Friday, November 1, 2013

Criticizing Tolstoy's Views of History

Tolstoy's views of history are, for their time, revolutionary and extremely strange, but they seem reactionary and over the top. While I agree that ordinary individuals, as an aggregate, have a profound impact on history, Tolstoy seems a bit hasty to dismiss free will. Tolstoy writes that man acts for his own interest but also subconsciously out of his "hive life", serving the general will of the human race to fulfill the "aims of humanity". He deduces this by writing that, because choices compose history, history must guide choices. Therefore, kings and rulers are less free than ordinary men, as kings and rulers have the most power and are in the spotlight of history, making them the most guided by this hive life (Tolstoy 537)

This is both extremely counter-intuitive and, as far as I can tell, illogical. It seems to hinge upon faith that the genesis of the human race had some purpose that is slowly being revealed through history, although this seems somewhat contrary to Christianity (in which everything people must know is already in catechisms and the bible and individuals must act upon it to receive eternal life). As long as we believe people have free will, or at least do not assume we are forced to action by the underlying motive of the human race, then most of his arguments don't apply. Still, he has two more practical arguments where he stresses the importance of ordinary individual's choices and highlights the importance of uncertainty. He provides an example where every soldier in the war of 1812 had to choose to fight for it to happen (537), but this does not seem very compelling. Rulers can obviously do things to compel their subjects (financial incentives and punishments for deserting), and Kings still seem to have much more control over the shape of history than subjects. While it is true that, as a group, commoners have an extremely important role, they are very powerless individuals compared to a Czar. His discussion of randomness, on the other hand, seems very true, as droughts or even mistakes delivering information can have massive impacts on history. However, this does not deny that, as a group, rulers have far more capacity to shape the future than anybody else.

One more thing; Tolstoy says every action is "predestined from eternity" (538). I'm guessing this means either, one: There is no free will because at some time at the end of history you can look back and see everything that happened before (this presumes that our actions do not create the future but discover it, and seems unknowable). Or, it means that God, having created the universe from outside of time, is omniscient and invented the universe knowing every human action, therefore proving that people don't have free will. However, I don't feel like dealing with that right now and this is far too long already (if that is what Tolstoy intended then he is probably insane for slipping it as three words at the very end).

tl;dr: I think Tolstoy is generally wrong when he discusses history. What do you think? Did I miss anything important?


  1. I agree that sometimes Tolstoy's theories are a little forced and generally inaccurate according to my understanding of history. He often criticizes how history is recorded. Good for Tolstoy for criticizing it, but the reality is that the winners will always write the history. I can see where Tolstoy is trying to go, but I don't feel that he chose a successful path to make his points.

    1. I also think Tolstoy's criticism of history is one of the better things he does in these segments. You are certainly right about winners writing history, but I think Tolstoy also makes some smart points, like hindsight and oversimplification affecting how history is recorded. I can sympathize with Tolstoy, and certainly don't think he was stupid, but I think he got carried away and claimed too much, especially on the topics of freedom and power. Good post.