I’ve just finished War and Peace, which has happily occupied my weekends and travels over the last three months. For me, some of the most interesting themes have been Tolstoy’s discussions around spirituality, which I’ll discuss in a later post, and his critique of historical analysis. It turns out Tolstoy had been interested for some time prior to writing War and Peace in “writing a historical novel which would contrast the real texture of historical experience, as lived by individuals and communities, with the distorted image of the past presented by historians” (Afterword by Orlando Figes). This agenda is especially clear in the second half of the book, in which five of the seven parts begin with a philosophical discussion of historical analysis with particular application to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. What is especially fascinating to me though is the clear resonances between his discussion and contemporary philosophical thought on psychology and action.

Tolstoy is keen to take issue with the kind of history which attributes the motive force behind historic events to great heroes. Indeed “the Napoleon that comes down to us as the motive force behind this movement (just as primitive people saw the figurehead on the prow of a ship as the motive force driving the ship), the Napoleon who was active at this time was like a child in a carriage who pulls on the straps inside and thinks he is doing the driving” (p1120). Rather, “there are no single causes behind historical events, and there never can be, other than the one grand cause behind all causes. But there are laws controlling events, some of them beyond our ken, some of them within our groping grasp. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we stop looking for causes in the will of individual men”. In the final part of the epilogue he expands: “our analysis of the events themselves and the link between historical figures and the masses has shown that historical figures and the orders they give are dependent on events. We have incontrovertible proof of this in the fact that, however many orders are given, the event will not take place if there is no other cause to produce it. But the moment an event does take place, whatever it may be, among all the expressions of will by all sorts of different people there will always be some that happen to coincide in meaning and time so that events correspond to orders given” (p1341).

As with history, so it is with consciousness. Generally it seems to us that there is a single subject, me, that exercises free will to choose every action I perform. However it is demonstrably the case that most of the time we are not doing any such thing. For example when I decide to make a phone call there are a myriad of actions from opening the door to walking up and down stairs to breathing that I perform without any conscious reflection. Similar choices governing my decision to eat something are constrained by circumstances such as how hungry or bored I am, what is in the fridge, whether I can afford to eat out, and a host of biological factors that tell me what the most advantageous object to eat will be in terms of the energy and nutrition it provides my body (in other words, what will taste best).

In fact it can be observed that the vast majority of our actions are either performed unconsciously, or highly constrained such that the level of conscious choice required to perform them is relatively small. Indeed as Heidegger points out, most of the time we only use conscious analysis when something has gone wrong. Most of my decisions are made for me either due to biological pre-programming or force of habit. Habits are in turn generated by socialization within a society constituted initially by one’s family, and then by teachers, friends, colleagues and other people we encounter. So actual conscious thought and deliberation is effectively a very small tip which depends for its emergence upon a very large iceberg which lives submerged below the level of conscious experience. Nietzsche, a contemporary of Tolstoy’s, knew this very well: “Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this–the most superficial and worst part–for only this consious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication, and this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness” (The Gay Science, section 354). Nietzsche in fact believes consiousness “has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication” (idem), a fact he would have had confirmed for him had he read Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

Nietzsche writes of the will that it is “above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as word … a complex of feeling, but above all an affect: and in fact the affect of command … ‘Freedom of will’–is the expression for that complex condition of pleasure of the person who wills, who commands and at the same time identifies himself with the executor of the command–who as such also enjoys the triumph over resistances involved but who thinks it was his will itself which overcame these resistances. He who wills adds in this way the sensations of pleasure of the successful executive agents, the serviceable ‘under-wills’ or under-souls–for our body is only a social structure composed of many souls–to his sensations of plasure as commander. L’effet, c’est moi: what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth: the ruling class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth.” (Beyond Good and Evil, section 19).

This analysis (note the ironic air Nietzsche is adopting in this passage) resembles very closely Tolstoy’s characterisation of the operation of the French and Russian armies in the 1812 war, in particular his constant re-iteration of the relative unimportance of the orders given by generals and commanders and plans prepared in advance, which he claims are not only never generally followed, but usually in fact impossible to follow given the situation on the ground. In the same way, as Nietzsche suggests in the two passages above, conscious thought largely happens after the event, in spite of the illusion that we are consciously in control of our body and environment and that the things we do happen precisely because we have consciously willed them.

This is borne out by experimental psychology. For example in experiments carried out on patients whose corpus callosum (the piece of tissue that joins the two hemispheres of the brain) has been severed, it has been demonstrated that we often quite happily make up reasons for our actions after the event when the actual reason for the action we performed was quite different. Indeed many of the conscious decisions we think we make (in particular those that require a reaction time of less than one second) have been made before us by our subconscious brain, with the task of providing a reason for the action left to our conscious mind to formulate. We know this because it has been determined that the delay between something affecting our body and our ability to react to it using conscious thought is over a second, and many of our reactions take far less than this amount of time.

Tolstoy revolutionised history by writing it as literature, a form which could fully take into account the context of Napoleon’s Russian campaigns, and allowed him to discuss the smallest details (whose significance went unrecognized or unrecorded by history) which were, as he shows, as important in contributing to Russia’s victory as the orders given by the high ranking officers and nobility. He also changed literature forever by breaking out of the constraining form of the novel as it existed in the nineteenth century and writing a work which gives us brilliant, timeless and culture-spanning insights into our history, our society, and ourselves.

However Tolstoy’s discussions on the workings of an army also provide a powerful metaphor for the operation of our consciousness, one that is reflected both in the writings of his contemporary, Nietzsche, and borne out by modern thinking on the way humans interact with their environment, including other people, and the place of consciousness within that interaction.

All quotations from War and Peace are taken from the Penguin edition, published in 2005, translated by Anthony Briggs.

  • http://www.cuberick.com Josh Cronemeyer

    A book discussed on blogs.thoughtworks.com that doesn’t have anything to do with software. Hooray!

    Jez. Really enjoyed your observations. The phenomonon you describe, “we often quite happily make up reasons for our actions after the event when the actual reason for the action we performed was quite different.” Is something I occasionally find myself doing. Ok, perhaps more than occasionally ;)

    I’m interested in your take on what effect one so-called hero can have on history. Do you agree with Tolstoy? I think there is alot of merit in his argument, but I would also argue that sometimes one person finds themself in such a position that they can have tremendous impact on a situation. For me, the course of history involves some aspect of individuals exerting their wills, and some aspect of the greater context. This context being in general a more powerful motivator of events than individual will because so often for an individual to have an impact on history they need to find themselves in the right place at the right time(RPATRT).

    Of course this RPATRT thing implies the greater context as well, but the individual actor still has the ability to think about what they are doing and to act upon that. All this still lines up with Tolstoy’s assertion that too much credit is given to the roles individuals play in history.

    Here is a link to a pretty lame thing I heard about on the discovery channel http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/greatestamerican/greatestamerican.html Some of these so-called heroes are perfect examples of what Tolstoy was talking about.

  • WaltDe

    Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe

  • http://www.rooburoo.com Michael

    Jez,
    Missing you man, get in touch!

    Michael T

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