Philosophy of History as Presented in War and Peace

A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it, so says the famous French fabulist, Jean de La Fontaine.

Fate, or destiny, has always been used in different contexts and terminology through out history it has been used in literature, history, theology and even in the scriptures who proclaim that everything is according to the will of God.

In laymans term, Fate or Destiny (as used in a more romantic term), refers to the idea that things events that are meant to be happen as if everything has already been written. However, in philosophical terms, this idea is referred to as Fatalism.

The American Heritage Dictionary aptly defined Fatalism as a philosophical doctrine that all events are predetermined by fate and therefore unalterable.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fatalism rests on three principles
That free will does not exist, meaning therefore that history has progressed in the only manner possible
That actors are free, but nevertheless work toward an inevitable end
That acceptance is appropriate, rather than resistance against inevitability.

By the definition, man is rendered powerless in shaping his own destiny regardless of his knowledge, intentions, and capacity, as a man is already bound to his fate. It stresses the futility of human will regardless of its strength and virtues. For example, if a person is meant to lose a race, then hell lose because someone else is destined to win it.

History is one subject where we can fully reflect, discern, and discuss the subject of fatalism. One classic historical fiction where this philosophy has been mentioned and put into question is Leo Tolstoys novel, War and Peace, published in 1869.

The novel, regarded as a historical fiction, is set in 1805 (60 years before the time of actual writing). It depicts a series of tumultuous events leading up to Napoleons invasion of Russia. It presented the impact of Napoleonic era through the story of 5 aristocratic families.

The author wrote
We are forced to fall back on fatalism as explanation of irrational events. The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us . . . In historic events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the events themselves. Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity

Greatness, it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the great man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a great man can be blamed.  it occurs to no one that to admit a greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit ones own nothingness and immeasurable meanness. For us with the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, no human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent

In lieu with the statements above, three issues were raised
The first issue is, if everything is predestined, how can anyone (let alone a great man) be praised or blamed for their acts

If the doctrine of fatalism is regarded as a universal truth, then people are deemed as rather powerless beings in shaping their own lives. However, even if they are bound for greatness or failure, people will be recognized through their actions in the process of fulfilling their destiny.  Despite being bestowed with a pre-determined future, each person still has hisher own free will- the capacity to do what he wants and deems necessary in his everyday life. Fate is only the end result but it is the means by which he has fulfilled his destiny that earns him his positive or negative recognition.

To further support the above explanation, take the character of Count Pierre Bezukhov

Pierre is the favorite among all the illegitimate sons of his father. He was introduced as a young man who has recently returned to Russia after finishing his studies abroad. After a series of misfits, he eventually became the heir of his fathers massive estate. From then on, his life has changed as his position changed from an illegitimate son to the Count Bezukhov. With the lures of his present status, along with his inability to control his emotions, sexual passions, and irrational impulses, Pierre seems to be predestined to live in chaos in a war-torn country. As the  story progresses, he has continuously battled with his personal demons and his search for meaning in his life and for how to overcome his emotions becomes central theme of the novel. His moral and spiritual questioning was culminated when he finally married Natasha Rostova.

Given Pierres chaotic situation, he would have been spiritually and morally lost if he did not act according to his free will and completely resigned himself to fatalism.

In historical events great men - so-called - are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity. (Bk9, Chapter1)

The second issue raised was, if labels bear little or no relation to events, then what does Christianity stands for

Christianity will always stand as the religion that is based form the teachings of Jesus Christ. Likewise, it continuously serves its purpose of being the guide post among its people whether or not these people are devoted believers or not. Christianity becomes a label to its people, and to some extent, to a nation. People who have been baptized as Christians still carry practices and values they have been acquainted to although they are not devout followers of Christs teachings.
History taught us that Christianity, despite the values and teachings it carry, also holds a number of rather unpleasant stories. There are also a number of historical figures, men of war who are known to be Christians but do not properly represent the values that Christianity upholds. It is under these conditions that labels becomes less relevant to events but, in spite of it all, the religion lives on to continue guiding its people to the rightful ways.

The third issue asks, isnt fatalism more irrational than believing or exercising free will
The doctrines of fatalism and free will has its own pros and cons.

Fatalism gives the notion that a person is bound to his own fate and has no power to alter its course. For some, it gives them a sense of the divine, who is in charge of making things better for them, which may be good. However, a person who entirely believes in fatalism alone might become irrational and absurd in some ways. For instance, that person may have the tendency to leave everything to God and fate to alleviate his terrible condition believing that everything is according to the will of God or, even worse, believe that bad things are bound to happen and take no responsibility over their own mistakes.

On the other hand, free will gives the person a sense of control over hisher life that he can be better and make his and other peoples lives better as well. This person does not blame everything to God and takes responsibility over his own shortcomings and mistakes. However, the possible downside is for a person to become if he attributes all his success to himself alone.

In a personal note, believing a little of fatalism and a little more of free will is better than believing absolutely in just one. Believing a little of fatalism is enough for a person to believe in the divine to recognize that some things are really meant to happen and thats already out of our control that sometimes, the only way to move forward is to stop fighting and begin the process of acceptance. Likewise, free will gives a person a sense of freedom for his actions and what becomes of him. The issues raised and discussed above might have been the critics questions about Leo Tolstoys works. As his masterpiece War and Peace is said to be filled with ideas and view similar to his own, how would he handle such criticism

The novel explores Tolstoys theory of history. He presents to his reader a unique combination of an objective narrator with details of characteristics parallel to reality. His cast of characters included fictional and around 560 historical characters, including Napoleon and Catherine the Great,  to make the story time line stay as closest (if not similar) to reality as possible.

The non-fictional characters such as Alexander and Napoleon were portrayed with little or no significance at all because their story is part of reality and their purpose is for the story to stay true to history. Fictional characters, however, were created to present the authors view and philosophy, through Count Bezukhov, and to the societys view through the stories of the other four families. His ability to blend pieces of reality, shift from peace to war background in each chapter, and incorporate his different views is a proof of his vast and in depth knowledge about history, philosophy, and his own perspectives. War and Peace is a perfect example of historical fiction.

In War and Peace, Tolstoys Fatalistic view was outwardly reflected through the two quotations lifted above. Clearly, his view implies that everything is predestined, but we cannot live until we imagine that we have free will (6)

 Based from Tolstoys biography, his detractors can easily be rebutted because hes a well-read academic in the fields of theology and philosophy. His beliefs in the divine are supported by reason as well, which is why he mentioned that in order for us to live we need to imagine that we have free will.
On a personal note, Tolstoys views are neither irrational nor absurd especially if applied in present times. It can be widely observed that people, especially the youth, are more free-willing and open-minded as compared to the people during the authors time. Their reception for different ideas, no matter how absurd or interesting it is, is much more open and liberated. And even though they might consider fatalism as a universal truth, their belief in free will is most likely to stand out, preventing the chains of destiny to limit them from living their life.

People may have different views, interpretations, and opinions about fatalism, whether its logical or irrational, and if history depends on a great deal of it. Leo Tolstoy, being a novelist, philosopher, and historian, tried to sum up reality with a political and spiritual perspective. Whether it all makes sense or pure absurdity, each person has his own free will to decide whether to believe this or not, as Jean de La Fontaine said,  It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped


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