Discover more from Continuous Variation (CVAR)
Review Of Tolstoy’s Skepticism Of History
just a taste, in future, book reviews will be for paid members only
By C Trombley
Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 book “Tolstoy And History” is a brief (144 pages with a sizable introduction and several postscripts) analysis of the philosophy of history contained within Tolstoy’s 1869 “epic in prose” War & Peace, the acknowledged masterpiece of reflection on 1812. The questions Berlin uses Tolstoy to ask - of whether there can be a history of precise, actual determinative facts alongside a felt historical experience of participation in a narrative - still haunt our attempts to build a history that makes possible a successful politics. Tolstoy proposes that every cause must be accounted for in a scientific history. But if every historical cause must be an infinitesimally tiny derivative of matter or idea - a scale more material than the Marxists, and yet more imaginary than the idealists or empiricists - how can it be possible to construct “a usable history” without fatally sacrificing “usable” or “history”?
We call this kind of suspicion about the efficacy of knowledge skepticism. Skepticism Of History, suspicion of the efficacy of history as an independent science, then is what Berlin’s essay is about.
It is commonplace to say we live in a skeptical age, an era of such bone deep paranoia that the offer of free medicine is met with revulsion and protest. One could, with slightly more nuance, approximate the intellectual tenor of our times to say that we are continuously being offered the following fork: either there is no limit to the dialog through which we find ourselves with nature or language is itself an ideological tool. But to understand why Tolstoy’s skepticism in particular matters, we have to make note of a great change in how the world understood History As An Independent Science between Tolstoy’s time and ours.
Today, history is a dying field whose aged and overqualified scholars struggle to fend off “Critical Race Theory” scammers. In Tolstoy’s time - and for a long while after - history was by far the most powerful and prestigious academic pursuit. Historian Gustav Schmoller was read and imitated by both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson. Bertrand Russell’s “On History” contains such almost naive statements as “Of all the studies … no single one is so indispensable as the study of the past.”, “History is valuable, to begin with, because it is true;” and “The past alone is truly real: …”. Closer to Tolstoy’s milieu, the Slavophile movement held history as almost the very will of God: Berlin himself notes this in the very book under review.
The novelty of Berlin’s little essay proceeds from taking the skeptical philosophy of the Tolstoy of War And Peace seriously: Berlin himself demonstrates that the skeptical philosophy of Tolstoy has been generally ignored. Contrariwise, in Berlin’s telling the whole book and its characters almost seems to have been written to give life, to provide evidence for and to make concrete the philosophical scepticism.
Berlin’s ambition is not merely to expound, criticize or adopt Tolstoy’s scepticism of history (though he does all three) but to go on to dramatize it, show why it is interesting and why it is necessary.
Tolstoy & Rousseau: Universalists Look At History
Before digging into this dramatization, let’s get an idea of Tolstoy’s intellectual life circa 1869. Tolstoy began writing seriously in his twenties, which is to say, in the early 1850s. At first he wrote stories of varying length based on his own experience. These stories were thick with explicit personal and implicit social criticism. In other words, he was a typical young ambitious writer.
Since Rousseau was Tolstoy’s most enduring influence – and a core inspiration for War and Peace in particular – we should take a stroll through the relevant parts of Rousseau’s philosophy. The young Tolstoy was deeply influenced by Rousseau’s Confessions, a memoir like Saint Augustine’s, which aims to make its author look as bad as possible and largely succeeds, though both have many passages which are less than completely convincing. But by the time of War & Peace, Tolstoy had largely moved on to the philosophy of Rousseau’s masterpiece, Emile.
The degree of influence of Emile is staggering: it was the first book to suggest that self-esteem was good. This was so far from the mainstream of western thought that Bertrand Russell in 1945 dismissed it as the work of a madman and idle paradoxer. On the other hand, Kant's mature philosophy - especially his ethics but also his metaphysics - was largely an attempt to restate the philosophy of Emile without hyperbolic language (one would have read it to see the magnitude of such an ambition). A careful reading of the famous Profession Of Faith Of A Savoyard Vicar provides a clear view of Kant’s inspiration. The exposition itself largely follows British Empiricist Samuel Clarke, now mostly known for being Newton’s mouthpiece in arguments with Leibniz. Rousseau’s novelty comes in how he understands the arguments: he does not argue that the world, in fact, consists of sense impressions, but rather that the system of empiricism as a whole is successful at delivering the vicar to a life of goodness. Rousseau rightly perceives that this shift means “… toutes les disputes des idéalistes & des matérialistes ne signifient rien moi…”. This rejection of ontology is the fundamental step that led Kant out of his dogmas.
Coming back to Tolstoy, by the late 1850s he was making a grand tour of French translations. In 1860, Tolstoy toured Europe and met Proudhon, the anarchist, in Belgium. Tolstoy returned to Russia full of educational ideals. He founded a series of schools for peasants, each of which collapsed under pressure from secret police. In 1862, as his schools faltered, he somehow found time to read a prose translation of The Iliad which reignited his passion for narrative. After two failed attempts at an “epic in prose” (one became the novella Cossacks, the other was abandoned entirely), War & Peace began to be published in 1865.
In summary, Tolstoy’s mind at this time is a mean between Emile and The Iliad. Rousseau & Homer meet in their concern for family: that marriages can be happy & children can be educated. The resulting odd mix of redistributionism and conservatism is something we can find in the newspaper today.
Tolstoy as a family values guy might be a surprising thing to hear, but it is accurate in 1869. Only decades after War & Peace would Tolstoy become the kind of anarchist he is known for being. That said, there was a great deal of continuity in Tolstoy’s thought, in fact one part of “The Non-Acting” (the part on disputations in science) is repeated almost verbatim from the philosophical bits of War & Peace.
Tolstoy’s Theory of History
But enough background, we are finally ready for Tolstoy’s theory of history.
The assumptions and conclusions can be stated simply if one is willing to be - as Tolstoy is not - sweeping. The historical world is characterized by absolute continuity (“абсолютная непрерывность”). The oldest error of the sophist has been to haphazardly divide the continuous into arbitrary, ill-fitting parts and cover up the awkwardness with vaguely defined words (see Philebus 56d). Only modern mathematics, Tolstoy says, has managed to grasp the continuous without sophistry, by means of limits, of infinitesimals and of differentials. Similarly, all progress toward a “scientific” history has been in movement towards smaller and smaller units of examination. The only objective, rational and philosophically sound way to grasp history in its continuity is in the limit: each microcause a “differential of history” (“дифференциал истории”).
Tolstoy’s immediate theorem from this first assumption - likely, in truth, the guiding intuition - is that the “great man” theory of history is plainly false. No general, no emperor and no leader of any sort can be so strong a cause of the direction of a soldier’s charge that a bit of mud on the soldier’s shoe cannot overcome the order. In fact, the whole causal direction of “great man” theory is reversed. “The historians” of Tolstoy’s time are like the peasant who thanks the budding oak for late spring or like the child who sees foam guide the crashing wave. The truth, Tolstoy observes, is that Napoleon and Kutozov “order” charges and retreats which have largely already begun to happen.
Tolstoy’s final assumption completes his system: the only valid explanation of an event must consist of forces equal to the whole (“понятие силы, равной всему”). The conservative historian who claims to explain 1812 by condemning Rousseau (To quote Tolstoy’s parody in the second epilogue: “В конце 18-го столетия в Париже собралось десятка два людей, которые стали говорить о том, что все люди равны и свободны. От этого во всей Франции люди стали резать и топить друг друга. Люди эти убили короля и еще многих.”) is guilty of a double crime against logic: of discontinuity and of a force not equal to the sum of its resultants.
This, then, is Tolstoy’s theory. One can almost hear Tolstoy shouting “Les pires historiens pour un jeune homme sont ceux qui jugent. Les faits! les faits!”, so deep is the influence of Rousseau and the Enlightenment.
Before moving on let’s sit in judgment. One cannot say that this is a philosophy taken seriously only because it is by a great novelist: the philosophy has not, in general, been taken seriously. We must ask: is Berlin justified in taking this philosophy seriously? In answer to this question, I will only say that this theory so Leibnizians in its infinitesimals points to and achieves the standard of seriousness set by Leibniz in Theodiceé: it examines the interplay of continuity and freedom.
Tolstoy and de Maistre
So much for the theory in itself. The next task for Berlin, our intellectual historian, is to trace the inspirations, influences and sources. As above, Rousseau was the chief inspiration – War And Peace is a novel of education to be a human adult, as Emile was a century earlier. Stendhal was the obvious influence – Stendhal’s Waterloo was the compass by which Tolstoy’s Borodino was outlined. Berlin, however, finds the deepest explanation of what is going on in Tolstoy by looking for parallels between War & Peace and the thought of Joseph de Maistre.
Maistre was for Tolstoy - directly speaking - merely a source. Maistre is even today the primary and sometimes sole source on the social world of Tsar Alexander’s court. Before Berlin’s comparison can be outlined, we must first sketch de Maistre’s career.
Joseph de Maistre was born into a recently ennobled family in Savoy, 80 miles south of and 40 years after Rousseau’s birthplace and time. Like all right wingers, Maistre claimed to have been a liberal as a youth. After the revolutionary armies took Savoy, Maistre fled to Lausanne where he developed well-deserved reputations as a wit and a royalist. He joined the court of Victor Emmanuel I and began the work of alienating the court. Specifically, Maistre mocked their idea of restoring l’Ancien Regime, calling their plan to give the power back to petty aristocrats one by one “like trying to drain Lake Geneva with wineskins”. Maistre finally crossed the line by asking to visit Napoleon. Victor Emmanuel seems to have suspected Maistre had the idea of defecting to become a Catholic Napoleonist, like Chateaubriand seemed to be at the time. Maistre was kicked upstairs with the fake job of Fake France’s ambassador to Russia (the real French ambassador to Russia being Caulaincourt).
Maistre spent his time in Alexander’s court much as he did in Victor Emmanuel’s: writing royalist tracts and losing royal favor. This time Maistre alienated the autocrat by suggesting the Jesuits - who, he said, would provide the discipline of schooling without the risk of teaching - be put in charge of education in Russia (rather than the German professors who were then royal favorites). After the downfall of Napoleon, Maistre returned to Savoy and wrote amusing ultramontain propaganda until he died in 1821.
The above sketch of Maistre as a sort of Savoyard Swift is the vision of him which Berlin seeks to destroy. Indeed one could say the chief aim of Berlin’s essay is to rescue the reputation of Maistre from that of a mere source on the court of Tsar Alexander by comparison to Tolstoy.
The comparison is not easy. Tolstoy and Maistre have completely different assumptions, deductions and conclusions. Berlin, of course, dutifully counts – even overemphasizes – the minor points of visible intersection between Maistre & Tolstoy. But even overweighed, these points are far slimmer than the vast gulf of differences between them: Tolstoy is a slavophile of sorts, Maistre is a slavophobe; Tolstoy holds violence in disdain, Maistre holds it with a grin; Tolstoy - during War & Peace anyway - is a relentless scientistic (all truth is scientific truth), while for Maistre science misses all serious truth; Tolstoy thinks enlightened men are fools saved by stupidity, vanity and frivolity, Maistre believes they are the scourge of God, the only defense against which is obedience to death. Every one of Berlin’s comparisons comes with a long list of qualifiers and quite a bit of shading.
The true point of intersection between Tolstoy and Maistre is at infinity. The deep similarity is that they are men who are not sadomasochists in assumption (in the technical sense of the word. meaning the antecedents of their conditional statements) who came to embrace sadomasochistic conclusions.
First, de Maistre. I wholeheartedly agree that, as Berlin says elsewhere, that Maistre’s conclusions are foregone in the sense that they historically and psychologically predate his antecedents. Maistre’s approach to contrary evidence – to wave it off – shows this. Still, Cioran (in Anathemas And Admirations) complains that ‘Rousseauisms’ infect Maistre’s early writing. I, myself, find Rousseauisms throughout. If one could cut Maistre’s sentences in half, take out the Rousseauvian or Voltairean assumptions, there would be nothing of interest left. It is from Voltaire, for instance, that Maistre derives his complaints of the Calvinizing of French law, his preference of royal fiat over the thousand petty aristocrats (as seen in Voltaire’s righteous attack on Montesquieu) and even his complaint that the optimistic rationalist philosophers have forgotten original sin. The most widely quoted passage in Maistre’s most celebrated work, his praise for the executioner, is developed by contrast with the socially accepted praise for the soldier - Voltaire wrote similar and better. Maistre frequently expresses a genuine hatred of what he calls ‘batonocracy’. His name for this hated mode of governance brings up a similar image - rule by the big stick - as Mussolini brought up with ‘Fascism’. Yet Maistre is plainly a proto-Fascist. This seeming contradiction is possible because for Maistre, the path to evil is through man’s irrationality, not directly.
All this connects to War And Peace because that epic in prose participates in the universal importance of 1812. 1812 was the first year the Enlightenment was firmly in the past tense. Coleridge captured the spirit of that year perfectly in his Lecture On Hamlet, which casts Shakespeare’s tragic hero as embodiment of the end of the Enlightenment: “[Hamlet] mistakes the seeing of his chains for the breaking of them…”.
Such is the crooked path to sadism in Maistre. How can we see any of this in War And Peace? One could say that, like Maistre, there are many Rousseauisms - but not the same parts of Rousseau. One could say they were both nonliberals who hated militarism – but that they both had white hair as old men would be a more exclusive connection. One could say, like Orwell does convincingly in “Lear, Tolstoy And The Fool”, that Tolstoy’s religious anarchism was a kind of spiritistic sadomasochism - but that belongs to a much older Tolstoy: War And Peace ends with a string of this-worldly happy marriages.
The connection which Berlin finds is that in both conceptions of history, so antithetical in every detail, there is no room for debate, elenchus or aporia. By continuity, everything that is happening smoothly reaches back to what happened already. There are no contingencies, therefore in some important sense there are no stakes. No human being’s knowledge of the world can be decisive over their action within it. Tolstoy would, of course, very honestly deny there is no room for aporia. Is the superiority of Kutuzov over Napoleon not that Kutuzov knows he knows nothing?
What Berlin claims is that it is not Tolstoy’s philosophy of history itself but his metaphilosophy which brings him close to Maistre. When Tolstoy asks “What force moves nations?” (“Какая сила движет народами?”) or demands historians answer “What is power?” (“что такое власть?”), he demands the words of historians cease to move like the statues of Daedalus. When he demands the total force equal exactly its components, he eliminates the possibility of disagreement over the scale of different components is a valid scientific dispute. Indeed, Tolstoy removes the idea that science can be in dispute at all.
Tolstoy demands that historical science not be a series of conjectures and refutations, neither ever totally clear or decisive. Instead, history must be a vector of facts, in a manner impossibly more detailed than the dry listing of shipbuilding statistics in Hobsbawm.
Moving away from Tolstoy’s images, the most surprising thing from our culture’s post-post-modern viewpoint is that Tolstoy leaves no role for narrative in the writing of history. Creativity in history is impossible because - as Russel said naively - history is valuable almost solely because it “actually happened”. Unlike Rousseau, he does not see history as something which is taught.
Tolstoy sets up a standard, a demand for clarity and completeness, which can only be failed. Even Tolstoy admits this: Book 11 starts “Absolute continuity of movement is incomprehensible to the human mind.” (Для человеческого ума непонятна абсолютная непрерывность движения.). One can summarize the intellectual motion in War & Peace like this: 1812 saw the debut of two Beethoven symphonies, 1869 saw the debut of Das Rheingold.
Put more prosaically, Tolstoy explored how the very infinitesimal nature of often subjective microcauses integrating into the vast sweep of history strains the individual and society to the breaking point. Understanding demands the causes be too small to be measured, reason demands measurement. Thirty years later, Durkheim would still be significantly behind Tolstoy in his attempts to square this circle with integrative studies of society.
With all this one can see that like Maistre, but in a much deeper and more probing way, Tolstoy’s surface of classical lucidity belies a dark and turbulent interior. It is this deep and powerful comparison which Berlin dramatizes.