Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tolstoy and Hypocricy on History

Written by Sara Ashbaugh

            In his First Epilogue, Tolstoy discusses the process of interpreting history. In his opinion, it is impossible for historians to determine what is "useful" or “harmful” in the context of history, because the larger picture of the effects of actions cannot be known. Even if it could be known, historians’ limited understanding of what is “good” make those actions impossible to interpret. He even admits, “the action of every historic character has other more general purposes inaccessible to me” (Tolstoy, 999). However, in his interaction with and presentation of history, Tolstoy forces judgments on his reader of what actions can be considered “good” or “bad”. For example, Tolstoy condemns all historians for making judgments on the actions of Alexander I, saying “There is no one in Russian literature now, from schoolboy essayist to learned historian, who does not throw his little stone at Alexander for things he did wrong at this period of his reign” (Tolstoy, 998). Yet in Tolstoy’s presentation of Alexander I as a historical character, he paints Alexander's indecisiveness and passivity as the reason for his ineffectual leadership. In short, Tolstoy seems to believe his biased presentation of the facts is superior to other historians’ blatant judgments. Although he does not state, ‘in this instance Alexander was wrong’ or ‘in this instance Alexander helped history’, his use of language and presentation of Alexander in the context of the plot make those judgments clear to the reader without stating them outright. This holds true in Tolstoy’s presentation of all historical figures (from Speranski to Napoleon) and, more generally, in his writing on the events of the war. This bias is certainly acceptable for a novelist, and to some degree also for a historian. However, if Tolstoy considers himself in some way superior to historians attempting to make judgments on how individuals and actions have affected history, he is nothing short of hypocritical.  


  1. I believe that Tolstoy feels like he is different from historians and that is what makes him better. His interpretation of the historical events throughout War and Peace are seemingly unique from those shared by historians up until this point. But, I still agree that Tolstoy is equally hypocritical.

  2. Yes, Tolstoy has a unique presentation of history. I just don't believe that uniqueness makes his presentation of history superior or any closer to what actually may have happened.