War and Peace – this title could suggest a contrast within the story, two different states, where we discover people who learn about themselves through experience. Instead, I think Tolstoy joins these two bitterly divided opposites to describe one consistent condition of humanity. Rather than thinking of conflict versus harmony, I see a common experience of yearning between the masses and the individual.
While we glare into the glow of Pierre, Prince Andrei and others during their transient epiphanies, and see the French and Russian armies pillage and murder in the name of conquest and national glory, we realize, only through the philosophical explanations provided by Tolstoy, how the errors in popular historical analysis, our adopted science for understanding history which credit men such as Napoleon and Aleksandr for causing the war, match the fruitless employment of reason in the pursuit of happiness and meaning.
The book itself re-imagines the novel. As a fusion of storyline and philosophical treatise, we understand the book as a mirror to life itself with all of our deepest concerns and miseries – our most cherished serenity and elation. Tolstoy, who refuted critics who categorized his work as a novel, transforms himself from an imaginative creator into an artistic conduit. His philosophical diatribes serve to defend the reality of his fiction, the reasonable nature of his portrayals. He morphs fiction into one of the truest representations of ourselves. He does not employ many literary devices, though his realist’s perspective adds to the credence of his ideas. I like to think that he found life’s essence, developed this insight, and then saw it in such contradictory states as war and peace. This insight unifies all life, good or evil. But this insight also exposes the mistakes we make.
Pierre eventually understands the folly of pursuing life’s meaning with intellect, in the same way as Tolstoy argues for the folly in popular practices of historical analysis. Pierre develops an awareness of God’s presence all around him. I loved Tolstoy’s metaphor of the telescope aimed toward distant, blurry objects which we assume have mysterious and profound meaning simply because we don’t see them clearly. We spend our lives calibrating the telescope only to realize that the answers that we seek sit clearly within our natural reach. When Pierre understands this, he no longer seeks to clarify those distant objects. Like Prince Andrei, he fails to see the point. Though Prince Andrei follows a different path, I imagine he and Pierre as relay runners, with one handing the baton to the next runner after making a spiritual breakthrough. And consider Natasha, who, throughout the story, exemplifies the living form of happiness, a state which attracts both Pierre and Prince Andrei because it symbolizes what they desire to experience themselves. Before their respective spiritual awakenings, they yearn to share in her experience, to wake themselves within the happiness she had found. Yet Natasha never chases anything. She simply lives and loves life.
During the civilian storyline, we might say that the characters eventually embrace consciousness rather than their former tools of reason. In terms of the war, and Tolstoy’s arguments against historians, we might say that historians adopt reason over consciousness and freedom over necessity. While Tolstoy maintains that millions of microcosmic circumstances of human experience inevitably initiates and perpetuates the war, and all historical events, historians like to reasonably describe Napoleon and others as free military geniuses or blockheads who just decide, free from any cause, to lead a million men into murderous battle against one another. If necessity (in the sense that an incomprehensible trail of cause and effect leads to the inevitable and unavoidable culmination of an event) prescribes the war, then, in the same sense, simple consciousness of being ought to lead to the discovery of meaning and truth in life. Reason and freedom (in the sense that we exist outside the power of cause and effect) try to arrest power from life and falsely praise mankind as the progenitor of their own state of existence. Man’s faculties for reason cannot truly uncover the cause or effects behind human events, nor can it uncover the cause and effect of happiness. But in knowing the power, or lack thereof, which orchestrates history and in realizing the pomposity of free will directing its course, and opening ourselves to a spiritual consciousness of life which cultivates divine love within us, we discover happiness within this life.
Later, Tolstoy would illustrate the philosophical differences between reason and consciousness, freedom and necessity. Pierre abandons the former for the latter and in so doing experiences a sublime happiness in life. Imagine if someone did figure out the meaning of life and the key to living happily through intellectual means. They would then need to attentively analyze and choose each of their moves, decide whether that move conforms to their mental construct of happiness, and never experience the simple life infused with a natural love and spiritual light. Man must regurgitate the apple. What happiness awaits someone who must perform conscientious perfection? Pierre no longer proactively seeks to perfect his fellow man because of some self-righteous penance. He lives his answers. He does not need to think about them or pursue them from afar. Reason holds the answers at bay, keeps them across the table like a conversationalist, while experience and awareness allows them to fuse with our being. Then we see what we’ve always had.
Of course, one might accuse Tolstoy of perpetrating one of the great literary ironies by composing an extensive work of intellectual art which encourages simple consciousness of life. But we imagine our lives as a journey forward, toward something unknown, when perhaps Tolstoy indicates that the journey actually brings us back from a distance to ourselves, to a home we know very little about.