From Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film: The Russian Army enters Austria, just before the Battle of Austerlitz.
Gary Saul Morson, in New Criterion, pays tribute to what he considers “the greatest of all novels.”
Just 150 years ago, in 1869, Tolstoy published the final installment of War and Peace, often regarded as the greatest of all novels. In his time, Tolstoy was known as a nyetovshchikâ€”someone who says nyet, or no, to all prevailing opinionâ€”and War and Peace discredits the prevailing views of the radical intelligentsia, then just beginning to dominate Russian thought. The intelligentsiaâ€™s way of thinking is still very much with us and so Tolstoyâ€™s critique is, if anything, even more pertinent today.
â€œIf we concede that human life can be governed by reason, then the possibility of life is destroyed,â€ the bookâ€™s epilogue instructs. Even more than their Western European counterparts, Russians were obsessed with establishing a hard social science, as certain as physics. Any Western theory that promised such certainty found enthusiastic Russian supporters. In England, utilitarianism supported moderate liberalism, but by the 1860s Russians took it as proof of revolutionary socialism. The French positivist Auguste Comte, who coined the term â€œsociology,â€ originally planned to call his new discipline â€œsocial physics.â€ His Russian followers presumed that this â€œphysicsâ€ already existed. Of course, Marxismâ€”or â€œscientific socialismâ€â€”would eventually triumph over its rivals.
For Tolstoy, such aspirations were sheer nonsense. All purported social sciences held that, as with Newtonian astronomy, the complexity of observed phenomena was explicable by a few simple laws. But with society and individual psyches, Tolstoy insisted, the very opposite is the case: â€œthe deeper we delve in search of these [fundamental] causes,â€ Tolstoy observes, â€œthe more of them we find.â€ Things do not simplify, they ramify. Whatever regularities there may be are overwhelmed by sheer contingencies. Sometimes events happen just â€œfor some reason,â€ a favorite phrase of Tolstoyâ€™s indicating that no theory could ever predict them. And as contemporary chaos theory has rediscovered, sometimes apparently insignificant chance events can have concatenating effects and so make an enormous difference.
As the novel begins, its main hero, Prince Andrei, believes in a science of warfare, which German generals and theoreticians claim to have elaborated. Tolstoy allows this purported social science to stand for all others, existing or to come. At the council of war before the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), the Russians and their Austrian allies plan their campaign according to their supposed science and are certain that â€œevery contingency has been foreseen.â€ They suffer a disastrous defeat.
This defeat does not in the least shake the generalsâ€™ confidence in their â€œscience,â€ much as the failure of Marxâ€™s predictions never dissuaded Marxists and the many failures of contemporary economistsâ€™ predictions have never made them less confident of their â€œscience.â€ Tolstoy loves to show how many ways there are to ignore inconvenient facts. Some of the generals (and some economists) adjust their theories so that they fit what they had failed to foresee, as if the test of a theory were not the ability to predict but to retrodict the known past. Even astrologers can do that. Tolstoy refers to this way of thinking as â€œthe fallacy of retrospection.â€
The German generals typically choose another common approach to disconfirming evidence by claiming that defeat, far from invalidating their science, offers yet another confirmation of it. General PfÃ¼hl attributes every loss to the failure to carry out his orders to the letter, and since such precision is never possible in battle, he can always argue that, just as he predicted, â€œ â€˜the whole affair would go to the devil.â€™ . . . He positively rejoiced in failure, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.â€ As we would say today, his â€œscienceâ€ is â€œnonfalsifiable.â€
By contrast, Prince Andrei, a person of absolute intellectual integrity, does learn from disconfirmation. When he enters the army, he attributes Napoleonâ€™s success to two factorsâ€”his mastery of military science and his great physical courage under fire. Justly confident of his own courage and intellect, Andrei dreams of becoming the Napoleon who conquers Napoleon. Austerlitz teaches him that, whatever accounts for Napoleonâ€™s success, it is not some purported military science. He concludes from his own experience â€œthat in war the most deeply considered plans (as he had seen at Austerlitz) mean nothing, and that everything depends on the way unexpected movements of the enemy, which cannot possibly be foreseen, are met.â€
I first read it when I was in 9th grade, and I was terribly unhappy when it finished and I’d run out of “War and Peace” to read. I re-read it every decade or so. The last time, I had a try at looking at the original Russian.