonry is not a religious, not a ritual sect, as I also thought, Masonry is the best, the only expression of the best, the eternal sides of mankind.” And he began to explain Masonry to Prince Andrei as he understood it.

He said that Masonry is the teaching of Christianity, freed of state and religious fetters; the teaching of equality, brotherhood, and love.

Pierre climbs in the ranks but at the same time begins to grow disillusioned. Freemasonry as it actually exists doesn’t much resemble the ideal he’s fallen in love with.

Masonry, at least the Masonry he knew here, sometimes seemed to him to be based on appearance alone. He never thought of doubting Masonry itself, but he suspected that Russian Masonry had taken the wrong path and deviated from its source.

Pierre goes abroad to see how things are elsewhere, and comes back fired up again and way too zealous for other members of the order. He tells the freemasons of Petersburg:

“…[I]t is not enough to observe our mysteries in the quiet of the lodge — we must act… In order to spread the pure truth and bring about the triumph of virtue… we must purify people of prejudice, spread rules that correspond to the spirit of the time, take upon ourselves the upbringing of the young, unite the most intelligent people with indissoluble bonds, boldly and yet reasonably overcome superstition, unbelief, and stupidity, and form those devoted to us into people bound together by a single goal and having power and strength.

“For the achievement of this goal, we must assure a preponderance of virtue over vice, we must try to make it so that the honest man already attains in this world the eternal reward for his virtues. But we are very much hindered in these great intentions by present-day political institutions. What are we to do in such a state of affairs? Are we to favor revolutions, overthrow everything, drive out force by force? … No, we are very far from that. Every violent reform is blameworthy, because it will not set evil to rights in the least, as long as people remain as they are, and because wisdom has no need of violence.

“The entire project of the order should be based on forming people who are firm, virtuous, and bound together by unity of conviction, a conviction that consists of persecuting vice and stupidity everywhere and with all their might, and of patronizing talent and virtue: drawing worthy people up from the dust and uniting them to our brotherhood. Only then will our order have power — to bind imperceptibly the hands of those who condone disorder and rule them in such a way that they do not notice it. In short, a universal, sovereign form of government should be established, which will be spread over the whole world, without destroying civil bonds, and under which all other governments may continue in their usual way and do all except that which hinders the great goal of our order, that is, the achievement of the triumph of virtue over vice. This was the goal of Christianity itself. It taught people to be wise and kind and to follow, for their own benefit, the example and precepts of the best and wisest men.…”

His proposal is not well-received, and, chastened, he gives it up and rededicates himself to personal renewal, but then backslides into his old devil-may-care ways, baffled at the meaninglessness of it all:

“…The Spanish offer up prayers to God through the Catholic clergy in thanksgiving for having defeated the French on the fourteenth of June, and the French offer up prayers through the same Catholic clergy for having defeated the Spanish on the fourteenth of June. My brother Masons swear in blood that they are ready to sacrifice everything for their neighbor, but they won’t pay a single rouble into the collection for the poor and have Astrea intrigue against the Manna Seekers, and fuss over an authentic Scottish rug and about charters the meaning of which is unknown even to those who wrote them and which nobody needs. We all confess the Christian law of forgiveness of offenses and love of one’s neighbor, a law in consequence of which we have erected forty times forty churches in Moscow — but yesterday a deserter was flogged to death, and a priest, a servant of that same law of love and forgiveness, gave him the cross to kiss before the execution.…” He experienced the unfortunate ability of many people, especially Russians — the ability to see and believe in the possibility of goodness and truth, and to see the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to participate in it seriously. Every sphere of work was, in his eyes, bound up with evil and deceit. Whatever he tried to be, whatever he undertook — evil and falsehood repulsed him and barred him from all paths of activity. And yet he had to live, he had to keep busy. It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them. He frequented every possible society, drank heavily, bought paintings, built, but, above all, he read.

Pierre goes back to drifting, possessed briefly by some weird numerological fetish that gives him some vague but profound destiny that takes the place of his masonic renewal, and he stays that way until his experiences as a prisoner of war act as a sort of shock treatment to bring him back to reality. By the end of the book he’s come back again to his plan of forming a secret society with the goal of bringing about a political reformation of some sort.

Now, mind you, I’m not describing the plot of the book here but just one of its threads.

But I’m struck by the similarities between Pierre’s impressions of Freemasonry and what Tolstoy had to say about Christianity in The Kingdom of God Is Within You. At times I think Tolstoy was using Freemasonry as a stand-in for Christianity so that he could mock its pretensions and explore its ideals without having to fend off the censors. Other times, I think he was inventing a sort of idealized Freemasonry as a model for a Christian fellowship of the kind he thinks Christians ought to invent as an alternative to the established Church.

Prince Andréi on the Laws of War

During the preparations for the Battle of Borodino, Prince Andréi gets hot under the collar and makes this little speech (he’s addressing Pierre, incidentally):

“Take no prisoners… That alone would change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is, we’ve been playing at war — that’s the nasty thing, we act magnanimously and all that. It’s like the magnanimity and sentimentality of the lady who swoons when she sees a calf slaughtered; she’s so kind, she can’t bear the sight of blood, but she eats the same calf in sauce with great appetite. We’re told about the rules of war, about chivalry, about parleying, sparing the unfortunate, and so on. It’s all nonsense. I saw chivalry and parleying in 1805: they cheated us, we cheated them. They loot other people’s houses, spread false banknotes, and worst of all — kill my children and my father, and then talk about the rules of war and magnanimity towards the enemy. Take no prisoners, but kill and go to your death!…

“If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we’d go to it only when it was worth going to certain death, as now. Then there would be no war because Pavel Ivanych offended Mikhail Ivanych. But if there’s war like now, then it’s war. And then the intensity of the troops would not be like now. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians led by Napoleon wouldn’t follow him to Russia, and we wouldn’t go to fight in Austria and Prussia, not knowing why ourselves. War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people… The military estate is the most honored. But what is war, what is needed for success in military affairs, what are the morals of military society? The aim of war is killing, the instruments of war are espionage, treason and the encouragement of it, the ruin of the inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to supply the army; deception and lying are called military stratagems; the morals of the military estate are absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, depravity, and drunkenness. And in spite of that, it is the highest estate, respected by all. All kings except the Chinese wear military uniforms, and the one who has killed the most people gets the greatest reward… They come together, like tomorrow, to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers), and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit. How does God look down and listen to them!”

Rastopchin’s Justification

Feodor Rastopchin, the governor of Moscow at the time of Napoleon’s invasion, is, in War and Peace, a self-important buffoon who keeps issuing increasingly more ridiculous propaganda and searching eagerly for people to blame for the results of his complete lack of useful activity. At one point, with Napoleon about to enter the city, a crowd of Muscovites has appeared outside of his office, expecting (thanks to his propaganda) that he will lead them in the defense of the city, when he has never had any intention to do that. He thinks they’re just an angry mob that’s been stirred up by other people, and tries to think of some way of distracting them so they won’t turn on him.

He decides to turn loose to the mob a prisoner, a fellow named Vereshchagin, who had been arrested on suspicion of circulating French propaganda, and he tells the crowd that Vereshchagin “is the villain who has brought ruin to Moscow,” which even if the charge against him were rock solid, would be an absurd exaggeration. “Deal summarily with him! I hand him over to you! … Beat him! Let the traitor perish and not disgrace the Russian name! … Cut him down! I order it!”

The crowd does as Rastopchin orders, and then, as Rastopchin ducks out the back to get away, he begins to rationalize what he’s done, first blaming the crowd:

La populace est terrible, elle est hideuse,” he thought in French. “Ils sont comme les loups qu’on ne peut apaiser qu’avec de la chair.” [The rabble is terrible, it’s hideous… They’re like wolves who can only be appeased by flesh.] “Count! there is one God over us!” he suddenly remembered Vereshchagin’s words, and an unpleasant sensation of chill ran down Count Rastopchin’s spine. But the sensation was momentary, and Count Rastopchin smiled scornfully at himself. “J’avais d’autres devoirs,” he thought. “Il fallait apaiser le peuple. Bien d’autres victimes ont peri et perissent pour le bien publique,” [I had other duties… The people had to be appeased. Many other victims have perished and are perishing for the public good.] and he began to think about those general responsibilities he had in relation to his family, to his (entrusted to him) capital, and about himself — not as Fyodor Vassilievich Rastopchin (he supposed that Fyodor Vassilievich Rastopchin had sacrificed himself for the bien publique), but as commander in chief, representative of the authorities, and the tsar’s plenipotentiary. “If I were merely Fyodor Vassilievich, ma ligne de conduite aurait été tout autrement tracée [my line of conduct would have been drawn quite differently], but I had to preserve the life and dignity of the commander in chief.”

Rocking slightly on the soft springs of the caleche and no longer hearing the dreadful sounds of the crowd, Rastopchin calmed down physically and, as always happens, simultaneously with physical calm, his mind also devised causes for him to be morally calm. The thought that calmed Rastopchin was not new. As long as the world has existed and people have been killing each other, no one man has ever committed a crime upon his own kind without calming himself with this same thought. This thought was le bien publique, the supposed good of other people.

For a man not gripped by passion, that good is never known; but the man who commits the crime always knows for certain what that good consists in. And Rastopchin now knew it.

On the Power of Orders

Many times, Tolstoy’s descriptions of battles emphasize how little resemblance the orders and intentions of commanders have to what actually takes place on the battlefield. He wrestles with two seemingly conflicting ideas:

  1. How orders from superiors influence people to do (sometimes horrible) things they otherwise would not do.
  2. How historical powers we can only barely perceive in retrospect and are almost entirely unconscious of at the time influence masses of people to engage in seemingly deliberate (if senseless) activities regardless of what their nominal commanders intend.

For instance, in support of this second point, he ridicules those historians who say that the French were outmatched at Borodino because Napoleon was suffering from a head cold:

[T]he course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events, and [] Napoleon’s influence on the course of those events is only external and fictitious.

In the battle of Borodino, Napoleon did not shoot at anyone and did not kill anyone. That was all done by the soldiers. Which means it was not he who killed people.

The soldiers of the French army went to kill Russian soldiers in the battle of Borodino not as the result of Napoleon’s orders but by their own will. The whole army — the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles, hungry, ragged, and exhausted by the campaign — on seeing the army that blocked their way to Moscow, felt that “le vin est tiré et qu’il faut le boire [the wine is drawn and it must be drunk].” If Napoleon had now forbidden them to fight the Russians, they would have killed him and gone to fight the Russians, because it was necessary for them.

…it was not as the result of Napoleon’s order that they killed their own kind.

And it was not Napoleon who ordained the course of the battle, because nothing of his disposition was carried out and during the battle he did not know what was happening in front of him. Which meant also that the way these people were killing each other occurred not by the will of Napoleon, but went on independently of him, by the will of the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. To Napoleon it only seemed that the whole thing happened by his will.…

(Later, Tolstoy quotes from Napoleon’s memoirs to demonstrate further how far Napoleon’s idea of what he was doing deviated from what was actually taking place in his wars.)

But in another scene, Tolstoy shows soldiers “just following orders” in a way that leaves a different impression. Pierre, captured in Moscow after the French have invaded and much of the city has gone up in smoke, is accused by the French of having been among those who set the fires (Tolstoy maintains that the fires were probably unintentional and inevitable). He has a hard time following the proceedings against him, such as they are, but thinks he may have been condemned to death:

There was one thought in Pierre’s head all that time. It was the thought of who, finally, had sentenced him to be executed. It was not the people of the commission that had interrogated him: not one of them would or obviously could have done it. It was not [General] Davout, who had given him such a human look. Another moment and Davout would have understood that they were doing a bad thing, but the adjutant who came in had prevented that moment. And that adjutant obviously had not wanted anything bad, but he also might not have come in. Who was it, finally, who was executing, killing, depriving of life, him — Pierre — with all his memories, longings, hopes, thoughts? Who was doing it? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was the order of things, the turn of circumstances.

Some order of things was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

It is not until Pierre is led out to the execution ground along with several other prisoners (some of whom are executed) and then marched back again that he learns that he was not among the condemned. Here are some excerpts from that scene:

The criminals were placed in a certain order, which was on the list (Pierre was sixth), and led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides, and Pierre felt that with this sound it was as if part of his soul was torn away. He lost the ability to think and reason. He could only see and hear.…

Pierre heard the French debate about how to shoot them — by ones or by twos. “By twos,” the senior officer said coldly and calmly. There was movement in the ranks of soldiers, and it was noticeable that they were all hurrying, and hurrying not as people hurry to do something everyone understands, but as they hurry in order to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible business.

Twelve riflemen with muskets left the ranks with measured, firm strides and stopped eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away so as not to see what was going to happen. Suddenly there was a crackle and boom that to Pierre seemed louder than the most terrible peals of thunder, and he turned to look. There was smoke, and the French, with pale faces and trembling hands, were doing something by the pit. Another two were led up…

Pierre did not want to look and again turned away; but again it was as if a terrible explosion struck his hearing, and along with these noises he saw smoke, someone’s blood, and the pale, frightened faces of the Frenchmen, who again were doing something by the post, pushing each other with trembling hands. Pierre, breathing hard, looked around as if asking, “What does it mean?” The same question was in all the gazes that met Pierre’s gaze.

On all the Russian faces, on the faces of the French soldiers and officers, on all without exception, he read the same fear, horror, and struggle that were in his heart. “But who, finally, is doing this? They’re all suffering just as I am. Who is it? Who?” flashed for a second in Pierre’s soul.

[The fifth man is shot] Pierre ran to the post. No one held him back. Frightened, pale people were doing something around the [victim]. The lower jaw of one old, mustached Frenchman was trembling as he untied the ropes. The body sank down. The soldiers carried it clumsily and hastily behind the post and began to push it down into the pit.

They all obviously knew without question that they were criminals, who had to quickly conceal the traces of their crime.

…One of the soldiers angrily, spitefully, and morbidly shouted at Pierre to get back. But Pierre did not understand him and stood by the post, and nobody drove him away.

When the pit was filled, a command was heard…

Pierre now looked with senseless eyes at these riflemen who ran out from the circle in pairs. All except one joined their companies. A young soldier with a deathly pale face, his shako pushed back, his musket lowered, went on standing across from the pit in the place from which he had fired. He was reeling like a drunk man, taking a few steps forward, then back, to support his falling body. An old sergent ran out from the ranks and, seizing the young soldier’s arm, pulled him into the company.…

Ça leur apprendra à incendier [That’ll teach them to set fires],” someone among the Frenchmen said. Pierre glanced around at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who wanted to comfort himself at least somehow for what had been done, but could not. Without finishing what he was saying, he waved his arm and walked away.

Later, when Pierre is among a group of prisoners due to be marched along in the French retreat from Moscow (with the French under orders to execute any prisoners who are unable to keep up), he notices the change in the demeanor of the French, who between the time of the executions and the beginning of the retreat had warmed up to him and to the other captives:

Caporal, que fera-t-on du malade [Corporal, what will be done with the sick man]?” Pierre began; but as he was saying it, he wondered whether this was the corporal he knew or some other unknown man: so unlike himself the corporal was at that moment. Besides that, just as Pierre was saying it, there came the noise of drums on both sides. The corporal frowned at Pierre’s words and, uttering a senseless oath, slammed the door. The shed became semi-dark; on both sides there was a sharp noise of drums that drowned out the sick man’s moans.

“Here it is! … Here it is again!” Pierre said to himself, and an involuntary chill ran down his spine. In the corporal’s altered face, in the sound of his voice, in the arousing and engulfing noise of the drums, Pierre recognized that mysterious, indifferent force that made people kill their own kind against their will, that force the effect of which he had seen during the execution. To fear, to try to escape that force, to turn with requests or admonitions to the people who served as its tools, was useless. Pierre knew that now.…

(Although it is a little unclear, later on it turns out that the prisoner count is one short. “One Russian soldier, pretending to have a stomach ache,” so the story goes, “had escaped.” So maybe the corporal exercised some negligence of duty in the service of his qualms, though Pierre noticed “the captain reprimand the sergeant for the Russian prisoner’s escape and threaten to court-martial him” and again “Pierre felt that the fatal force which had crushed him during the execution… now once again took possession of his existence.”)

Leaders as Justifiers

Tolstoy adds a long epilogue to War and Peace in which he gives his theories about the shortcomings of the science of history, gives us a little bit of “then what happened” about some of the characters and loose ends in his book, and tries to tease out what is the force that propels history.

In the course of this, he tries to disabuse us of the idea that Important People — military and political leaders, religious figures, or influential intellectuals — are the movers of the world. Any herd, school, or flock will inevitably have some animal most in front of its current direction of motion, but this does not necessarily make that person the leader so much as a peculiarly-placed follower of the same force the rest of the herd is following (or so Tolstoy wants us to consider).

Well, then, what are leaders for?

When some event takes place, people express their opinions and wishes about the event, and since the event results from the joint action of many people, one of the opinions or wishes expressed is bound to be fulfilled, if only approximately. When one of the opinions expressed is fulfilled, that opinion is connected with the event as the order preceding it.

Men are dragging a log. Each of them expresses an opinion about how and where to drag it. The men drag the log out, and it is discovered that it was done the way one of them had said. He gave the order. Here are order and power in their primitive form.

The one who mainly worked with his hands was less able to think over what he was doing, to consider what might come of the common activity, and to give orders. The one who mainly gave orders, as a consequence of his verbal activity, was obviously less able to act with his hands. The greater the assembly of people aiming their activity at a single goal, the more sharply set off is the category of people who take a less direct part in the common activity, the more their activity is aimed at giving orders.

A man, when he acts alone, always bears within himself a certain series of considerations which guided, as it seems to him, his past activity, serve him as a justification for his present activity, and guide him in his suppositions about his future acts.

Assemblies of people do exactly the same thing, leaving it to those who do not participate in the action to think up considerations, justifications, and suppositions about their joint activity.

For reasons known or unknown to us, the French begin to drown and slaughter each other. And the event is correspondingly accompanied by its justification in the expressed wills of the people about the necessity of it for the welfare of France, for liberty, for equality. People stop slaughtering each other, and this event is accompanied by its justification in the necessity to unify power, to repulse Europe, and so on. People go from west to east, killing their own kind, and this event is accompanied by words about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the event have no general sense and contradict themselves, like killing a man in recognition of his rights, and killing millions in Russia to humiliate England. But in a contemporary sense, these justifications have a necessary significance.

These justifications take away the moral responsibility of the people who produce events. These temporary goals are similar to the brushes that go in front of a train to clear the way on the rails: they clear the way of people’s moral responsibility. Without these justifications, there could be no explaining the simplest question, which presents itself with the examination of every event: how is it that millions of people commit joint crimes, wars, killings, and so on?

In a later commentary on War and Peace, Tolstoy went even further, saying that “the so-called power over other people… is only the greatest dependence on them.”


You could read all of this and get a really bad impression of what War and Peace is all about. These philosophical and polemical sections of the book are exceptional and don’t give a real flavor for the book as a whole, which has a lot more going on.

But I flagged them while I was reading because I thought they might shed some light on the formation of Tolstoy’s views on the subjects of pacifism, responsibility, and nonviolent resistance, and might be useful to those of you (you don’t have to raise your hands) who aren’t planning to read the whole thing.