The University Bookman


Volume 20, Number 4 (Summer 1980)

The Tolstoy Locomotive on the Berlin Track

John Lukacs

Twenty-seven years ago, in 1953, at the height of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, a short essay by an Oxford don produced a swiftly swelling wave of praise among public thinkers and intellectuals, elevating its writer to a situation of unquestionable and unquestioned eminence undiminished to this day. Then Isaiah Berlin had already achieved a reputation in Oxford and London circles as an erudite wit; but from that moment on his reputation rose even higher among American intellectuals than in England where, however, he was subsequently rewarded by a knighthood, a consideration to which the fortunes of his repute in the United States may well have contributed. Such success due to a little book of an essay is a rare event. Habent sua fata libelli. That book was, of course, The Hedgehog and the Fox, surely the most famous and most widespread and most popular—and also the most unchallenged—of all of the twentieth-century commentaries and analyses of Leo Tolstoy.

Berlin’s main thesis is that “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision . . . and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory . . . [T]hese last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal.” Building upon the metaphor by the Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin calls the first kind “hedgehogs,” the other “foxes.” “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” “Without insisting on a rigid classification,” Berlin continues, “we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.” I do not find this classification entirely satisfying—for example, it is easily arguable that there is more in common between Proust and Joyce than between Balzac and Joyce—but this is not my point.

“The hypothesis I wish to offer,” Berlin writes,

is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another.

This interpretation is—or, rather, ought to be—open to challenge.

First, Berlin tends to treat the famous (or, rather, infamous) philosophical treatise with which Tolstoy concludes War and Peace as if it were a separate intellectual creation of Tolstoy’s genius. In reality, the philosophy of history that Tolstoy explains and expounds in those strange and often repulsive pages is woven into the text of the great novel itself, indeed is inseparable from the warp and the woof of it. Here are a few random quotations from the main text of War and Peace: “In searching for the laws of historical movements precisely the same things must be observed as in the laws of physics.” We must study the motions of history just as we must study the motion of a locomotive. To discover what makes the engine move “I must entirely change my point of view, and study the laws that regulate steam, bells, and the wind.” Until man “finds the ultimate cause of the motion of the locomotive in the steam compressed in the boiler, he will not have the right to pause in his search for cause.”

Thus Tolstoy revealed himself a prisoner of the nineteenth-century, monistic view of mechanical causality, with its unilateral emphasis on the mechanics of motive causes and with its willful ignorance of purposes. With all of that folksy pretension of common sense, it did not occur to Tolstoy that the main “cause” of the motion of the locomotive might be its driver. “The only concept,” Tolstoy wrote, “capable of explaining the motion of the locomotive is the concept of a force equivalent to the observed movement. The only concept capable of explaining the movement of nations is the concept of a force equal to the whole movement of nations.” (Contrast this with a fragment from Tocqueville’s unpublished notes: “The human spirit,” he wrote, “cannot be treated along false and mechanical laws. In steam engines and hydraulic works the smaller wheels will turn smoother and faster, as power is directed to them from the larger wheels. But such mechanical rules do not apply to the human spirit.”) “The farther back into history we carry the object of our investigation,” Tolstoy remarked elsewhere, “the more doubtful appears the freedom of the men who brought events about, and the more evident grows the law of Necessity”—written with a capital N by Tolstoy himself.

Already in Two Hussars Tolstoy had written that “the best results always come involuntarily; the more one tries, the worse things turn out”; and in War and Peace, XI, he asserted that “the assumption that the volitions of all men are expressed in the actions of any historical character are false per se” (the very opposite of Dr. Johnson’s common-sense dictum that “intentions must be judged from acts” and not the reverse). “If the will of every man,” Tolstoy wrote, “were free, that is, if everyone could do what he pleased, then history would be a series of disconnected accidents.” “In history,” he wrote, “that which is known we call the laws of necessity, that which is unknown we call Free Will”—free will, for which Tolstoy had only contempt.

“If a single human action were free, there would be no historical laws, no conception of historical events.” To Tolstoy history and its “laws” are therefore inevitable: “Experience and reason have shown a man that in the same circumstances, with the same character, he will always act in the same way as before . . .” The same causes will always and necessarily produce the same effects: a mechanical conception of human nature that is wrong, outdated, and hopeless.

To Tolstoy, the exceptional does not figure in history. Historical events appear wrongly as exceptions to the theory: “For History to regard the Free Will of men as a force able to exert influence on historical events, that is, as not subject to law, is the same thing as for astronomy to recognize freedom in the movement of heavenly forces.” Freedom, for Tolstoy, was not a supreme potentiality of human nature; it was anarchy. “Whatever should be free could not be also limited,” he wrote. “By admitting the Freedom of the Will, we arrive at an absurdity . . . it is essential to get rid of a freedom which does not exist.” “Chance,” declared Tolstoy, “brings the Prince d’Enghien into Napoleon’s hands, and unexpectedly compels him to assassinate him.” (“Napoleon,” he opined, was a man of “no convictions, no habits, no traditions, not even a Frenchman.”)

Unable as he is of separating consistently Tolstoy the philosopher from Tolstoy the novelist, Berlin will, at times, admit the inexorable overflow of the philosophical content of Tolstoy’s Appendix into the text of War and Peace itself. “The final apotheosis of Kutuzov,” Berlin writes, “is totally unhistorical, for all Tolstoy’s repeated professions of his undeviating devotion to the sacred cause of the truth. In War and Peace Tolstoy treats facts cavalierly when it suits him, because he is above all obsessed with his thesis—the contrast between the . . . delusive experience of free will, the feeling of responsibility, the values of private life generally, on the one hand; and on the other, the reality of inexorable historical determinism . . . known to be true on irrefutable theoretical grounds.” Berlin is correct when he criticizes those who “politely ignored” Tolstoy’s view of history; but he errs when he dismisses those who

treated it as a characteristic aberration which they put down as a combination of the well-known Russian tendency to preach (and thereby ruin works of art) with the half-baked infatuation with general ideas characteristic of young intellectuals in countries remote from centres of civilization.

But whoever did so (George Orwell was among them) may have been right after all. And here I arrive at my second point, the essential error in Berlin’s interpretation of Tolstoy. To some extent like George Orwell (in the latter’s terse and lucid essay on Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Shakespeare), Berlin claims that the trouble lies not with Tolstoy’s obsession with science, but with religion. “Tolstoy’s purpose,” Berlin writes, “is the discovery of truth, and therefore he must know what history consists of, and recreate only that. History is plainly not a science . . .” In view of the frequent evidence of Tolstoy’s writing, affirming his veneration for “Science” again and again, this is a curious thing to say; and Berlin himself notes Tolstoy’s central faith in the great mechanical laws of the universe, that “Tolstoy blames everything on our ignorance of empirical causes.” It is precisely therefore that Berlin’s portrait of Tolstoy, the picture of a furious agrarian romantic, who distrusted and disliked all pragmatic and scientific knowledge, is unsatisfactory. When Tolstoy wrote that history is “one of the most backward of sciences,” he obviously regretted this condition. It may well be that Tolstoy’s obsession with Science was a schizophrenic obsession—but an obsession, while schizophrenic, is no less an obsession for that. And it is therefore, too, that we should not swallow uncritically Berlin’s dictum that “there is a hard cutting edge of common sense about everything that Tolstoy wrote.”

The bifurcation of the Berlin track assigned to the Tolstoy locomotive should appear from the following passage:

Tolstoy’s notion of inexorable laws which work themselves out whatever man may think or wish is itself an oppressive myth,

which is very true; but when Berlin concludes that

what is this but a wholly unhistorical and dogmatic ethical scepticism? Why should we accept it when empirical evidence points elsewhere?

it seems that one part of Berlin’s mind keeps arguing that Tolstoy “slipped back,” that he was not sufficiently scientific. This poorly constructed argument is contradicted by Berlin himself later, when he declares that “Tolstoy believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” It is, to say the least, difficult to accept Berlin’s assertion that Tolstoy’s view is “scrupulously empirical, rational, tough-minded and realistic.”

In Berlin’s opinion Tolstoy was an enlightened novelist, and even a potentially scientific historian, but unfortunately he stubbornly insisted on being a religious person. However, the cleavage may be elsewhere. An examination of Tolstoy’s thought may reveal something else: the fundamental difference which has separated the Russian Orthodox from the Western Christian habits of thought, all of their liturgical, and sometimes even theological, closeness notwithstanding. This difference is what Isaiah Berlin, who manifests little interest in and little sympathy for the Western Christian tradition, fails to comprehend.

Berlin’s argument stands or fails with his interpretation of Joseph De Maistre. Berlin says, in essence, not only that Tolstoy read De Maistre with considerable interest (which is true), and not only that this authoritarian and reactionary and ultramontane French Catholic thinker and writer had a great influence on Tolstoy, but that De Maistre and Tolstoy stood for the same things. Berlin proposes what he calls a “deep” parallel:

The Savoyard Count and the Russian are both reacting, and reacting violently, against liberal optimism concerning human goodness, human reason, and the value or inevitability of material progress.

But here the Berlin track, assigned to the Tolstoian locomotive, really runs awry. There is no such parallel. Tolstoy’s and De Maistre’s anti-intellectualism are as different as possible. Where Tolstoy is outspokenly anti-intellectual, his anti-intellectualism reveals his genuine hatred for the Western European idea of Reason—the very Reason that De Maistre, whose habits of thoughts were formed by the eighteenth century, admired, and that he believed perverted by the revolutionary rationalists and ideologues. Tolstoy, on the other hand, throughout his life admired Rousseau (“the best book ever written on education”), whose ideas De Maistre despised.

All through Tolstoy’s writings, including his portrait of Kutuzov, there lurks a Russian mythical and populist attraction to the idea of The Noble Savage; De Maistre found the idea of noble savage utterly contemptible and ridiculous. The essence of De Maistre’s religion rested on his belief in free will. There is not a trace of the kind of attraction to science, to the concept of mechanist causality that is so evident in Tolstoy. Berlin correctly points out the influence of the Russian Slavophiles on Tolstoy. But De Maistre’s antirevolutionary ideas, his arch-conservatism is very different from those of the Russian Slavophiles, and Berlin is entirely wrong when he says that the Slavophile movement was similar to what he calls the “anti-industrial romanticism of the West.” The Slavophiles’ intellectual pedigree had nothing to do with De Maistre or with Coleridge or with Chateaubriand. Slavophile origins were sentimental rather than romantic, and Germanic rather than French, or anti-industrial: Müller, Kleist, Herder, Vogelsang. De Maistre was no Puritan; whereas there is an element of truth in Chesterton’s aphorism about Tolstoy having been an amalgam of an “inhuman Puritan and a presumptuous savage.”

Curiously enough, the Marquis de Voguë, the French discoverer of the Russian novel and another French conservative, described Tolstoy as “chemist and Buddhist” and Custine, yet another French conservative, known for his lucid and profound description of Russia in the 1840’s, of the generation that succeeded De Maistre’s and preceded Voguë’s, suggested that what passes for conservatism and religion in the minds of the Slavophiles has precious little in common with conservative and Catholic ideas and practices in Europe. De Maistre defended the institution of marriage, while he refused to rationalize about it, while Tolstoy’s fantastic attack on womanhood in The Kreutzer Sonata was a rationalization pushed to extremes by his personal fury. Berlin himself writes that Tolstoy “blames everything on our ignorance of empirical causes, and De Maistre on the abandonment of Thomist logic or the theology of the Catholic Church.” Where is the similarity? De Maistre welcomed the admission of the Jesuits to Russia; Tolstoy hated them. De Maistre was a post-Enlightenment thinker, whereas Tolstoy predated the Russian Enlightenment: a profound historical difference. Berlin calls De Maistre “an apostle of darkness” and quotes De Maistre: “C’est l’opinion qui perd les batailles, et c’est l’opinion qui les gagne.” But this is pure Pascal.

“If it is admitted that human life can be directed by reason, then the possibility of life is annihilated,” wrote Tolstoy within the main text of War and Peace. This goes against the grain of the Western tradition, including most of its most conservative or reactionary spokesmen. And it is in this respect that Tolstoy is inexorably bound to certain strains of Russian and populist orthodoxy, as is Dostoevsky: something that among their contemporaries perhaps only Turgenev and Chekhov seem to have escaped. As the agnostic and bitterly anti-Catholic Edmund Wilson wrote: “it is impossible not to feel that Turgenev, the atheist, was a good deal more successful at practising the Christian virtues than either the holy man of Yasnaya Polyana or the creator of Alyosha Karamazov.” As Sir David Kelly put it, this combination of “fraternal evangelism and the most violent hate-inspired intolerance was peculiarly evident in the case of Tolstoy. The great attraction of his novels lies precisely in his lack of the sense of causality, his lack of orderly composition; they are like a cinema, with no perspective, all the scenes of equal importance.” Curiously the young Proust noted this cinematic quality of Tolstoy’s writing, in Contre Sainte-Beuve: “dans cette création qui semble inépuisable, il semble que Tolstoi pourtant se suit répété, n’ait eu a sa disposition que peu de themes, déguisés et renouvelés, mais les mêmes toujours.”

“The business of science,” wrote Tolstoy, “is not to discover what happens but to teach men how they ought to live.” This is all very different from De Maistre; but it is not very different from Henry Ford, with his celebrated dictum: “History is bunk.” And there is much in Tolstoy that is Fordian. Even his religious conversion, his being “newly born” at the age of fifty-five, has a curiously fundamentalist tinge, recognizable to Americans; while his sudden and vocal repentance of his sins, his turning away from the world in Yasnaya Polyana, repeats, in some ways, the pattern of Ivan the Terrible, who shortly before his death declared that he had become the monk Jonah, or that of the Czar Alexander I, who disappeared into a monastery and may have died mysteriously there.

Berlin, too, recognizes some of this: he writes that when it comes to brotherly love, “a state which [Tolstoy] could have known but seldom, an ideal before the vision of which all his descriptive skill deserts him and usually yields something inartistic, wooden, and naive; painfully touching, painfully unconvincing, and conspicuously remote from his own experience.” At the end of his now famous essay, Berlin rises to poetic heights:

Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the life-long denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.

This is one image of the great writer, and not entirely devoid of elements of truth. It is surely preferable to that of J. B. Priestley who wrote that Tolstoy worked like “a happy god, with a whole world to play with.” There exists another picture of Tolstoy late in his life. It is a photograph preserved in the archives of Remington Typewriters, Incorporated. It is a picture of an old man in a cable-stitch sweater, dictating away to an admiring girl in a middy, in a room where the typewriting equipment was furnished as a gift to the great writer and prophet by the Remington people. The photograph was taken, with Tolstoy’s consent, for the purposes of advertising. Half Christ-actor, half muzhik, the image is that of a popular genius, half fundamentalist, half scientist, for whom history is bunk.

“The actions of men are subject to invariable general laws expressed by statistics.”

The key for the study of the laws of history of society should not be sought in the brains of men, nor in the opinions and ideas of society, but in the mode of production practiced by society . . . the prime task of historical science is the study and discovery . . . of the laws of development of the productive forces . . . of society.

The first quotation is from Tolstoy, the second from the official History of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the USSR.

There are many things in common between the admiration of science and the sort of fideism often found among Slavophiles and Russian Orthodox thinkers and writers. Apart from the fact that fatalism and scientism are both deterministic, listen to the voice of the so-called reactionary and anti-conservative Dostoevsky, from The Diary of a Writer: “In science, too, we [Russians] shall become masters and not followers of Europe.” And one of the factors which binds Slavophilism, even in its admittedly religious manifestations, to the Bolsheviks, is the missing element of historical consciousness that both have in common and which compromised both the vision and the art of Tolstoy.

Now it is precisely this indifference to history, this unwillingness to consider history, which has deeply vexed such Russian writers as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn; and it is my contention that; in this sense, the works of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn represent, out of great suffering, an awakening of the Russian consciousness of history which is both remarkable and perhaps a promising portent for the present and the future of that vast and unhappy country.

Dr. Zhivago is not an historical drama like War and Peace. It is a poetic epic written in prose; it has no pretense of being history; and yet Pasternak’s reconstruction of what has happened in Russia (and in certain Russian minds) between 1917 and 1924 is more precise and truthful than Tolstoy’s rendition of history between 1805 and 1812. It is remarkable that Pasternak, like Tolstoy, found it necessary to conclude his novel with a curious and unexpected Appendix, with an Appendix which is something very different from a didactic exposition of a mechanical philosophy of history. It is a chain of religious poems, reflecting much of the Western Christian tradition.

Pasternak (who respected Tolstoy, and whose father was Tolstoy’s friend and portrait-painter) has certain critical things to observe about Tolstoy in Dr. Zhivago. “Tolstoy says that the more a man devotes himself to beauty the further he moves away from goodness . . .” “And suddenly I understood everything. I understood why this stuff is so deadly, so insufferably false, even in Faust.” The entire philosophy of Zhivago is far more suffused with history, and with a certain kind of historical existentialism, than anything written in Russia beforehand: “Direct causes,” Pasternak writes, “operate only within certain limits; beyond them they produce the opposite effect.” And, like Solzhenitsyn, his description of some of the Russian peasantry and soldiery and proletarians is light-years removed from the illusion of the Noble Savage that some of the Slavophiles, including Tolstoy, held as an article of faith.

We know about Tolstoy’s contempt for Shakespeare and his attack on Shakespeare’s art, surely one of the oddest outbursts from the pen of a great author. Pasternak not only admired and loved Shakespeare but his immersion into Shakespeare’s language may have profoundly affected his entire philosophy of life, as Victor S. Frank adjudged in the Dublin Review (October 1958):

The change over from purely personal lyricism to an epic medium, from the concentration on oneself to an intimate communion with others, may have been partly due to the many years of hard work which Pasternak spent in translating Shakespeare’s plays . . . Now one cannot live in daily contact with Shakespeare over a period of several years without being affected by his attitude to human affairs; without recognizing the inherent limitations of lyrical poetry pure and simple. It is in any case an attractive thought that the conversion of a great Russian poet to a Christian attitude may have been due to Shakespeare’s influence . . .

Whatever the artistic merits of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one thing is indisputable about his achievement. He is an unusual prophet, a prophet about the past, not about the future. He is obsessed with history, not with utopia or with apocalypse. And his obsession with history is remarkably un-Russian and remarkably novel. For historical consciousness—as different from unthinking traditionalism—is not a deep-rooted inclination of the Russian mind. Many critics have compared Solzhenitsyn to Tolstoy, especially in view of the former’s August 1914. They are quite wrong; War and Peace is a historical novel—and yet with all of the limitations of what was essentially a nineteenth-century genre. The story is in the foreground, whereas history serves as an—admittedly gigantic—background. Now what Solzhenitsyn is trying to do is the very opposite. For him—and I am not merely referring to August 1914 or the Gulag Archipelago—history is the foreground not the background; it is the main subject, not the secondary one; it is the matter most worth describing. It is not only that Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy of history is the very opposite of Tolstoy’s, who was an obsessed nineteenth-century determinist, whereas Solzhenitsyn is a believer and apostle of free will (as is Zhivago). It is also that Solzhenitsyn has been struggling with the problem of a new prose genre which is essentially historical. And this represents a tremendous step forward, an advance of Russian historical consciousness which is ahead not only of Tolstoy but also of such modern and partially Westernized minor Russian geniuses as Biely or Nabokov.

Even more than Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn is a witness; and a witness with a desperate will to break through history. It was Mencken who said that the historian was a frustrated novelist. Tolstoy’s example suggests the reverse, too: that the novelist may be a frustrated historian. In any event, what Solzhenitsyn may have recognized is that it is more difficult to write a great history than a great novel. The tremendous meaning inherent in his obsession with history may be obscured by some of the political as well as prophetic pronouncements by the public Solzhenitsyn. Yet it is inevitably connected to the condition that, all of the Slavophile excrescences of his thought notwithstanding, the historical consciousness of Solzhenitsyn represents—and not only because of his subject, which is the contemporary history of Russia—the living present, whereas both the form and the subject of Tolstoy’s historical genre is part of a now receding and increasingly antiquated past, as must be also the philosophy of Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox. 

John Lukacs is a historian. Among his books is Historical Consciousness.

Posted: January 30, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

Did you see this one?

A Touchstone of Eloquence and Wisdom
James E. Person, Jr.
Volume 43, Number 1 (Fall 2003)

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk


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