Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, March 29, 2017: “This terrible dilemma is never finally resolved.”

I’ve read up to page 243 of Volume VI of the Works, or Chapter III of Part Second of the Epilogue of War and Peace. This section had a chapter on the dialogue between Pierre and Natasha, about how they communicate with words and intuition on different topics all at the same time; an outsider would not realize all the things they are saying below the surface. This part reminded me very much of my experience of marriage.

“This simultaneous consideration of many things not only did not prevent their clearly understanding each other, but, on the contrary, was the surest sign that they understood each other.

“As in a vision everything is illusory, absurd, and incoherent except the feeling which is the guide of the vision, so in this intercourse, so contrary to all the laws of logic, the phrases uttered were not logical and clear, while the feeling that guided them was.”

The rest of the pages I read were more historical argument stuff. By now, Tolstoy is repeating himself, almost verbatim at times, and I want to say, “Okay, Leo, I get it, I get it.”

So in two more days I will have read War and Peace completely. That is something to be proud of for this bookworm. Lover of life and God and wife and kids and world.

Now for some more passages from Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox.

“After demolishing the jurists and moralists and political philosophers–among them his beloved Rousseau–Tolstoy applies himself to demolishing the liberal theory of history according to which everything may turn upon what may seem an insignificant accident.”

“Tolstoy’s central thesis–in some respects not unlike the theory of the inevitable ‘self-deception’ of the bourgeoisie held by his contemporary Karl Marx, save that what Marx reserves for a class, Tolstoy sees in almost all mankind–is that there is a natural law whereby the lives of human beings no less than that of nature are determined; but that men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or heroic vices, and called by them ‘great men’. . . . This is the central point of those passages (in which Tolstoy excelled) in which the actual course of events is described, side by side with the absurd, egocentric explanations which persons blown up with the sense of their own importance necessarily give to them; as well as of the wonderful descriptions of moments of illumination in which the truth about the human condition dawns upon those who have the humility to recognise their own unimportance and irrelevance.”

“By the time we reach the celebrated passage–one of the most moving in literature–in which Tolstoy describes the moment when the old man is woken in his camp at Fili to be told that the French army is retreating, we have left the facts behind us, and are in an imaginary realm, a historical and emotional atmosphere for which the evidence is flimsy, but which is artistically indispensable to Tolstoy’s design. The final apotheosis of Kutuzov is totally unhistorical, for all Tolstoy’s repeated professions of his undeviating devotion to the sacred cause of the truth.

“In War and Peace Tolstoy treats facts cavalierly when it suits him, because he is above all obsessed by his thesis–the contrast between the universal and all-important but delusive experience of free will, the feeling of responsibility, the values of private life generally, on the one hand; and on the other the reality of inexorable historical determinism, not, indeed, experienced directly, but known to be true on irrefutable theoretical grounds.”

However, I don’t remember Tolstoy ever proving that history is determined; the best I remember it, he says that it must be, but he never says what the “irrefutable theoretical grounds” are. I’ll gladly stand corrected on this. I think this is where he is believing in being a hedgehog: knowing what it is that determines history is the one big thing he would like to know. He calls it God more than once but Berlin never really acknowledges this and emphasizes Tolstoy’s other descriptions of it as more of a force.

“And yet the primacy of these private experiences and relationships and virtues presupposes that vision of life, with its sense of personal responsibility, and belief in freedom and the possibility of spontaneous action, to which the best pages of War and Peace are devoted, and which is the very illusion to be exorcised if the truth is to be faced.

“This terrible dilemma is never finally resolved.”

“Science cannot destroy the consciousness of freedom, but it can refute it. ‘Power’ and ‘accident’ are but names for ignorance of the causal chains, but the chains exist whether we feel them or not. Fortunately we do not; for if we felt their weight, we could scarcely act at all; the loss of the illusion would paralyse the life which is lived on the basis of our happy ignorance.”

This reminds me of the theological controversy of predestination versus free-will. When I was evangelical and young I would get tied up in knots about this. St. Paul makes it sound like we are predestined in some places, in others he says God wants all to be saved and to work out your salvation. Tolstoy struggles on a different plane: all of life is predestined, he believed, yet then how could life be meaningful if that was so? So we have to live a lie, in a sense, and this is what crucified him: he could not live a lie but could not find the vision (Berlin calls it) but Tolstoy called it God. He could not find God on his own terms.

” Since we are not, in fact, free, but could not live without the conviction what we are, what are we to do? Tolstoy arrives at no clear conclusion, only at the view, in some respect like Burke’s, that it is better to realise that we understand what goes on as we do in fact understand it–much as spontaneous, normal, simple people, uncorrupted by theories, not blinded by the dust raised by the scientific authorities, do, in fact, understand life–than to seek to subvert such commonsense beliefs, which at least have the merit of having been tested by long experience, in favour of pseudo-sciences, which, being founded on absurdly inadequate data, are only a snare and a delusion.”





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s