On the inexplicability of history.
"All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes: and without parables he did not speak to them. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world."
I am a Tolstoy fanboy, as many of you know. I first began reading him a couple of years ago as I was finding my way back to God. I read his brilliant manifesto, The Kingdom of God is Within You, when I was camping in the mountains of Southwestern Montana for my geology field camp. The book was a revelation to me. I soon devoured others of his religious, philosophical, and political writings such as My Religion: What I Believe, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, and The Slavery of Our Times Tolstoy's take on the Gospel teachings can be summarized as the following: Jesus' commandments should be taken seriously and literally. He spoke in parables for a reason, so that the common folk could understand him and apply the lessons he gave in their everyday life. The Sermon on the Mount is the rock on which he founds his faith. Taking the strictures laid out in this homily seriously, he advocated a strict pacifism, rejected the state as being immoral, disavowed establish churches as perversions of Jesus' teachings, and advocated for an ever-abiding love for fellow men.
Unlike many, I discovered Tolstoy through his later religious works instead of his literary writings. I think that reading him this way made discovering his literature even more stunning. When I took the dive into his artistic works I found a new way to experience the sublime. I first devoured Anna Karenina, then his later novel, Resurrection, where his religious philosophy is best explicated in literary form, and then jumped into the monumental War and Peace. I'm now reading through his novellas inspired by his time in the Caucasus, Hadji Murat, The Cossacks, and Sevastopol Sketches. Needless to say I have been astounded by all of them. The sheer amount of genius-level insights on display in these pieces, wrapped in the most elegant artistic flair, makes me ashamed of the crude prose I manage to jam together. His attention to detail and appreciation for the fractal nature of the environments we so casually view and the mind we so naively interact with vibes with my view of what life is.
The characters I identify with in his books are his autobiographical ones. Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina with his disregard for aristocratic milieu he emerged from and his struggles living a holy life in an unholy, even evil, society, alongside his guilt for recognizing that he is a part of the terrible machine that grind the poor to dust. Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, with his aimless, dissipated life leading him to existential despair and to an eventual, dramatic awakening. And of course Nekhlyudov in Resurrection, who best embodies the struggle for purity and repentance that Tolstoy underwent in the second half of his life. Engaging with these characters along their spiritual journeys in the rich, organic landscapes of 19th century Russian life that he wrote into being evoke the philosophical and religious writings I had engaged with earlier in the most sublime way possible.
I consider Tolstoy's literary writings to be the finest works exploring the human condition. His characters and their journeys capture the ambiguity and paradoxes that make us as a species just so damn interesting. Some readers find his need to describe the physical and mental environment that his characters inhabit in extraordinary levels of detail to be a bit much. I think that his compulsive desire to document the ever-shifting, endlessly deep nature of reality is what makes him the extraordinary writer that he is. He is at once a natural scientist, an anthropologist, a prophet, a philosopher, and of course an artist, in all of his writings, something that few are able to pull off, least of all with the sheer volume of works he was able to create. His love for, and strained relationship with, mother Russia shines through in all of the works. His critiques of 19th century Russian society are just as relevant to modern America.
Which gets me to the nominal purpose of this post, to examine Tolstoy's philosophy of history in the context of the principles of modern complexity theory. I found this quote from War and Peace to encompass his thoughts on the subject neatly:
"The movement of mankind, proceeding from a countless number of human wills, occurs continuously.
To comprehend the laws of this movement is the goal of history. But in order to comprehend the laws of the continuous movement of the sum of all individual wills, human reason allows for arbitrary, discrete units. The first method of history consists in taking an arbitrary series of continuous events and examining it separately from others, whereas there is not and cannot be a beginning to any event, but one event always continuously follows another. The second method consists in examining the actions of one person, a king, a commander, as the sum of individual wills, whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed in the activity of one historical person.
Historical science in its movement always takes ever smaller units for examination, and in this way strives to approach the truth. But however small the units that history takes, we feel that allowing for a unit that is separate from another, allowing for the beginning of some phenomenon, and allowing for the notion that all individual wills are expressed in the actions of one historical person, is false in itself.
Any conclusion of historical science, without the least effort on the part of criticism, falls apart like dust, leaving nothing behind, only as a result of the fact that criticism selects as an object for observation a larger or smaller discrete unit, which it always has the right to do, because any chosen historical unit is always arbitrary.
Only by admitting an infinitesimal unit for observation—a differential of history, that is, the uniform strivings of people—and attaining to the art of integrating them (taking the sums of these infinitesimal quantities) can we hope to comprehend the laws of history."
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Tolstoy believes that history is both inherently unpredictable while also being brutally deterministic. This concept negates the historian's attempt to explain them in hindsight. Historians dive into sources from the past, whether in letters, official documents, interviews, oral histories etc., and try to get an understanding for what happened. The filtering entailed in this process depends on what just happened to be written down about the past, what the historian found interesting in this bed of resources, and the contemporary context that shapes the historian's interpretation of the past. We don't see what isn't available, and the vast, vast majority of what happened in the past is simply invisible to us. This leads history to be fit into the Procrustean bed of the chronological narratives that Western readers are used to hearing. That doesn't mean that this narrative is accurate, however. There is no "history" per se, only stories that historians create in hindsight that meshes with their priors, be they explicit or implicit. Path-dependence rules everything we see around us, but it is easy to see causality where there is none. There is nothing to explain, as it is unexplainable.
He disdains the great man theory of history so popular in 19th century historical narratives. The descriptions of the hapless Napoleon's actions in "his" attempted conquest of Russia highlights the futility of explaining the outcomes of battles and wars as results of to the will of individual leaders. Napoleon announces an order for the artillery to batter this or that barricade, but as that order makes it down the chain of command to the soldiery actually manning the stockade they are irrelevant. Individuals at the front make the decisions. A single individual may not be important, but the emergent dynamics of all the individuals in a network interacting with one another drives the system forward. The use of charismatic leaders as the principal driver of history is a naive sleight of hand that simply replaces the role that God, or the gods, played in the cosmology of earlier men. But, of course, we moderns know that believing God could be in control is utter nonsense. Instead, godly men take their place.
Tolstoy makes an analogy to the calculus in this excerpt to highlight the flawed methodology underlying attempts to fit the continuous arc of history into discrete, arbitrary units and categorize them as "events". There is no separating historical happenings from from all of the other "events" going on at the same time, be the legendary butterfly in the highlands of South America or the 1812 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dynamics of complex systems means that the part is not understandable without taking into account the whole, especially when that part is temporally constrained. He is grasping for a scientific paradigm that can explain the machinations of a huge number of individual components dynamically interacting with one another. Agent-based modeling could replace the calculus in this excerpt and be quite in line with modern attempts to quantitatively examine history a la Peter Turchin. Attempting to describe the actions of the overall system at one scale (i.e. the dispositions and beliefs of an individual) does not apply as you move up and down levels of analysis (i.e. the movements of an army of hundreds of thousands of men). The "events" in history are not events at all, as they can't be separated from the evolution of the system as a whole.