Literature Study GuidesWar And PeaceEpilogue Part 2 Chapters 1 12 Summary

War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Epilogue, Part 2, Chapters 1–12 | Summary



Modern history ought to take as its subject not the manifestations of power, but what is behind power (Chapter 1). Once again Tolstoy objects to the idea that the great men of history are prime movers, because it begs the question: what motivates or compels people to act (Chapter 2)? Different types of historians have different answers, and none of them are satisfactory.

History is written about so-called world movers and does not include an account of all the people, every single one, taking part in any particular event (Chapter 3). For that reason historians can describe humanity's actions only by taking into account the force that compels large numbers of people to act—i.e., power. So how does a Napoleon compel 600,000 men to cross the Niemen River? Some may say that the collective will invests him with that power (Chapter 4). But this theory does not hold up under scrutiny. It is not possible to prove that all the will of the people is transferred to a particular historical leader (Chapter 5). Therefore power is something people really do not understand.

Since human beings are not God, they are bound by time and participate in events and, thus, cannot stand outside of time (Chapter 6). Therefore when an order is given, it must always be related to orders that were previously given as well as orders that will follow. The relationship between a person giving orders and the person who is taking orders is power. The person who gives the order necessarily does less work than the person who carries out the order (Chapter 7). Those who do not directly take part in the act create justifications for that act and absolve the culprits (those who cause the event) from moral responsibility. This explains how millions can commit collective crimes—such as in war. It is now possible to conclude that power is the relationship of one person to other persons—in which the person in power expresses opinions, justifications, and so forth about the collective action, but actually has little personal involvement in the action. Also, "the movement of peoples" is caused by "all the people taking part in [an] event," with those taking the "greatest direct part" taking the least responsibility, and vice versa.

The next question to consider is free will (Chapter 8). Does it exist? If everyone could act as they pleased, history would have no rhyme or reason. Since people's actions are governed by law, there is no free will. Nonetheless people feel free, even if it is an illusion. The external reality of necessity, which constrains people's actions, cannot be reconciled with their internal feeling that they are free, and in fact people would not be able to bear life if they did not feel they were free.

History must now solve the problem of free will versus necessity (Chapter 9). The substance of history is not "the will of man itself, but our notion of it." Every action appears as a mix of freedom and necessity. The less freedom people see in an action and the more necessity, the less harshly they judge it. People cannot imagine an act that is entirely free, nor one that is entirely determined (Chapter 10). Furthermore it is just as absurd to talk about one person's free will influencing historical events as it would be to talk about a "free force moving the heavenly bodies" (Chapter 11). Rather historians should try to discern historical laws while acknowledging that only "an infinitely small quantity" of free will is operating in the movement of history. Just as in science where people initially resist a new idea, the same is true in history (Chapter 12). Some people may think that acknowledging the laws of history will destroy religion, but this is not the case any more than new laws of science destroyed religion. In fact the "law of necessity in history ... consolidates the ground on which state and church institutions are built."


In the last part of the epilogue, Tolstoy pulls together all his ideas about history and the causes of historical events—he sees these ideas as the scaffolding for his magnum opus. There are strong correlations between the fully realized essay at the end of War and Peace and the series of glosses that appear in the second part of the novel, beginning in Vol. 3, as well as with the "pre-essay" that begins the first epilogue. This essay capping off the novel is difficult to understand, and it may be tempting to simply disregard it as unnecessary to the story. But for a deeper understanding of the author's view of his own work and its meaning, it is worthwhile to wrestle with the final essay.

Tolstoy goes to great lengths to debunk the methods and views of the historians of his day, and some of his ideas line up with modern historical thinking and current science. For example, Tolstoy debunked the "great man" theory, which had a lot of currency in the 19th century. This theory held that great figures use their power, charisma, and their special gifts to shape history. Modern historians would agree with Tolstoy that history is not fashioned only by great figures, but by all the people, and current historians seek out the stories of ordinary people to understand historical events and pay more attention to how the needs and desires of the masses influence which leaders rise to power.

Probably the most important idea to glean from the epilogue is that life is a push–pull between freedom and necessity. Certainly Tolstoy was ahead of his time in asserting that human beings have very little, if any, free will. Psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology have weighed in on this debate over the past century, decidedly on the side of necessity. However Tolstoy says two things about free will that are contradictory: 1. Human beings have no free will, and 2. Human beings have a tiny amount of free will. He recommends that historians begin to discern the laws of history, which are mostly the laws of necessity. Why? Perhaps because if human beings better understood these historical laws, they could prevent the worst of collective behavior—war, for example, or genocide.

But Tolstoy paints himself into a corner, to some degree, with his clear–sighted views about free will. If the people in Tolstoy's novel—and real people anywhere—did not feel free, they could not bear living, as the author notes in his essay. In the novel he describes people who have spiritual apprehensions and moments of enlightenment, and a sense of inner freedom is both necessary and integral to these experiences. Tolstoy does not deny the sense of inner freedom that people feel, but he seems to indicate it is an illusion. Therefore the reader cannot help but ask: does Tolstoy believe that spiritual apprehensions are real? It would seem that he does, and in his own life he pursued mystical knowledge. But is it possible to reconcile his vision of spiritual perfection or enlightenment with his view of history? That is another question to ponder.

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