Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tolstoy and modern Civil War history

The new translation of War and Peace by the celebrated duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has been in the print news quite a bit lately. I am getting an itch to revisit this behemoth (I first read it back in high school), with a special interest in renewing my acquaintance with the author's commentary on war and his controversial philosophy of history. Thankfully, my uncle sent me a copy of Isiah Berlin's classic The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. It's a fascinating read. Berlin's insights are useful no matter what your background and probably should be considered required reading before tackling the novel.

According to Berlin, Tolstoy vehemently rejected academic historians' concepts of "power" and "forces". These are empty, meaningless terms, deluded attempts to explain history through constructs like great men and great movements. To Tolstoy, true history is composed only of inner events -- the thoughts, desires, loves, hates, etc. of individuals. Tolstoy believed these "infinitesimals" [whether this is Berlin's term of Tolstoy's I don't know] could be the basis of a 'differential' of history -- a historical calculus. Of course, any attempt at formulating a scientific basis of history failed on all counts, incredibly frustrating the Russian. How can one possibly uniformly quantify the seemingly unmeasurable qualities of the infinitesimals?

On the other hand, pragmatically ignoring the scientific/mathematic difficulties, some current Civil War history does strike me as Tolstoyian in a general sense. Observers and historians who answer the question "Who freed the slaves?" with "themselves" seem to be channeling the great writer. A somewhat recent article by Steven Newton [N&S, Vol.8#6] that utilized the concept of "emergence" to explain the active/passive resistance of Richmond's slave population also had elements of Tolstoy's philosophy of history. According to the author, resistance among the slaves was spontaneous and independent, only masquerading as a wider organized movement. I would guess that there is a large segment of Civil War social historians (especially those concentrating on race and gender) sympathetic to Leo Tolstoy*.

* - Although I believe the essential determinism of Tolstoy's theory would be almost universally rejected.

3 comments:

  1. David CorbettNovember 05, 2007

    Dear Sir ,
    If he statement "the slaves freed themselves," is valid , why did they wait so long ? Perhaps others will counter they did not wait long enough . Your opinion ?
    cordially ,
    David Corbett

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, the issue is far too complex to boil down to a single answer. Even so, if simplicity was required, "themselves" probably wouldn't be my first inclination. A sympathetic environment in which slaves could feel safe enough to leave had to be created first. The Union army's ability to deeply penetrate and permanently occupy large areas of the South (and actively aid emancipation, whether officially or unofficially) created this environment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. David CorbettNovember 05, 2007

    Dear Sir ,
    Thank you for your reply. Case closed on "themselves".
    cordially ,
    David Corbett

    ReplyDelete

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