Tolstoy’s Historiography Deserves More Attention

Despite its cultural status, the central argument of Tolstoy’s masterpiece has been forgotten by history.

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By Emma Park

Leo Tolstoy’s 1867 tome, “War and Peace,” in all of its 1300-page glory, is one of the greatest books in the Western canon and the standard-bearer of Russian literature. But the philosophical meat of the book and the aspect of the book that pushes it beyond the ranks of other novels about European nobility and into the ranks of Homeric epic seem to have been forgotten by the European historical tradition. Its sharp and fierce criticism of contemporary historians has been left in the dust, and since 1867, the objects that Tolstoy criticizes have moved along, not unchanging, but unchanged by him.

Most narrative works follow plots throughout their entirety. Depending on how experimental a work is, that plot can be nonlinear (“Beloved”), framed (“The Princess Bride”), minimalist (“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn”), unreliably narrated, or any number of other bizarre things. Not so with “War and Peace.” Large sections of the book are generic essay, straightforward discussions of historiography only loosely related to the plot. “War and Peace” is not a Socratic dialogue; the nonfiction, academic stretches in the book are not framed as the thoughts of one of the characters. The long sections of radical historiography are thrown into the latter half of the book without segue or explanation.

To say that Tolstoy challenges conventional historical narrative would be an understatement. Tolstoy argues that all history happens because the spirit of the peoples demand that it do so. Applying his historiography to the Napoleonic Wars (the book’s subject), Tolstoy argues that Napoleon’s failure to invade Russia was not caused by a lack of planning for cold weather, hubris, or the good planning of Russian generals, but that the events of 1812 were caused by the movement of the Russian and French spirits. Up until 1812, Tolstoy argues that the French Spirit was expansionist and wanted to move out over Europe. The broader European Spirit was submissive, so Napoleon succeeded. But Napoleon failed when he invaded Russia because the resilient, tough, red-blooded Russian Spirit, which is as much the hero of the book as any Bolkonsky, Bezukhov, or Rostov, wouldn’t let him.

Napoleon’s failure was not, Tolstoy argues, the result of faulty military planning. In fact, Tolstoy goes so far as to argue that what happens on the battlefield is never a function of any sort of planning. Tolstoy argues, with some success, that the ever-changing, chaotic nature of battlefields is such that the outcomes of military skirmishes always stem from, essentially, how the soldiers involved were feeling rather than from the “genius” (a word which he rants about at some length) of their commanders. There was clearly no particular relation between Napoleon’s orders and what happened, so what happened must have stemmed from something less corporeal and concrete―the spirits of the peoples involved.

Tolstoy’s argument has made it into mainstream thought surrounding the Napoleonic Wars, even if it’s far from dominant. Particularly in Russia, the idea that the strength of the Russian soul was the source of Russia’s triumph over Napoleon has become very popular, helped along by decades of government and other (often government-assisted) propaganda, such as the 1966-7 film adaption, which was made with $50 million (in modern American dollars) of Soviet money.

However, he has not made much of a dent in historical interpretations of events beyond Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and even the historiography underlying his Napoleonic argument has been largely forgotten. History has evolved since the book was written, and though part of its evolution has been a shift away from emphasizing the importance of Great Men, Tolstoy’s spirit-based argument is not part of the common historical understanding. As someone who has always been invested in history classes and has made an active effort for some years to engage with history outside of class, Tolstoy’s arguments took me entirely by surprise; they were so alien that I didn't even know how to begin to think about them.

Now, having been exposed to Tolstoy’s ideas, it has become impossible for me not to have a little Tolstoy voice in my head at all times. For instance, when we discussed the extent of Petrarch’s role in the Renaissance in history class, I could not help but think of a particularly memorable passage in the second epilogue of “War and Peace,” in which Tolstoy mocks the idea that historical movements have leaders: “‘The herd is going in this direction because the animal at the head of it is leading it, and the sum total of wills of all the rest of the animals is transferred to this ruler of the herd.’ So answers the first category of historians.”

That Tolstoy has so small a role in current historiographical thinking is ironic, given his status as a lodestone of Western thought. It’s also unfortunate―his critiques of mainstream history are serious arguments that, if true, have huge implications. If he’s right, then all of our thinking about history is wrong, and our analyses of historical events are largely pointless and created in vain. Analyzing historical events through the lens of economic causes or government decisions becomes pointless. Things happen, according to Tolstoyan historiography, because they had to happen, because the peoples of earth needed them to happen.

This not only undermines fundamental elements of the study of history as we know it, but it also undermines what is probably the most oft-cited justification for why it is worthwhile to study history: “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” If Tolstoy is right, we need to seriously examine why we study history (to be clear, fear of repetition is not the only justification for historical study, and a number of other justifications, including that it allows us to connect with the greater human story, hold up under Tolstoy; reports of history’s death upon an embrace of Tolstoy would be greatly exaggerated). Maybe that’s why his historiography is so unrecognized; people never are.

Beyond that, not a lot of time is spent on historiography in general in classrooms, and that’s a shame. Historiography is to history as the scientific method is to science, but it often gets the short shrift, which only serves to reinforce the view that it’s a pointless subject unworthy of study among students who have not been predisposed to enjoying history. Tolstoy, with his radical difference from mainstream historical thinking, would serve as a good introduction to the subject and its breadth.

We pay a good deal of lip service to Tolstoy. We give him status as one of the great thinkers of the modern era in the same (extremely male) echelon as luminaries like Shakespeare, Locke, and Marx. It’s high time we give his ideas the same respect we give him and listen to them.