It’s difficult to imagine that a 1200+ page classic can be a page turner. From the first page, War and Peace pulls you into early 19th century Russia and doesn’t let go. It’s partly about the Napoleonic wars, and partly about the love and money affairs of a few aristocratic families. In each case, the author Leo Tolstoy gets inside the heads of the characters and describes what they are thinking and feeling. You feel like you are there in the room, or on the battlefield, observing all the little gestures and nervous tics that form human interactions.
One of the central characters is Count Pierre Bezuhkov. He is very rich and dreamy, constantly analysing himself and his actions and his meaning in life. If he had lived 200 years later, he might have written a blog like this one. The book carefully charts his long philosophical progression to happiness. Towards the end he is captured by the French after they take over Moscow in the autumn of 1812. In captivity and desperation he finds more happiness than all his wealth ever gave him. “In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity” (i.e. having too much, page 1060 in my translation).
Throughout the book, Tolstoy constantly questions why the war happened. What caused 600,000 Frenchmen to walk all the way across Europe to kill several hundred thousand Russians? Surely it couldn’t have been the will of a single man, Napoleon? In the Epilogue and Appendix Tolstoy discusses free will and history. He acknowledges that humans do have a small bit of free will – the freedom to raise or lower their arm when they wish to. But only when they act independently. When people act jointly or in a society, they lose almost all their free will. So the soldier must attack when his regiment attacks, and flee when they flee, and march when they march. He views human history as the combination of all these millions of bits of free will, lurching in one direction or the other. And they are not guided from above. After the event, historians say “Napoleon ordered his troops to conquer Russia”, but at the time, he is just the figurehead at the helm of a vast ship drifting in rough sea.
If you have a few months to spare, this is a book worth reading. It gives you an inside view of peoples’ thoughts – vain people, desperate people, dying people, heroic and pathetic people, happy and lost people, rich and poor people, and people living through an extraordinary and awful period of human history. It shows that soul-searching is not a modern activity.