Lessons from Tolstoy on power and freedom

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Lessons from Tolstoy on power and freedom

Power and freedom, the two opposites in mutual strife against one another since the beginning of time.

Where lies freedom and to whom power belongs are the questions that nurture continuous speculation, debate, study, protest and revolution. In history books, biographies and autobiographies we often learn about the lives of great leaders and the way they influenced the course of history. Statues of powerful people are raised and toppled with the idea that the fate of history was their doing and our fate in the present was held in their hands in the past.

But this view of history is put into question in Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace. Tolstoy illustrates that writing history by focusing on powerful individuals only would be incomplete and incorrect. By dismantling the traditional idea of writing history through the prism of power, Tolstoy leads to the other conclusion, namely that of the inherent free will of all individuals making history, without exception.

In War and Peace, the handful of people that seemingly held history in their hands (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, military commander Mikhail Kutuzov, etc.) were themselves no more than victims of historical circumstances hovering above them, just like everyone else. The lengthy book fluctuates between battlegrounds (the War part) and the daily lives of a number of Russian families (the Peace part) to show that they are intertwined into one another to form a greater historical event (hence War and Peace).

He rejects the traditional viewpoint of historians that focus only on studying the lives of powerful and notable people without the participation of all the other people in those historical events:

“As long as the histories of certain individuals are written, be they Caesars, Alexanders or Luthers and Voltaires, and not the history of all - without exception - of all people taking part in those events – one therefore cannot avoid but to ascribe to these individuals the Force that directs other people towards a certain goal. The only such concept known to historians is Power.”

But to write the history of all the people would be an impossible task. This is why we only write books and erect statues to Caesars or Alexanders only. They are the embodiment of history with a human face because they held notable positions of power, which made them famous, and vice versa they were famous because they were powerful.

In Ancient Greece, Clio was the personification of history with a human face (Clio means “to make famous”). But the Greeks also called historia an investigation. Powerful people are merely clues in that investigation but not the whole story. They are symbols of history but not the actual rulers of it. Tolstoy illustrates this with Napoleon’s actions:

“This the genius Napoleon did. But to say that Napoleon ruined his army because he wanted to do so, or because he was very stupid, would be just as unjust as to say that Napoleon got his troops to Moscow because he wanted to, and because he was very clever and a great genius. In both cases his personal activity, having no more force than the personal activity of every soldier, was merely coincidental with the laws by which the event was determined.”

The laws Tolstoy speaks about are the laws of time and its unpredictability. Though Tolstoy clearly favours Napoleon’s counterpart Field Marshall Kutuzov to the more famous French Emperor, the author does it precisely because of Kutuzov’s reactive approach to unfolding unpredictable events, as opposed to the grandeur attributed to Napoleon by historians and contemporaries alike. “Patience and time” are Kutuzov’s “two most powerful warriors.” Tolstoy almost admires Kutuzov’s sleepiness and lethargy in the face of unpredictable circumstances.

War and Peace reverses the traditional method of analysing history through a top-down approach, whereby powerful people influenced the course of history by ‘forcing’ those at the bottom to implement their plans. In turn, he was doing it from a bottom-up approach, by studying the daily lives and actions of both powerful and non-powerful people alike. He studied both their actions as well as their reactions to events.

In the final pages of the work, the writer explains that if we assume that powerful people influence the course of history in the extent historians would like us to believe, then we would have to eliminate all possibility of free action of all the other participants of historical events. The individual actions of ordinary soldiers, peasants, merchants, nobility and so on would then have no place in history at all because their actions would have already been predetermined by the people in power.

History would then resemble a computer game where ordinary people’s actions are steered by those in power. Such a view would therefore completely disregard one of life’s essential elements – randomness and the unpredictability of the future - and would frame history through a mathematical formula (actio=reactio) where power moves history in the same way gravity moves objects in physics.

Such an outlook on history would imply that powerful people somehow already know the consequences of their actions in advance and only direct all the others towards it like puppeteers. As if time moved backwards towards the already known, rather than forwards towards the unknown. But history (which is another word for time) doesn’t have any goals or projects like humans do.

As unpredictable events unfold in the moment, the future is known neither to the soldier nor to the Emperor. We don’t know what the future brings, and that’s what makes life possible. As Tolstoy says: “if we assume that human life can be controlled by reason, then the possibility of life itself will be destroyed.”. Or, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puts it: “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Only after the outcome is known at a later stage, we can then judge whether our action was effectful or not, but certainly not before. The past is always investigated backwards from the standpoint of the present and not the other way around.

Tolstoy’s critique of historians of power stems from the fact that they write history by tracing it back from the already known consequences and attribute them to actions of powerful people mainly because they are notable figures (in the spirit of Clio). Historians take power from the hands of the many and hand it in the hands of the powerful few, but only after the dice of unpredictable time has already been cast.

But if power is the main measurement for analysing history, then it should be applied to all the participations of historical events, according to Tolstoy:

“The only concept that can explain the movement of a locomotive is the concept of a force equal to its visible movement. The only concept by means of which the movement of peoples can be explained, is the concept of a force equal to the whole movement of the peoples.”

The course of history is like the locomotive which includes everyone’s individual actions, worldviews, beliefs, fears etc. It is the whole Zeitgeist of the times. We can isolate and blame Hitler or Stalin for their atrocities, but it would be deceitful not to consider the actions of millions of people participating in the events of those times.

It is one thing to claim that many people were forcefully coerced to behave in a certain way, and another that their individual actions were meaningless and without effect. The 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke once said, “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.”

Everyone’s role in history matters. For example, the current Covid-19 pandemic was a random event the entire world could not have foreseen. Powerful people react to it in the same way anybody else does. In a way, the pandemic turned the entire world into a single locomotive where every individual action matters. The virus knows no power, neither does time.

Everyone is equal in the face of the virus just like everyone is equal in the face of the unknown future. The best approach for fighting the virus is unknown in the present, which means that every individual state is ‘free’ to decide their own approach. In a way, the unpredictable future ‘provides’ states the freedom of action precisely because the best action is not known.

Only years after, when the pandemic becomes history, historians will look back and judge our present, most likely by singling out some leaders who decided to come up with the right or wrong policy. But these historians will have the elapsed time to their advantage. It will be impossible for them to fully analyse the whole atmosphere of unpredictability that ‘we’ all face in the midst of it.

In fact, we always judge the past by forgetting our advantage in the present. It is a trap that historians often fall into. Like Tolstoy, philosopher Martin Heidegger cautions against this approach which comes naturally to us:

“‘We’—who are we, anyway? How does it come about that ‘we’ have taken control of history, and even the inception of the essential fate of our history? How does it come about that we make use of this history only as though it is ours? Is it because we are the latecomers who, precisely because of coming late, can look back historiographically at everything and claim that the history is ours, that we have it at our command, and place in it our claims regarding what is allowed to be intelligible and what ‘we’ hold as unintelligible?”

The problem of history is that it produces a never-ending ‘we’ in the present who judge ‘them’ in the past. But the ‘we’ can never entirely put themselves in the shoes of ‘them’. The only remaining way is to cherry-pick some particular people or events in history and explain the consequences that followed. Thus, history often eliminates randomness from its equation.

The project of War and Peace was precisely to question that approach altogether. For Tolstoy, as long as time remains unpredictable for everyone, there will always be the possibility of free will. Time therefore is the most democratic horizon because everyone faces its unpredictability in an equal way.

Unlike historians of power, he looks at history from the point of view of the present and not the already occurred future. This leaves him to distribute power and the potential of free will equally amongst everybody without attributing it post-factum to specific people only.

The soldier sent to the battlefield by Napoleon faces the same randomness of the future as the Emperor. They are equal in the face of unknown time. The Emperor therefore cannot ‘step in’ the soldier’s shoes like some divine spirit and control the soldier’s actions. It is the soldier himself who maintains the possibility of free will in his hands in the face of the unknown. His actions belong to himself and himself only. This is the essence of free will for Tolstoy.

Film director Terrence Malick illustrates the complete internal freedom of a soldier in Vietnam in “The Thin Red Line” and more recently in “A Hidden Life” which follows the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to join the Nazis.

These are the individual stories that the history of power leaves out when it focuses on leadership only. History shines its light on the famous and powerful, while the free will and the lives of people like Jägerstätter often remain hidden from our view in the present.

Historians would rather explain the soldier’s actions on the battlefield by attributing them to Napoleon’s power and genius to motivate, inspire, control, organize or lead. Yet, having himself witnessed battlefields in the past, Tolstoy deliberately goes into minute detail in describing the unpredictability of the frontline. Bravery and cowardice, attack and retreat are all part of it, and neither side knows how the battle will end, least of all the rulers.

Faced with the imminent possibility of death, the soldier takes first and foremost his own life into account and acts accordingly. Guns and cannons drive the soldier’s actions in the heat of the moment, not Napoleon’s motivational genius. In the face of such imminent danger Tolstoy emphasizes the inherent freedom of will of each individual, regardless of rank. The soldier and his ruler play an equal role in the way history will eventually unfold.

Tolstoy goes further in showing that even if freedom can be taken away, free will and the potential for freedom always remains. This he illustrates through count Pierre Bezukhov, formerly one of the richest men in Russia who ended up being a prisoner of war. His entire life Bezukhov was on a quest for freedom despite his wealth and status, yet he found it in the most unexpected place – the French army’s prison barracks:

“He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are very close; that a man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up; that when he used to put on his tight ballroom shoes, he suffered just as much as now, when he walked quite barefoot (his shoes had long since worn out) and his feet were covered with sores. He learned that when, by his own will, as it had seemed to him, he had married his wife, he had been no more free than now, when he was locked in a stable for the night.”

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would make a similar claim when he famously and controversially said that the French people were “never more free than under the German occupation”. Sartre echoes Tolstoy’s view that freedom knows neither rank nor status. The powerful have as much an impact on the course of history as the ordinary man or woman: “and that is why the Resistance was a true democracy” Sartre says, “for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.”

For Tolstoy as for Sartre, people maintain their individual free will even when their physical freedom is taken away. But given that the potential for freedom can never be taken away in the face of unfolding time, freedom itself will always remain a possibility. In their core, freedom and the potential for freedom are divided by but a very thin line, which eventually makes them undistinguishable.

We would not have sin vs. virtue, crime vs. moral deeds, folly vs. good behaviour if human free will were not at the core of human action. For Tolstoy, nothing else but free will could explain these ‘deviations’ from the ‘norm’ that history attributes to itself when explaining its own seemingly purposeful direction. “Man is condemned to be free”, says Sartre. For Tolstoy, “as soon as there is no freedom, there is no man.”

Serghei Sadohin

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