In his summing up of this grand, panoramic story of nations at war, Tolstoy’s intent in writing this tome finally emerges. He fully realizes the book isn’t a novel, nor is it history – although at times it’s both. He knows he’s reaching deeper, beyond the epic, beyond what he sees as a tradition of falsely representing historical events.
To reach this unexplored literary territory, he begins to dabble in philosophy. Remember, Europe is now in the thrall of Descartes, Locke, and the new Scientific Renaissance. Previously, reality—as Europeans saw it—had religious precepts as the flesh beneath its intellectual clothing. But now, to Tolstoy, a seeming Godless strain of reality has grown parallel to the old one with the emergence of science.
His attempts at philosophy here are, by modern standards, clumsy and naïve, but he has something significant in his grasp – particularly for his time. To him, the randomness in the way history turns isn’t caused by the hands of royalty or other elite. His implication here is that if the elite few did turn the wheels of history, we would have no random turns in history. He still sees social power as hierarchical – the pyramidal shape we’re all familiar with – but to Tolstoy, history’s impulses travel from the bottom up, not top down. This, of course, is the way we today view socio-political structure, particularly in our so-called democracies.
And he correctly sees the science of his era as seeking an understanding of nature’s interactions, not it’s causes. He even seems to gloat in his view that while rational minds of his time still seem bent on the presence of an omnipresent, omniscient God as the causality of all things their science examines, they aren’t finding it via reason. But in the end, even Tolstoy sees something rational in the depths he’s trying to plumb:
The people of a nation – and his interest here is foursquare on Russia – create their social reality from the raw material of the natural world and hand that upward, to those they allow to make their decisions. This was also – in a more abstract sense – the underlying tenet of the French Revolution, which Tolstoy despises, something I don’t think anyone called him to task to explain in his work.
Ironically, his bottom-up vision of social reality does position him at the eye of that day’s political hurricane, despite his other differences with Western European thought. Which is probably why, despite Communism, Tolstoy remained relevant in Russia and the Soviet Union deep into the twentieth century.
But these insights become clear only because the husband-wife translating team of Pevear and Volokhonsky give us the whole of Tolstoy’s text, and without the affectations of trying to re-word it in nineteenth century language. So once again, let’s applaud them. Their careful word-smithing and attention to Tolstoy’s complex purposes have made his overarching talent and far-reaching intellect live once more, and in the most vibrant literary manner.