N.B.—This post will deal exclusively with the Second Epilogue and the argument it and its related passages throughout the text make. The First Epilogue and the conclusion of the narrative elements of the text will be covered shortly in a separate post. Yes, I'm posting this first, because I'd rather close by discussing the story than by waffling on about history and free will.
So, after all that, what Tolstoy leaves us with—the final thoughts he gives us—are of the illusory nature of free will, how it makes the science of history impossible, and why we’ll never understand the laws governing human behavior en masse, i.e., history, unless we abandon our attachment to it.
It seems to me that a little intellectual history is in order here for, even as Tolstoy would allow, writers, such as himself, are, to some extent, shaped by the ideas presented by the writers who live contemporaneously and previously to them. Indeed, if we take his argument seriously, Tolstoy’s argument is but the next step in a chain of understanding stretching all the way back to the first time a human ever told a story about the past.
Clearly, Tolstoy’s view of history was heavily influenced by Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravitation and the new branch of mathematics, the calculus, he used to articulate it. Essentially, Newton discovered physical laws which governed the universe that could only find their mathematical expression by analyzing things that moved on curves—which are all parts of cones, an image Tolstoy uses a few times in other contexts. Analyzing the areas of irregular curves, such as the elliptical orbit of the planets, etc., was essentially impossible to do until Newton proposed his “calculus” (nearly simultaneously with but separate from the version proposed by German philosopher/theologian/mathematician/weirdo Gottfried Leibniz). In short, Newton’s new math was centered upon the idea of taking an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small measurements and summing them all up to find the totality of the area of in question.
For an illustration, imagine a Pringles can. The opening at the top is a circle, right? And the area of a circle is easily found by squaring the radius and multiplying by the constant pi. So far, so good. But, what if you squished that Pringles can, so that that opening no longer was a perfect circle? Indeed, what if it became an ellipse, or even a less regular curve? What’s the new area? Is it the same as it was? Less? More? If it’s not a perfectly regular shape, the way to find the answer is by using the calculus. You take the shape in question (imagine an ellipse or oval, just for ease), and fill it with a bunch of rectangles. Easy to find the area of those, right? Cool. So, what about the bits between the curved sides of the shape and the ends of the rectangles? Well, fill those with little triangles. Again, we know how to take the area of those. Essentially, keep doing that until the little bits left over get infinitesimally small—so small that, even when they’re all added together, they pretty much vanish. An infinitely large number of little regular polygons leaving an infinitely small number of little bits left over—that’s the calculus in a nutshell.
So, too, Tolstoy argues that what we must find is a “calculus” of history, whereby the individual actions of a large (though not infinite) number of people are summed together to find the law that their behavior is in accordance with, even if they don’t know it. This argument rests on a few things, the most important and, in my opinion, poorly articulated one is that all of human history is necessary. Tolstoy writes often of necessity and how it would be impossible for any other world to exist, it seems, than the one in which he writes this books, I read it, you read this blog post, etc. However, as a man who, for a living, creates imaginary worlds, Tolstoy does a very poor job explaining what he means by necessary. I mean, after all, if we can imagine a world where, say, there was a law requiring all cars to be painted black, doesn’t that mean it’s possible for such a thing to be real, even if it isn’t?
Of course, Tolstoy deals with much larger questions—war, mainly, but also, of course, peace—but, if everything is necessary, then surely my hypothetical law must either be necessary or, rather, since it isn’t currently true, impossible. For if everything is necessary, then there are no other possible realities. This means, of course, that, just as there is only one set of past events, there is only one set of future events, even if we don’t know what they are yet. This is the viewpoint from which Tolstoy examines history. Suppose we stand outside time—much as some say God might, or as a time traveler might. Past, present, and future are all relative, and ultimately arbitrary terms, as any moment in time is, depending on who’s observing it, all three at once. There is no absolute past or absolute future. Rather, there is simply a great chain of cause and effect, with the physical world being governed by the laws that Newton laid out, while the affairs of men throughout time, as they perceive it, are governed by the laws of the new science of history that are, as of yet, not understood by us. And thus, all human actions, even the ones that haven’t happened yet, are necessary, just like astronomers can predict, using Newton’s laws, the exact location of a comet in 5,000 years’ time, because it’s path is necessarily dictated by the laws of physics.
The other intellectual force hovering over Tolstoy’s discussion of history and free will, I feel, is G.W.F. Hegel, the most influential philosopher of the first half of the 19th century. Hegel’s ideas, which arose to prominence, not coincidentally, around the same time of the Napoleonic Wars, permeated the study of all of the sciences. To vastly oversimplify, Hegel believed in a progression through history by means of which the “World Spirit”--which might be described as sort of the sum total of human knowledge, but given independent identity (I know, it’s weird. For ease, think of it as that sort of notion we all have of there being “something in the air” that makes similar people invent similar things that the same time, or write the same kind of book, without knowing of each other’s work. Newton and Leibniz and the discovery of the calculus is a classic example.)--comes to know itself more in incremental stages until achieving absolute self-knowledge, and that the various stages in this path would be played out among humankind, in repeating patterns. This may sound like complete nonsense, but Hegel is a much more subtle and complicated thinker that my brutal summary would allow, and after his work became popular, it was very common for politicians, writers, historians, philosophers, etc., to see their work as part of this self-awareness process that the “World Spirit” was undergoing. Hegel’s ideas sought to explain all of the interior and exterior life of humanity since the dawn of time until the eventual end of history—every intellectual development and social and political movement throughout history was subsumed into Spirit’s story, and, by extension, so was every individual who’d ever been part of any of those movements. History was no longer humanity’s—it was Spirit’s, and while we were part of it, it was larger than any of us, and, in fact, larger even than all of us. Even today, many people will talk about the “unfolding of history” as if it’s a pre-ordained path leading toward more freedom, greater happiness, more equality, etc., etc.
Tolstoy, it seems, doesn’t believe in Spirit, per se, but he does believe in a divine creator who, much like the proverbial clockmaker of Newtonian physics who set up the laws of the universe and then got out of the way, set up the laws of history in such a way so that a certain path would be followed by humanity. In this way, Tolstoy echoes but modifies Hegel’s quest to understand all of human history as a progression; Tolstoy doesn’t, it seem, assume a positive outcome—no certain goal of total self-knowledge—but he does seem to agree with Hegel that, if you know the laws, then all of human history, from its darkest beginnings to its ultimate outcome, will be able to be understood and will be a necessary chain with a pre-determined end.
However, and here’s the question I come away from his entire argument with: what then? Suppose we do abandon our belief in free will, allowing ourselves to view humans as no more than atoms to be taken measure of using a calculus of history. Then what? So we know everything—we know the future and we know the past, but we’re unable to change as much as a single link in the great chain. Not one line can be rewritten, whether that line is one being written today or in a thousand years. Even our very discovery of the laws would be, in theory, predicted by the laws themselves. If we abandon our illusion of free will and discover the laws of history, while it’s clear what it is we’d have lost, it’s much less certain to me what we’ve gained. What does it profit Man to gain perfect knowledge of the future if he loses his soul—for what is the soul if not our belief that we are in control of our own actions and can choose a new path for ourselves? If the path is chosen, and not only do we know it to be so, but we know what it is and that we cannot alter it—then what is life but a play that we enact for an audience who not only knows the ending but actually wrote the script? Take away from Mary, and Nicholas, and Pierre, and Natasha, and Andrew, and Sonya their uncertainty about the world and their future—then what?