Friday, December 23, 2011

War and Peace

In the spring of 2006, as Erin and I were preparing for a trip to Europe, I thought it would be fitting to start reading a great novel from European history, "War and Peace". Tonight, Dec. 23, 2011, I have FINALLY finished the book.

Overall, I felt it was a pretty mediocre read, not even close to as gripping as Hugo’s “Les Miserables” nor as powerful as Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov. It was better however, than Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment.”

I did enjoy the character development of Pierre as well as Tolstoy’s musings about why Napoleon was the product of dumb luck or fortunate circumstances rather than genius or great leadership. Tolstoy liked to point out that the people who first declared Napoleon a glorious hero for France and Europe later declared him an insane criminal who was a danger to civilization, therefore exiling him. Not surprisingly, this opinion of Napoleon differed from the opinion Hugo expressed in “Les Miserables.” The last 50 pages or so was a whole bunch of historical philosophy of which I had trouble understanding. I did find a few quotes toward the end of the book that are worth sharing.

“In the first place the historian describes the conduct of separate persons who, in his opinion, lead humanity (one regards as such only monarchs, military generals and ministers of state’ another includes besides, monarchs, orators, scientific men, reformers, philosophers and poets). Secondly, the goal towards which humanity is being lead is known to the historian. To one this goal is the greatness of Rome, or the Spanish, or the French state, for another, it is freedom, equality, a certain sort of civilization in a little corner of the world called Europe.
In 1789 there was a ferment in Paris: it grew and spread, and found expression in the movement of peoples from west to east. Several times that movement is made to the east, and comes into collion with a counter movement from east westwards. In the year 1812 it reaches its furthest limit, Moscow, and then, with a remarkable symmetry, the counter movement follows from east to west; drawing with it, like the first movement, the peoples of Central Europe. The counter-movement reaches the starting-point of the first movement – Paris – and subsides.
During this period of twenty years an immense number of fields are not tilled; houses are burned; trade changes its direction; millions of men grow poor and grow rich, and change the habitations; and millions of Christians, professing the law of love, murder one another.
What does this all mean? What did all this proceed from? What induced these people to burn houses and to murder their fellow creatures? What were the causes of these events? What force compelled men to act in this fashion? These are the involuntary and most legitimate questions that, in all good faith, humanity puts to itself when it stumbles on memorials and traditions of that past age of restlessness.
To answer these questions the common-sense of humanity turns to the science of history, the object of which is the self-knowledge of nationals and of humanity.” – Pg. 1112

“For causes, known or unknown to us, the French begin to chop and hack at each other. And to match the event, it is accompanied by its justification in the expressed wills of certain men, who declare it essential for the good of France, for the cause of freedom, for equality. Men cease slaughtering one another, and that event is accompanied by the justification of the necessity of centralization of power, of resistance to Europe, and so on. Men march from west to east, killing their fellow-creatures, and this event is accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History teaches us that those justifications for the event are devoid of all common-sense, that they are inconsistent with one another, as, for instance, the murder of a man as a result of the declaration of his rights, and the murder of millions in Russia for the abasement of England. But those justifications have an incontestable value in their own day.
They remove moral responsibility from those men who produce the events. At the time they do the work of brooms, that go in front to clear the rails for the train: they clear the path of men’s moral responsibility. Apart from those justifications, no solution could be found for the most obvious question that occurs to one at once on examining any historical event; that is, How did millions of men come to combine to commit crimes, murders, wars and so on?” – Pg. 1130

Just FYI, “War and Peace” is split up into 15 different parts each containing around 50 – 70 chapters that are from one to four pages long. This allows the book to be read in tiny little snippets over a long period of time. Long as in almost 6 years. So if you’d like to broaden your cultural and historical horizons, I’d recommend you change your bathroom reading from the newspaper to some Tolstoy. If only for about six years.

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