It perhaps seems absurd, but the best way of grasping the significance of War and Peace might
be by considering all the things that Tolstoy left out. The absurdity here stems from the obvious
fact that this massive novel is famous for encompassing virtually everything, as even the title
makes clear. The book is so sprawling and wordy that it has become an emblem of the all-
inclusive novel, almost a punch-line to a joke.
“I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was
able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen once quipped. Then added: “It's
about Russia." Another joke tells of a general reading the book, and when asked for his
assessment, thinks for a moment and replies: “I liked the first part. The second part, not so
much.” I’m told that there is a whole sub-genre of Russian jokes about characters from this novel.
But Tolstoy, like a general himself, defends his territory by knowing what parts don’t require his
protection, and he can thus safely exclude from consideration. And this, in fact, amounts to a lot
of terrain. For Stefan Zweig, Tolstoy was the author who had no use for dreams or fancies or
pleasing untruths. Orwell complained of Tolstoy’s inability to tolerate the self-serving ideologies
of others, and cited stories about the author slapping the faces of those who dared to disagree
with him. For Tolstoy’s biographer Rosamund Bartlett, the great novelist suffered from a
“lamentable lack of a sense of humor,” and adds that this “ sometimes makes the study of
Tolstoy’s life and works slightly hard-going.”
But these gaps in Tolstoy are simply another way of stressing his sober realism—a realism all
the more striking given the author’s life of dreamy idealism. These two strands were at conflict for
his entire life. Even as a youngster, he had tried to live by impossible guidelines. An early journal
entry finds him setting out 47 different rules for his conduct, in twenty different categories. He
would invariably fail at these idealistic plans, only to set new rules, just as unrealizable as the
Even when considered simply in terms of plot and setting, War and Peace is a novel defined by
what it leaves out. Tolstoy originally conceived of the book as an even broader epic, defining
Russian life over a period of a half-century. The book would encapsulate “Three Ages”—which
was an early name for the novel now known as War and Peace. The first ‘Age’ would cover the
period from 1805, when Russia entered into war against Napoleon, until the tumultuous events of
1812, when French troops occupied Moscow. The second ‘Age’ would look at the 1820s and
especially the failed Decembrist revolt in 1825, when three thousand military officers staged an
unsuccessful rebellion against Tsar Nicholas I. The third ‘Age’ would advance to the 1850s and
the Crimean War. But Tolstoy eventually abandoned this plan, and constructed his novel around
the events surrounding Napoleon’s invasion and its fallout. It tells us much about Tolstoy that even
his narrowed purview produced the most sweeping historical epic of the nineteenth century.
As was often the case with Tolstoy, he never gave much consideration to how other novelists
would tackle subjects. When writing Anna Karenina, he took delight in subverting the happily-
ever-after marriage plots of the English novelists he admired, and in the final pages adopted
such an unpopular pacifist stance—at the very moment when Russia was going to war with
Turkey—that the editor of the Russian Messenger refused to publish the closing section of a
work his readers had been avidly devouring in sporadic installments. In War and Peace this
unwillingness to play by the accepted rules of the literary trade shows up in the heavy doses of
philosophy that often veer so far from fiction as to make the work seem like a theoretical tract.
Yes, Tolstoy agreed to deliver a story, but he was also determined to present a worldview.
Many readers have complained about this seemingly unnecessary intrusion of polemic into the
narrative. Turgenev dismissed these passages as “farcical” and “charlatanism.” Flaubert
complained that Tolstoy “repeats himself and he philosophizes!” “Tolstoy’s arguments seem
dated today…He was a crank with all the weaknesses of a crank,” Kenneth Rexroth has stated
But I am of the opposite school of thought, sharing Isaiah Berlin’s opinion that “Tolstoy’s
philosophy of history has, on the whole, not obtained the attention it deserves.” These aspects of
the book are hardly detours, but fuel that propels the novelist’s commitment to his project.
“Tolstoy’s interest in history and the problem of historical truth,” Berlin continues, “was
passionate, almost obsessive, both before and during the writing of War and Peace. No one
who reads his journals and letters, or indeed War and Peace itself, can doubt that the author
himself, at any rate, regarded this problem as the heart of the entire matter—the central issue
round which the novel is built.”
In fact, Kenneth Rexroth could hardly be more wrong. He dismissed Tolstoy’s views as typical of
“those of any spokesman of the rationalistic enlightenments of either the eighteenth or nineteenth
centuries.” We have moved beyond such views, he suggested, and they can thus be safely
ignored. But Tolstoy is actually probing the limits of rationalism and the murky area outside the
purview of Enlightenment optimism. The great Russian writer may have been influenced by
Rousseau—that other rule-breaker who mixed up philosophy and storytelling in equally
uncharacteristic ways—but has far less faith in human reason to guide us towards the proper
ends of life. In War and Peace, even the great heroes fail by trusting too much in their mental
In the world of War and Peace, events take a life of their own. The battlefield is the most obvious
place where strategy and planning are overwhelmed by the chaos of conflict and the sheer
momentum of adrenaline-charged activity. Tolstoy wants to debunk the “great man” theory of
history, popularized by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s but a staple of chroniclers and biographers
since the time of Plutarch. Others have tried to counter this hero-worship, from Herbert Spencer
to Noam Chomsky, but has anyone offered a more powerful refutation than Tolstoy?
Yet Tolstoy also applies this same debunking attitude to the intimate matters of domestic life. A
marriage proposal or love affair, as told from his perspective, can be as resistant to planning and
control as the Battle of Austerlitz. Tolstoy is the master of the ineffectual or disillusioned
character, and not just for the dramatic force they bring to bear on a narrative, but for the simple
reason that Tolstoy saw them as the most realistic ingredients of his novels of social realism.
Far from becoming invalidated by subsequent events, Tolstoy’s theory of history has gotten
confirmed again and again by the follies and disasters that have marked the 150 years since the
publication of his magnum opus. The whole tragic spectacle of collapsing empires, fallen
regimes, disastrous wars of global conquest, and political overreaching—in other words, the
history of the twentieth century—could have been predicted from the pages of this far-seeing
book. Perhaps we live in more sober times nowadays, under a mood of wary restraint and
careful posturing that some have even called “the end of history,” yet that very popular academic
catchphrase sounds like it could have come out of a commentary on War and Peace.
The “End of History” argument presents this concept not as some apocalyptic event, but as a
positive result of the spread of liberal democracy and the decline in cross-border belligerence.
Yet any close examination of modern events shows that these shifts have taken place largely
because alternative modes of leadership, erected on the faithful worship of heroes with world-
beating aspirations, have fared so poorly. The heroes failed to realize their towering ambitions,
much like Napoleon in War and Peace. From that perspective, Tolstoy is perhaps the real
alternative to Hegel and his dialectic or Nietzsche with his Will to Power, and the true forerunner
of contemporary approaches to statecraft built on pragmatism instead of grand masterplans.
Yes, we hate to admit it, but we’ve been chastened by the real world, and might even have
learned, in some measure, to live and let live—not drop the bomb, not start WWIII, not invade our
neighbors, or colonize those less heavily armed than us. And, yes, we still have much to learn.
The path to humility and tolerance is long and slow. But Tolstoy was a good role model for those
two virtues, in an age when they were in short supply. In the final decades of his life, he actually
had more influence as an advocate for non-violence and tolerance than as a literary figure. He
adopted the dress of a peasant and the guise of a holy fool, preached kindness and
compassion, inviting others to follow his example.
Should we be surprised that so many have done so in the current day, when tolerance has—
against all odds—become even more powerful than aggression and warfare? Tolstoy still invites
us to follow his example. And he gave us pretty good book to read along the way. Maybe even
one that is still a few steps ahead of us, and can help us along the road. That’s not what novels
are supposed to do, especially ones that are 150 years old. But Tolstoy never paid much
attention to the rules.
Ted Gioia is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).
Publication date: April 18, 2019
Leo Tolstoy and the End of History
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
|Tolstoy’s theory of history,
often derided as a distraction
or even a farce, has received
tragic confirmation again and
again from the follies and disasters
that have marked the 150 years
since the publication of his
magnum opus War and Peace.
Can it help us grapple with the
issues of our own times?
Essay by Ted Gioia