Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review: War and Peace by Tolstoy

My most controversial book opinion might be that I actually liked the second part of the epilogue of this book.

In War & Peace, Tolstoy lays out his criticism of historians, particularly those who subscribe to great man theory, or those who take halfhearted measures and try to play both sides. Tolstoy's philosophy here has clear roots in mid-19th century thinking, in which clashes between idealism and materialism were fierce, and discoveries like evolution signalled the death of intelligent creation (of man by god, of wars by genius generals).

In many passages, Tolstoy seems on the cusp of discovering or otherwise exploring historical materialism (first laid out a couple decades earlier by Engels and Marx, but not arriving in Russia until rather after War and Peace was written). However, he fails to see (or perhaps underestimates) the material conditions that differentiate the peasants and the nobility. He also, in his efforts at countering great man theory, downplays the importance of strategic thinking and seizing opportune moments. As a result, his view of history is one where the actions are a tidy mathematical sum of interchangeable men acting as they wish, the total of their personalities clattering like dice thrown on a gambling table. This then devolves into a rather uninteresting musing on the existence or illusion of free will.

Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first real novel, and having now read War and Peace, I understand this assertion. This first work of fiction is perhaps a quarter philosophy and history, and feels not quite evenly stitched together. The blueprints of ideas that become well-developed in Anna Karenina are visible in War and Peace. Between the two, I liked the former better, but this philosophical treatise woven with angsty young people trying to find their way in the world was still a fascinating read, particularly for understanding the development of thought in the nineteenth century, and in this period of time in Russia.

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