Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tolstoy, History, and Freedom

One of the major themes of Tolstoy's novel, one that he returns to vigorously throughout the final third of the novel (and especially in the second part of the Epilogue) is, essentially, an attack on the "great man" theory of history.

Tolstoy asserts that historians have gotten it all wrong by focusing on history from the top down:

To study the laws of history, we must change completely the object of observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals alone, and study the uniform, infinitesimal elements that govern the masses. No one can tell to what extent it is given to man to achieve in this way an understanding of the laws of history; but it is obvious that the possibility of grasping historical laws lies only on this path, and that on this path human reason has not yet made one millionth of those efforts the historians have made in describing the deeds of various kings, commanders, and ministers, and in setting forth their reflections on the occasion of those deeds. (823)

Why should we leave kings, ministers, and generals alone? Because, in Tolstoy's view, those people have the least to do with why history unfolds in the way it does. Though kings, ministers, and generals may feel that their efforts and orders are the driving forces of historical events and mass movements, Tolstoy sees those with "power" as merely pawns of much larger forces, figures whose prominence puts them in "the center of a most complex play of intrigues, cares, dependency, power, projects, advice, threats, deceptions"; meanwhile, "Imperceptibly, moment by moment, an event is carved into its meaning" (825).

The passive voice here is telling, for Tolstoy's vision is one that I am tempted to call historical fatalism. According to Tolstoy, although Napoleon may have given countless orders, the only ones that could make any difference were the ones that the larger historical forces and the masses of human beings involved allowed to be carried out, "just as in stencilling, some figure or other gets painted, not depending on the direction or manner in which the paint is applied, but because the figure cut out of the stencil is smeared in all directions with paint" (1196). In other words, it didn't really matter how Napoleon smeared his paint; the eventual design was preordained by the stencil of history. Why did the stencil have that preordained design? Tolstoy considers the answer to that question beyond human knowability.

Tolstoy goes further, investigating the very nature of the idea of freedom (and surely Jonathan Franzen must have been thinking of this part of the novel when he was writing and titling his 2010 novel Freedom) and, finally, rejecting the notion that we as individuals are free. Although in the moment we may feel that we are free to do as we please, Tolstoy notes that, as time passes and we look back at a particular action (especially ones that occur in concert with other human beings), we realize that there were countless circumstances that influenced our action.

In any case, I think that, especially in academia, the "great man" theory of history has largely been abandoned. Academic historians now are much more likely, it seems to me, to accept Tolstoy's vision and to look for larger forces to explain the movements of history, or to try to get a sense of the role that the masses of people played—instead of focusing on the kings and ministers and generals.

I was talking about this with the father of one of my daughter's friends the other day (he's a graduate student in American literature and bio-politics, and one might call him a New Historicist), and he pointed out a couple problems with this trend in academic history:

1) It seems to leave out the possibility of human agency and, with it, the possibility that individuals (whether leaders or not) can actually effect change. If we're not free and leaders are the least free of all, then why bother struggling to elect leaders we think will be good? Why bother with anything?

2) As Jill Lepore has apparently argued in one of her books, it leaves the story of history's "great men" to be told by popular historians—or even by demagogues like Glenn Beck and the pseudo-historians of the Tea Party. And since the mass audience has a great appetite for the story of history's great men (e.g., the Founding Fathers), whoever controls the narratives about these figures can potentially control an important political instrument.

Tolstoy's theories are also making me second-guess this piece I wrote in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. In my essay, I credit President Obama for accomplishing something that President Bush did not. I argue that bin Laden was killed because Obama made it a priority and Bush did not. I believe the evidence bears out the latter part of that claim, but would Tolstoy reject the first part of it? In other words, would Tolstoy say that it didn't matter what Obama or Bush ordered because the pre-cut stencil of history is what it is regardless of the orders of leaders?


  1. I've been thinking about the Great Man theory of history lately in connection with the Iraq war. I think the lives of many American, more Afghanis, and many more Iraqis were changed by the Bush-Cheney decision to wage war against Iraq. the decision was hardly inevitable. I think Bush & Cheney & the little big men like Wolfowitz created the pretext and then created the war. The 2004 could not have been more momentous. The academic opposition to history as the story of important men theory was an important corrective to a one-sided idea of history, but one idea about history is always wrong (except that one idea about history is always wrong).

  2. It was a great set of discussions and I want to thank Frank for organizing and arranging both the reading schedule and the group meetings. I am glad I did it. I think I feel the way the boys feel when they finish the last page of the Odyssey! I have a spirit tempered to endure!