Thursday, August 12, 2010

Volume III, Book I, Chapter I

Ah, Volume III. Halfway through - ppg 603-606 of 1215 (not including the 5 page appendix). War. 1812. I at least know how this one turns out. Waterloo.

This chapter is philosophizing about the nature of large historical events, and the inability we have to actually pinpoint their causes:

"Fatalism in history is inevitable for the explanation of senseless phenomena (that is, those whose sense we don't understand). The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena of history, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us."

"History, that is, the unconscious, swarmlike life of mankind, uses every moment of a king's life as an instrument for its purposes."

The argument is that kings are connected to more people, so more easily their actions are traceable or affecting to others, but they are still at the mercy of history, of millions of little decisions, and the larger human hive-mind that seems govern large events. They are avoidable, Tolstoy intimates, but only if other decisions had been made. Each soldier deciding to fight, the historical events that precede it, etc, cause it to come into being.

“The deeper we go into search of causes, the more of them we find, and each cause taken singly or whole series of causes present themselves to us as equally correct in themselves, and equally false in their insignificance in comparison with the enormity of the event, and equally false in their incapacity (without the participation of all other coinciding causes) to produce the event that took place.”

In other words, who knows? But this book is in some ways coming to look at those millions of causes. I was struck the other day with the Dangerous Liaisons section that those 12 chapters could easily have been (and have been) entire novels. It’s one episode among many. I’m still amazed at the breadth and I’m only halfway through.

There is a great point at the end about no one thing being the sole cause – that when an apple ripens and falls there is more than one reason it does so, but to the child beneath the tree it’s because he was hungry and to the botanist it’s because the fruit is rotting – and they’re both correct-

“As he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander wanted him to perish, will be both right and wrong, so he will be right and wrong who says that an undermined hill weighing a million pounds collapsed because the last worker struck it a last time with his pick.”

There is predestination about it – in fact he comes out in the last sentence and says at much that it’s all been willed before all ages. It’s an interesting argument, and a philosophical one at that – whether we have free will. I don’t know much about Calvinism, but that’s what I think of – it’s intertwined with religiosity for me (as is the language a bit).

I did hear an interesting Radiolab program about decision making, though, that there have been brain scans done about this, and they all show that when we think we’re making the decision, the part of our brain responsible for the decision actually activates after the action. In the experiment, when subjects were told to just raise their finger at random, the decision was actually made after the impulse to move the finger. That’s fascinating. This reminds me of this chapter, and though that is evidence against the idea of free will, it’s challenging to feel that nothing you do is actually your decision. That’s where the fatalism comes in, but I think it can easily be an excuse for inaction. Though that's not the case with these people.

Tolstoy even says, if any of the causes were correct, none of them explains why men when out and killed each other by the millions. His dispassionate language on this is perfect - it mirrors the senselessness of war itself. The language is simple and points out the ridiculousness of the action - "For us, it is not understandable that millions of Christians killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was a lover of power, Alexander was firm, English policy cunning, and the duke of Oldenburg offended."

It's tempting though, to look at this as some part of the wave of blood and revolution that was sweeping across the world at that point - the American and French revolutions both happened within the last several years before this, and were not settled yet - still Napoleon was a result of the bloodshed before him, and the War of 1812 was happening in the States. It's hard not to feel like it was destined with all that happening at the same time. Tolstoy, from the opening paragraph where he recounts the horrible deeds that men did to each other but did not call crimes at this moment, feels against war. And I also can't help but wonder how "millions" read in 1865. We can comprehend that now with New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Paris, Tokyo, any number of even larger cities in the world. In 1865, to say millions murdered each other and committed crimes against each other in the name of war would have felt like describing infinity perhaps. I'm a little off track here, but I remember going to New York for the first time and shutting down from all the people. When speed is 12 miles an hour, how must that phrase of "millions" rung to a nineteenth century reader. It must have been awesome.

We’ll see what develops, though we know the outcome (in the book at least since it's written already) is predestined.

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