Tolstoy’s conception of history

Tolstoy’s conception of history


eo Tolstoy, one of the most influential writers in world literature, left an indelible mark not only through his literary masterpieces but also through his philosophical reflections. His works offer profound insights into the human condition, morality and the nature of existence. At the heart of Tolstoy’s philosophy lies a concern with the search for meaning and authenticity in life.

In novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy explores the complexities of human existence with remarkable depth and insight. Through his vividly drawn characters and intricate narratives, Tolstoy grapples with timeless questions about love, death, morality and the pursuit of happiness.

Central to Tolstoy’s philosophical outlook is his deep scepticism towards the institutions and values of the society. He challenges the prevailing norms and conventions of his time, exposing the moral bankruptcy of the aristocracy and the hypocrisy of organised religion.

Tolstoy’s critique of social hierarchies and religious dogma reflects his commitment to a more egalitarian and authentic way of life, rooted in simplicity, honesty and compassion. Tolstoy’s philosophy is profoundly shaped by his spiritual journey towards a deeper understanding of the divine and the transcendent.

His later works, such as The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Confession, reflect his growing interest in Christian anarchism and his rejection of institutionalised religion. Tolstoy advocates for a radical interpretation of Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, emphasising the principles of nonviolence, love and the pursuit of inner peace.

Tolstoy is also deeply engaged with questions of art and aesthetics. He grapples with the nature of artistic creation and the role of the artist in society, challenging conventional notions of beauty and truth. Tolstoy’s famous essay, What Is Art?, offers a provocative critique of the elitism and formalism of contemporary art, arguing for a more democratic and morally engaged conception of artistic practice.

Overall, Tolstoy’s philosophical and literary thoughts are driven by a profound commitment to truth, goodness and authenticity. His writings continue to resonate with readers around the world, offering timeless wisdom and profound insights into the human condition. Through his rigorous exploration of moral, spiritual and existential themes, Tolstoy invites us to confront the complexities of life with courage, honesty and compassion. Here, we will critically engage with Tolstoy’s conception of history.

Tolstoy was not only a brilliant novelist but also a profound thinker whose ideas extended into the realms of philosophy and history. Tolstoy’s conception of history, as depicted in his writings, reflects a deep scepticism towards conventional historical narratives and a profound belief in the importance of individual agency. This article delves into Tolstoy’s views on history, analysing his perspective through the insightful lens provided by Isaiah Berlin in his book, Russian Thinkers.

Tolstoy’s conception of history is perhaps best encapsulated in his magnum opus, War and Peace. In this epic novel, Tolstoy presents history not as a grand, deterministic narrative shaped by forces such as politics or economics, but rather as the collective actions of countless individuals.

He emphasises the role of contingency and chance in historical events, highlighting how the decisions and actions of seemingly insignificant individuals can have profound consequences on the course of history. For Tolstoy, history is not a predetermined march towards predetermined outcomes but rather a chaotic and unpredictable process shaped by the interplay of countless individual wills.

Central to Tolstoy’s conception of history is his rejection of the Great Man theory popularised by historians such as the 19th Century Thomas Carlyle. According to this theory, elucidated in Carlyle’s book Hero and Hero Worship, history is driven by the actions of exceptional individuals, the Great Men – whose vision and leadership shape the course of events.

Tolstoy, however, vehemently disagrees with this notion, arguing that such a perspective overlooks the countless anonymous actors whose contributions are essential to the unfolding of history. In War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte not as all-powerful masters of destiny, but rather as products of their times, subject to the same forces and contingencies as everyone else.

Tolstoy’s scepticism towards conventional historical narratives extends to his critique of the very idea of historical progress. Unlike many of his contemporaries who viewed history as a linear march towards enlightenment and civilisation, Tolstoy sees no inherent direction or purpose in historical development.

He rejects the notion that humanity is steadily advancing towards some ultimate goal, arguing instead that history is marked by cycles of violence, folly and stagnation. Here he appears to be a fatalist despite arguing for the agency of the human. Tolstoy’s portrayal of war in War and Peace serves as a powerful indictment of the glorification of violence and conquest that often accompanies traditional historical narratives.

Isaiah Berlin, in his seminal work, Russian Thinkers, offers valuable insights into Tolstoy’s conception of history, placing it within the broader context of Russian intellectual thought. Berlin identifies Tolstoy as a representative of the Russian tradition of “anti-rationalism,” which rejects the Enlightenment belief in the inevitable progress of human civilisation. According to Berlin, Tolstoy’s scepticism towards reason and progress stems from his profound religious convictions and his belief in the fundamental irrationality of human existence.

Berlin’s analysis sheds light on the existential dimension of Tolstoy’s conception of history. Tolstoy’s rejection of conventional historical narratives is not merely an intellectual exercise but rather a reflection of his deep existential angst in the face of the chaotic and unpredictable nature of human existence.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy’s insistence on the importance of individual agency in history is rooted in his belief in the moral responsibility of every human being to confront the inherent absurdity of existence and strive for goodness and authenticity in their actions.

Tolstoy’s conception of history represents a radical departure from conventional historiography. Through his novels, particularly War and Peace, Tolstoy challenges the notion of history as a deterministic narrative driven by larger forces or exceptional individuals. Instead, he presents history as a complex and contingent process shaped by the collective actions of countless individuals.

Isaiah Berlin’s analysis provides valuable insights into the philosophical underpinnings of Tolstoy’s thought, highlighting the existential dimensions of his scepticism towards reason and progress. Ultimately, Tolstoy’s conception of history invites us to reconsider our understanding of the past and to recognise the profound significance of individual agency in shaping the course of human events.

I suggest that Tolstoy is a theistic moral realist who believes that God’s will identifies the mind-independent truths of morality. He also thinks that, roughly, it suffices to heed natural moral emotions (like love and compassion) to know the right thing to do, that is, God’s will.

This piece is dedicated to young students of liberal arts

Tolstoy’s conception of history