war, peace and philosophy

This week I got up to Volume III, Part II in War and Peace, and at the start of this section, Tolstoy enters into a bit of philosophising — or I should say re-enters, as he sort of went over this in an earlier section. In this part of the novel, Napoleon is invading Russia. His army is far superior to that of the Russians, which appears to be in comparative disarray as they are lacking a strong leader.

Tolstoy posits that everyone involved in that war believed they were acting for themselves, according to their own will, but, in reality, they were all “involuntary instruments of history”. In an earlier part of the novel (I forget where, and the book is much too big to go searching for this one particular chapter), Tolstoy wrote something about the great cascade of events that must take place for a war to start, and claims that it cannot be pinned on any one event or person.

If I remember correctly, the main gist of it was that no matter who insults who, or who wants to go conquesting where, there cannot be a war if great masses of people don’t enlist to become soldiers, and there is a great deal that must happen to lead to that.

Sometimes, reading War and Peace, I feel like I’m reading a history book, and sometimes I feel like I’m reading an essay about the principles and philosophy of war. It makes for a very different read — definitely not a straight-forward story, so much so that I’m hesitant to keep calling it a novel. I haven’t read other people’s reviews of it yet, and haven’t discussed it in any depth with other readers, but I think I would understand if people felt like all this philosophy and history detracted from the story. Perhaps the tome would be half the size if Tolstoy had left it all out.

But I think there is great value in having all this interwoven with the main story. It’s effectively a very extensive setting out of time and place — an insight not only into the historical context, but also an insight into the author’s mindset at the time of writing. There was a note in the appendix that Tolstoy did a lot of research for War and Peace, and he claimed that he could back up everything he wrote with some sort of evidence (except that one part about the Emperor Alexander throwing biscuits from the balcony to the crowd below).

For me, someone who has an interest in philosophy, I find that these parts of War and Peace add a lot of depth, and without it, it might as well just be another story. Not necessarily true, though, since the character development and story progression is masterfully done. I mean, at the start it was a bit difficult, but I’d like to think I’ve gotten a good grasp of who is who and how they’re all interconnected, so I think I can say the story construction is pretty solid.

Anyway, the notion of no one being independent actors — not even Napoleon himself, or the army generals and officials — and the notion of everyone being “involuntary instruments of history” is something I appreciate as a reinforcement of individual insignificance. Yes, our actions can have great consequences, but ultimately we are barely a blip in the timeline of the universe.

And, yes, it’s that familiar concept frequently propounded by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations

But it also ties in with the notion of acting for society or the greater good, rather than for one’s own interests — another thing that Marcus Aurelius meditated on a lot. Coincidentally, I was also thinking about this earlier this week because a friend had posted a photo of their partner and baby on social media, accompanied by a caption that said something about their family providing the motivation and drive to go to work every morning. I suppose most people who saw that would’ve thought it’s quite nice and sweet, but it irked me.

Perhaps I was tired and hence in a bit of a disagreeable mood, but I felt like it was quite an insular way of thinking. What about the actual work you do and the people it serves? Doesn’t that provide any motivation, or even warrant some consideration?

But, no matter, each to their own, and so on. No use nitpicking.

Anyway, War and Peace is turning out to be a more thought-provoking book than I expected it to be. Ironically it’s a great way to escape from the realities and responsibilities of regular life. But, oh well, one must have balance in life, and I suppose that means having leisure time too.

2 thoughts on “war, peace and philosophy

  1. I agree with you about being irked. I see or hear comments like the one you mention and think to myself that there’s more to life than doing everything for your family. If you are only motivated by them, then what will you do when they’re all gone? There needs to be a balance between working for you family’s best interests and adding value to society. Yet like you say, most people would think that the photo + caption was nice and sweet.

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