Tolstoy War and Peace

Tolstoy #

1828 - 1910 The scion of prominent aristocrats, born at the family estate, 210 kilometres south of Moscow. Matthew Arnold claimed a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life; Tolstoy’s realistic works seem to elude all artifice.

Famously, Winston Churchill defined Russia as:

“a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,”

There appears a Western sense of Moscow as the “other”. We do appear threatened.

From about the tenth century, Russia began its expansion east and south. Each of the Romanov Czars prided themselves in growing the empire.


More on Czars:

During her reign, Catherine the Great Russia expanded her territories into Belarus, Poland, Lithuania. By pushing the Ottoman, the sick old man of Europe back she reclaimed the Crimea in the mid 1700’s. Her chief advisor constructed Potemkin villages to impress Catherine with an external façade to make her believe the country doing well.

Born in Prussia, now Poland, she was aware of the Mennonites reputation as good farmers so she induced them to displace the Turks she had driven from the Ukraine.

By the 1900’s Russia was the largest country in the world stretching from the Baltic sea 6000 miles to the Pacific crossing 11 time zones, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea.

Russian history appears to have a cyclical continuum; every hundred years a new brutal tyrant emerges: Ivan the Terrible (1533), Nicholas I (1825), Stalin, (1924) Putin. (2022) Another recurring motif is the expansion and tactical contraction of its empire. When times are tough, they give up part of their territory, only to expand again in good times.

War and Peace #

This historical novel by Leo Tolstoy, 1865–69, is a panoramic study of early 19th-century Russian society, noted for its variety of psychological analysis, and philosophic thought is generally regarded one of the world’s greatest novels. The fact Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War gave him a mastery of realistic detail.

War & Peace is a masterpiece - an epic portrait of Russian society and its descent into the Napoleonic Wars, which has inspired love and devotion among its readers for over a century.

Focusing on the lives of five aristocratic families, ‘War & Peace’ tells the story of three young people whose lives are swept along by events and changed forever: the misfit Pierre, philosophical Andrei and romantic, impulsive Natasha.

Their stories play out alongside a great cast of characters, from the aristocrat to the peasant, as the great historical events of the period unfold, culminating in Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia

War and Peace, not really a novel, containing three kinds of material—an historical account of the Napoleonic wars, the biographies of fictional characters, and a set of essays about the philosophy of history.

Catherine the Great insisted French be the language of her court. Tolstoy visited France and influenced by Victor Hugo, Rosseau and Hegel. Since high society was essentially French, Napoleon had no good reason to invade Russia.

Why can’t men live without war? School boys are more likely to brawl when the girls are watching. Freud suggested all human endeavour is motivated by our sexuality. Ancient heroes longed for kleos – glory in battle.

Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky tells his son Andrei:

You’re going into the army because you’re not wasting time hanging onto women’s skirts. Service before everything!

A Mother: “You may die in bed or God can save you on the battlefield.”

He goes because he doesn’t like the purposeless life he is living going to endless circles of soirees.

Conflict gives a profound purpose to life. When you feel empty inside you need conflict outside. Young men seek adventure to fill the emptiness.

Another mother sends her son to get him away from his dissolute carousing debauchery. Men fight wars for two reasons; to get a woman or to escape the heartbreak of losing a woman.

Parents exert firm control over their offspring throughout their lives. When Prince Andrei intends to marry Natasha, Prince Nikolay refuses to allow it.

In the 1960’s, Bob Dylan sang: “Your children are beyond you command”.

Women are attracted to men in uniform.

General Kutuzov, commander of the Russian Army, proclaims:

It’s begun,. The battle. It’s terrible; but glorious!

Yet Prince Andrei admits:

Death wounds the loss of my family, nothing frightens me. I’d give up everything for an instant of triumph; for the love of men I can’t know and shall never know.

Tolstoy wrote: “you need to go through war to achieve your peace. Andrei eventually feel that all is vanity and deception, but that we must live and love; we will live forever in everything.”

The French General Henri Navarre: To make life sweet, a man needs, a horse to ride, an enemy to kill and a woman to bed.

Some Themes: #

Tolstoy famously said that War and Peace belongs to no recognized genre, and that makes it quintessentially Russian since “not a single work of Russian literature, from Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House ” conforms to Western norms of genre. It is hardly surprising that the Russian Formalists developed a theory of literature centering on what they called “baring the device.”

The moral urgency of Russian culture, combined with a sense of its conventionality, readily led to the question called “the justification of culture.” Westerners might ask whether high culture should be transformed, but Russians argued about whether it should be abolished altogether. After all, it depended on the labor of oppressed peasants, and therefore was morally suspect. As one critic observed, peasants have suffered greatly so that we can sit in our studies discussing social philosophy. There was a tradition of great writers’ rejecting or burning their own works.

Westerners often take for granted that the purpose of life is happiness. Mainstream economics presumes that “maximizing utility” is the only human motivation. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov exposed the shallowness of such a view of life, and Soviet conditions made it seem, as Solzhenitsyn writes, like the prattle of a child.

The Russians asked ultimate questions under extreme conditions. One could, of course, question whether extremes, rather than the everyday, are the reality against which ideas should be tested, and Russians have wondered that, too. Tolstoy insisted that it is the sum total of ordinary conditions that comprise life, and one needs to acquire prosaic wisdom, as Levin, the hero of Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace do.

Tolstoy satirizes the artifice and conventionality of human society, as opposed to a peasant’s life more in touch with natural and biological rhythms. His works share a vision of human experience rooted in an appreciation of everyday life and prosaic virtues.

He elevated the peasants and soldiers as the real activists of history as leaders are merely fictional heroes. Napoleon is just a small man with a huge ego.

He agreed with Rosseau’s philosophy that humans are innately good but corrupted by society; born free but everywhere in chains. We are all flawed with redeeming qualities. Hegel claimed we are products of our times. The antipodal view is that all men are evil and need to be constrained by society.

Tolstoy’s art addresses the reality of life – the essence. The goal of the artist is to give people hope, to get them to love life in all its complexity. It deals with crises – rupture, upheaval – Things falling apart. We will overcome!

There is no greatness where there is no pain, suffering in grace.

We humans need a battle, a struggle of conflict to keep us going; to give us a purpose. Pierre feels empty until he falls in love with Natasha. We need drama or chaos in our lives. Falling in love is like going to war. Marriage is supposed to be peaceful, blissful and comforting, it is in fact conflict, contradictory, even chaotic.

Main Characters #



Most are based on historical and ancestral figures. Tolstoy is exploring historical change in Russia from the Decembrist uprising in 1825, resulting from former aristocratic soldiers who had seen the results of the French Revolution in 1789 and had agitated for the end of Absolutism in Russia. Nicholas I had ruthlessly crushed the Decembrist revolutionaries, many of whom were of high status in Russian society and risked everything for reform. Many were exiled and only allowed to return after the liberal Alexander II toke over in the middle of the Crimean War in 1855.

Tolstoy’s main characters are enlightened thinkers desiring a better society.

Prince Andrei #

Prince Andrei enlists as an aide-de-camp To General Kutuzov. Andrei insists on getting into the action, riding around to familiarise himself with the layout and talking to all the men.

When Captain Tushkin retreats, accussed of abandoning two cannons, he didn’t want to get anyone into by claiming he had no men covering him, Prince Andrei come to his rescue:

“When I got to Tushkin’s battery, two-thirds of the men and horses were dead or wounded, two guns destroyed and no cover whatsoever.”

Tushkin was recognised for his courage and valour.

Later in the battle, Prince Andrei is injured and lying on the battle field looking up into the clouds in the vast sky when Napoleon on his horse rides by.

He sees Napoleon as a fictionalised hero. The Anti-Christ. Tolstoy portrays Napoleon as an ineffective, egomaniacal buffoon

So insignificant at that moment seemed the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hold himself with his paltry vanity and joy in his victory appear compared to the lofty equitable and kindly sky which he had seen and understood.

Looking into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei thought of the insignificance of greatness the unimportance of life which no one can understand and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.*

In the second battle, as a nihilist, despising everything fake, shallow, or merely conventional, repeatedly discovering the emptiness of the activities to which he has devoted himself, Prince Andrei, becomes one of the brave sacrificial casualties, in defending his country. Prince Andrei shows he is a bigger man than Napoleon because he forgives his enemy, Anatole Kuragin for attempting to elope with Natasha and dies in her arms, also forgiving her.

Tolstoy’s description of his death in 1812 is usually regarded as one of the most-effective scenes in Russian literature.

To Andrei, death is an awakening, because life is a dream and death is like waking up from that dream.

Tolstoy, like Napoleon’s “History lies agreed upon” believes it is unpredictable, has no direction, and fits no pattern. The causes of historical events are infinitely varied and forever unknowable, and so historical writing, which claims to explain the past, necessarily falsifies it.

Pierre Bezkhov #

The quirkiness of the bumbling and sincere Pierre Bezukhov becomes one of the three main characters of War and Peace. Despite being illegitimate, he inherits his dying father’s estate and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Russia. Is Tolstoy questioning the concept of inheritance and legitimacy?

Pierre’s courtship and eventual marriage to Helene Kuragina dramatizes one of the most awkward proposals ever. Arranged by her parents, Pierre never actually proposes but is congratulated by her father. He comes to suspect she is unfaithful to him, and Pierre duels with the other man, almost killing him. He soon becomes overwhelmed by his marriage and leaves Helene.

Joining the Freemasons, involves some dark clandestine rituals but ends up influencing his personal and business fortunes and giving him a purpose in life - the universal brotherhood of man. He attempts to change the world, and in 1812 harbours delusional aspirations of assassinating Napoleon.

Natasha Rostov, #

We meet the thirteen year old Natasha at the end of 1805. When Andrei meets her later in 1812, he is interested in marrying her, but his father tells him to wait, in the meantime he suspects her of being unfaithful so he rejects her. Later Pierre also falls in love with her, marries her and they have four children.

General Kutuzov, commander of the Russian Army, #

The Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov is depicted as a good level headed leader who understands the limitations of human will and planning.

He realises that in the “fog of war combat causes sheer chaos. Generals may imagine they can “anticipate all contingencies,” but battle is really the result of “a hundred million diverse chances” decided on the moment by unforeseeable circumstances. In war as in life, no system or model can come close to accounting for the infinite complexity of human behaviour.

His most pertinent advice is for all to get a good night’s sleep before a battle.

Napoleon #

Born to an elite, but poor family on Corsica, Napoleon rose to prominence as a soldier. From 1792, the new revolutionary government set about waging war with other European nations, giving Napoleon the chance to make a name for himself as a brilliant military strategist.

He led the French army to win several battles. During the turmoil following the “Reign of Terror”, Bonaparte’s decisiveness and willingness to fire cannons on the demonstrators - to “give them a whiff of grapeshot”—both consolidated the government’s control and revealed how much the revolutionary state after Thermidor was dependent on the military.

On May 18, 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais empress.

His lavish coronation ceremony took place on December 2 in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. When the Pope attempted to crown him, Napoleon simply crowned himself.

Napoleon next moved to recreate an aristocracy, a long-held French tradition that had been eliminated by the Revolution.

In 1808, Napoleon started granting titles of nobility to people who served him particularly well.

The Napoleonic Code, is still the legal framework underpinning Europe. It strengthened the authority of men over their families, deprived women of any individual rights and reduced the rights of illegitimate children, of which he had many.


  1. Abandoned 37,000 troops in Egypt eventually returned by British Navy. (1799)
  2. In Syria, (1800) at Jaffa, Napoleon had 1,500–2,000 prisoners led out to the beach and then shot, bayoneted, or drowned.
  3. Forced to flee Russia in 1812 due to “scorched earth policy” losing up to 400,000 soldiers.
  4. Lost the battle of Leipzig 1813 – sent to Island of Elba as King. “Able was I ere I met Elba” – Palindrome
  5. Defeated at the Battle of Waterloo – 1815. Died in 1821 on the St Helena Island, aged 51 of suspected stomach cancer.

Did Napoleon really say of the British army he faced at Waterloo: “My God, what troops. If I had two such regiments I could conquer the world.”? Napoleon thought he faced a mostly British army - which he referred to as ‘the English’. He was not aware that many of the red-coated troops he saw opposing him before the battle started, were German speaking infantry of the King’s German Legion and Hanoverian brigades.

Napoleon pretty much laughed at Wellington for not choosing to retreat, and he called them bad troops when advised by his generals that they were very capable soldiers and well led. He was unaware he had walked into a trap set by Wellington and Blucher, planned the night before.

Church and Napoleon

Napoleon had a more nuanced relationship with Rome.

His great contribution was to shut down the 400 year barbaric abuse of power of the Spanish Inquisition when he invaded Spain in 1804, appointing his brother to the throne.

The French Revolution had broken the tyranny of the Church by disestablishing it. As the First Estate, the Church too had lost touch with the masses. The disparity of pay between the privileged upper clergy and the lower parish priests was enormous resulting in the hierarchy aligning with the nobility. Rabid revolutionaries attacked Churches and all aristocratic privilege.

Napoleon soon recognised the value of the Church controlling the masses and re-established it with his Concordat in 1801.

Napoleon and Pope Pius VII were the two most powerful men of their age, the one the would-be master of the world, the other the Vicar of Heaven, locked in ferocious combat. In 1809, Pius had been invited to Paris for his coronation, but in a powerful symbolic act, Napoleon decided to crown himself, as the Pope sat by and watched. Despite this discourtesy the two men admired and liked each other - for a time.

Soon enough they fell out, embroiled in a bitter quarrel over the respective powers of the kingdoms of Christ and Caesar. In, 1812 Napoleon abducted the Pope and under extremely harsh conditions had him brought to Fontainebleau to demonstrate his supremacy. The Pontiff gazed up at his physician and murmured of Napoleon, ‘‘May God forgive him. I already have.’’ He later cautioned Napoleon by telling him that the Church was much greater than its officials and that its parishioners would prevail.

In 1815, with the banishment of Napoleon, the Church re-established the central authority of the Pope (ultramontanism) through a Holy Alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.

Evaluation #

Historical Accuracy

David A. Bell – NYRB in An Unlikely Life claims Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a biopic that manages to omit or distort most of the central elements of Napoleon’s life and career.

Peter McPhee, Emeritus professor, The University of Melbourne maintains Ridley Scott is calling on us historians to ‘get a life’ – and he has a point. Art is about more than historical facts.

How should historians respond to creative works about history? Do historians have a public responsibility to apply their specialist knowledge to contest spurious claims about the past? Or should they simply respect creative licence, and let audiences have their fun?

Historical accuracy matters. But more important for historians should be whether creative works pass the test of authenticity: whether a creative work “rings true” to the historical context as a whole.

My objection centres around the glorification of a warmonger for the sake of war. While Napoleon made significant contributions to history, he did it with the sacrifice of thousands of Europe’s young men for his own kudos.

There can be no doubt Napoleon was an inspiring leader who radically altered the course of history by liberating peoples from the power of existing monarchs. His law reforms still endure today across Europe. His time in Egypt began the archeological digs with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone allowing us a window into the world’s oldest and longest dynasties. He reportedly said: “The months in Egypt were the happiest in my life.”

He immortalised the classical art and sculpture of Classical Greece and Rome. However he did it by raiding, pillaging the spoils of his conquests of Egypt, Austria, Italy and the Vatican relocating it to a new venue, The Louve in Paris.

By the time of his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 he had depopulated 80% of able bodied young men in Europe. Not a good legacy.

Most of the damage in the world has been to feed the egos of great men: Gilgamesh, Agamemnon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, King Henry VIII, Charles V, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Putin.. I may have missed a few.

Historical Essays #

The essays in War and Peace, which begin in the second half of the book, satirize all attempts to formulate general laws of history and reject the ill-considered assumptions supporting all historical narratives. While Tolstoy’s research is assiduously based on primary sources and his patterns of history sound, critics like Turgenev were unimpressed with his conclusions, branding him as a charlatan not based on genuine knowledge.

Tolstoy’s stereotypes of Nations is interesting:

Germans were overly self - confident on the basis of abstract scientific notions of truth.

The French regard themselves as personally attractive.

The English are self-assured as being the citizens of the best organised county.

The Italians are excitable and easily forget themselves and others.

Russians know nothing and don’t want to know anything, as nothing can be known.

The Germans are the most dangerous.

Philosophy #

Philosophy is a not series of epistemological puzzles - rather concerns what it means to be human. Tolstoy saw Philosophy as a struggle between the rationalists and the empiricists; reason and experience. Free will does not exist as history is random.

Tolstoy, like Napoleon’s “History lies agreed upon” believes it is random, has no direction, and fits no pattern. The causes of historical events are infinitely varied and forever unknowable, and so historical writing, which claims to explain the past, necessarily falsifies it. Human beings are largely irrational, unexplainable and subject to forces beyond their control.

“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is totally meaningless.” Tolstoy, exploring philosophical questions about the meaning of life in the face of death.

Nihilism #

Initially the disillusionment and questioning of self, drove Tolstoy to nihilism; a philosophy underpinning the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence.

He came to appreciate reality as: random, absurd, sometimes painful, often lovely, completely my own, and totally meaningless. In that way, nihilism made him feel free.

Nihilism becomes Tolstoy’s rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless; and we are in charge of our destiny to make it meaningful.

Existentialists conclued “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us, we have kicked them out.”

Descartes also moved toward nihilism by making the will the basic aspect of human being, thus undercutting our ability to be receptive to the world. Kant sealed our fate by making us the source of the world’s order, and autonomy the highest good.

Similar feelings of negativity, cynicism, pessimism, rejection, repudiation, renunciation, denial, abnegation, disbelief, non-belief, unbelief, scepticism, lack of conviction, absence of moral values, agnosticism, atheism, non-theism,

Historically Nihilism was adopted as the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c. 1900 which found nothing to approve of in the established social order.

Pacifism #

Tolstoy mixed with a sect called the Duokabors, near the Crimea. Influenced by a group of Anabaptists, called the Mennonites in The Ukraine, they had adopted a simplified form of individual worship of Jesus Christ.

Tolstoy became a strict pacifist in the last three decades of his life, and wrote at length on a central issue of politics, namely, the use of violence to maintain order, to promote justice, and to ensure the survival of society, civilization, and the human species. He unreservedly rejected the use of physical force to these or any ends. His pacifism was rooted not in a moral doctrine or political theory but in his straightforward reading of the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Sermon of the Mount. Matthew New Testament

Eye for Eye

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Tolstoy stands as one of the great dissidents of twentieth-century Russia, a man who condemned the system utterly and who refused to perform any act that could be construed as compromising with it. He left behind a powerful statement of the urgent human need to connect our daily living to a deep and fulfilling conception of the meaning of life.

Origins of Pacifism

The modern conceptualization of pacifism draws upon the doctrinal sacredness of life and abrogation of violence in the Christian religion, strains of philosophical anarchism and socialism, nineteenth-century internationalism, and a religious principle of social responsibility.

The oldest element of modern pacifism is the tradition of religious nonresistance that was formed in the first three centuries of the Christian church, under Roman rule. Abandoned for the concept of just war, in fact by the time of Constantine I and in theory Saint Augustine, nonresistance pacifism appeared again with Christian sects in the medieval era. It emerged in the Protestant Reformation, notably under Peter Chelčick´y and the Unity of the Brethren (Bohemian Brethren) in the fifteenth century and among the Anabaptists. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, it was institutionalized in the writings and practice of so-called peace churches: the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Brethren.

Nonresistance characterized the thought of leaders in the early-nineteenth-century peace societies of the United States. It was officially recognized as ground for exemption under the conscription systems of the Civil War and World War I. Many of the Mennonites and Brethren who immigrated to the United States late in the nineteenth century at least partly sought to escape conscription abroad. Traditional nonresistance implied not only the repudiation of violence and warfare but, frequently, dissociation from government, based as it seemed to be on physical force.

Pacifism, has been a way of life for individuals and religious sects, and it has characterized peace organizations founded in the wake of wars. The first peace groups started after the Napoleonic wars, notably the American Peace Society (1828). It was the basis of the Garrisonian New England Non-Resistance Society, founded in 1838 by abolitionists and others dissatisfied with the moderate position of the American Peace Society, and of the Universal Peace Union, founded in 1866 by Alfred A. Love following the collapse of peace societies during the Civil War. ….

Mohandas K. Gandhi was another great modern pacifist. Gandhi led a high-profile life dedicated to political and social reform through nonviolence. Passive resistance, according to Gandhi, had to be supplemented by an active effort to understand and respect adversaries. In an atmosphere of respect, people could find peaceful, creative solutions.

Martin Luther King #

As a theologian, Martin Luther King reflected often on his understanding of nonviolence. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” King was introduced to Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience. King was “fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system”

Gandhi, King later wrote, was the first person to transform Christian love into a powerful force for social change. Gandhi’s stress on love and nonviolence gave King “the method for social reform that I had been seeking” (King, Stride, 79).

While intellectually committed to nonviolence, King did not experience the power of nonviolent direct action first-hand until the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. During the boycott, King personally enacted Gandhian principles. King came to understand how nonviolence could become a way of life, applicable to all situations. King called the principle of nonviolent resistance the “guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” (Papers 5:423).

King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him (King, Stride, 84). Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit” as well: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him” (King, Stride, 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape, which means “understanding,” or “redeeming good will for all men” (King, Stride, 86). The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “The universe is on the side of justice” (King, Stride, 88).

“Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end.

“We maintained the hope while transforming the hate of traditional revolutions into positive nonviolent power. As long as the hope was fulfilled there was little questioning of nonviolence.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil” (King, Where, 62–63).

Nelson Mandela #

Nelson Mandela is another noble leader who adopted the philosopy of passive resistance.