Thursday, November 13, 2014

Napoleon's Cold and Butterfly Effect

Tolstoy mentions in chapter 27 that if Napoleon didn't have a cold, he could have made better decisions and so could have won the Russian Campaign. Well, while Tolstoy (and readers) doesn't necessarily think Napoleon's cold costed him his campaign, this line of logic is amusing because it has some grounds. At least in terms of weather forecasting.
Butterfly effect is first coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1981 which basically says a seemingly insignificant event such as a flap of a butterfly's wings can influence the details of a hurricane's path. in this case, the flapping of the butterfly's wings would be Napoleon's cold and the hurricane would be Napoleon losing the war. 

I don't have problem with Tolstoy scorning Napoleon's cold for bringing his demise just like a butterfly's flapping can alter the hurricane's path because I myself don't really believe in the claim either. But I do think Tolstoy is too assertive when he says the soldiers are fighting on their own accord and rulers are nothing but pawns to fate. Even if the soldiers are fighting out of free will, they are fighting for something which corresponds to Napoleon's and Alexander's wish. And who has instilled in these soldiers to act toward that certain goal? Tolstoy calls them figureheads, but they hold some power that allows them to lead history in one direction rather than another. Of course, Napoleon's decision arises from the need to secure his rule over the territories he conquered; so he decides to invade Russia. In this way Tolstoy correctly says people, not only the rulers, contribute to history as mediums of fate even when they make decisions based on their free will-- because the decisions made with free will are reactions to the situation.
 However, Tolstoy neglects that such reactionary decisions are at the same time catalysis of new events, and people are actually building history instead of fulfilling fate by making their own contributions. Since not all people can contribute to history in a significant way, there needs be a central force that directs history. The rulers are tasked with giving directions by the merit of their position (no matter how ineligibly or unfairly they acquired it). In this way Tolstoy's claim that the rulers don't do anything is untrue, because they have more power to direct people to set off a new course of history. 


  1. The thing with Tolstoy is he lays it out for you and lets you interpret things as you see fit, this is something all great writers do and especially for the likes of Tolstoy who may be under censorship. Rather than looking at it as him saying rulers have no power,I think he was just trying to emphasize rather on the power of collectivism and in a lot of what occurs in the novel, whether it is the war of 1812 itself or the burning of Moscow, that a lot of things come into play and that is true even for modern events. Yes leaders have power to direct others but especially with our most recent chapters there is a trend of soldiers also influencing events as well as Tolstoy emphasizing on chains of events and how once started it is very difficult to stop them, they must continue and fulfill their fate.

  2. Yes! You summed up what I wanted to say nicely (I'm sorry it was kinda confusing...) . At the same time, I thought he could have made more emphasis on the soldiers and rulers receive the actions of fate but in turn contribute how fate works by making their own decisions. Again, I'm sorry for the confusing post...I tried to fit too many things at once.

  3. I also think this collectivism of a goal to win the war (at least for how Russia is portrayed by Tolstoy) is nationalism. I don't really think the soldiers are fighting because Alexander asks them to, rather they feel bound to by their country, they want to protect it. Granted leaders are important to rally the people, and play on these feelings to get the job done, but I do agree with Tolstoy's point that none of it could happen without the soldiers. But I agree that Tolstoy does slightly devalue leaders.

  4. This was a very interesting passage! I seem to have more of a problem than you with Tolstoy blaming France's loss on Napoleon's cold. As I read the novel, Tolstoy attempts to give the most realistic account of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Partially blaming his cold for their loss seems very unrealistic, if Tolstoy attributes everything to fate. The blame seems to contradict the overall message Tolstoy is trying to convey.

  5. I think your take on this was very interesting! I personally thought that Tolstoy's attempt to lay out the sequence of events as a butterfly effect was kind of annoying- it seems like a very hyperbolic and exaggerated way of laying out a novel. However, I think it also highlights that in those times everything was on the whims and fancies of the ruler- even something with as dire effects as a war.

  6. I'm not sure exactly how much this relates, but in Les Misérables, there's a really long book devoted completely to the Battle of Waterloo. Victor Hugo into crazy amounts of detail and basically gives a minute-by-minute replay of the fight. But anyways, I think it's interesting because Hugo says that Napoleon was defeated because it was raining. The quote in English is, "All that Providence required in order to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season sufficed to make a world crumble."
    So here are two different authors blaming Napoleon's blunders on external factors as trivial as rain or a cold. Maybe he wasn't such a great general after all!