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War and Peace

War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

Morality and Ethics Quotes

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Quote #7

"Is this good or bad?" Pierre asked himself. "It is good for me, bad for another traveler, and for himself it's unavoidable, because he needs money for food; the man said an officer had once given him a thrashing for letting a private traveler have the courier horses. But the officer thrashed him because he had to get on as quickly as possible. And I," continued Pierre, "shot Dolokhov because I considered myself injured, and Louis XVI was executed because they considered him a criminal, and a year later they executed those who executed him also for some reason. What is bad? What is good? What should one love and what hate? What does one live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What power governs all?"
There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: "You'll die and all will end. You'll die and know all, or cease asking." But dying was also dreadful. (2.2.2.5-6)

Pierre isn't afraid to question the most fundamental assumptions that underlie our lives. By mixing up things that usually are kept separate, he is trying to get to some hidden truth. Here, for example, he compares his duel with Dolokhov over Helene to the way the French revolutionaries shot King Louis. Is this a reasonable comparison, or is Pierre going a little nuts here because he nearly just killed a man?

Quote #8

"No, to kill a man is wrong."

"Why is it wrong?" urged Andrei. "It is not given to man to know what is right and what is wrong. Men always did and always will err, and in nothing more than in what they consider right and wrong."

"What does harm to another is wrong," said Pierre, feeling with pleasure that for the first time since his arrival Andrei was roused, had begun to talk, and wanted to express what had brought him to his present state.

"And who has told you what is bad for another man?" he asked.

"Bad! Bad!" exclaimed Pierre. "We all know what is bad for ourselves."

"Yes, we know that, but the harm I am conscious of in myself is something I cannot inflict on others," said Andrei, growing more and more animated and evidently wishing to express his new outlook to Pierre. He spoke in French. "I only know two very real evils in life: remorse and illness. The only good is the absence of those evils. To live for myself avoiding those two evils is my whole philosophy now."

"And love of one's neighbor, and self-sacrifice?" began Pierre. "No, I can't agree with you! To live only so as not to do evil and not to have to repent is not enough. I lived like that, I lived for myself and ruined my life. And only now when I am living, or at least trying" (Pierre's modesty made him correct himself) "to live for others, only now have I understood all the happiness of life. (2.2.11.33-39)

Pierre has become a pacifist and he's working on liberating his serfs. His intentions are good, but at the same time, even though he says here that he feels like he's "living for others," we know that in reality all his self-improvements are meaningless. Meanwhile, Andrei has apparently given up on having an emotional life altogether. Which is preferable – total self-delusion or no longer caring at all and only looking out for number one?

Quote #9

[W]ar began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. [...] What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? [...] a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England's policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: [...] Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes – myriads of causes – coincided to bring it about. [...] We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us. (3.1.1.1-11)

Here we have a partial summary of Tolstoy's ideas about the causes of historical events. Basically, every single thing that's ever happened before is a cause. It doesn't have anything to do with what one guy did or didn't command. There are two ethical connections here. One is that, if this is the case, then historians are obligated to do what Tolstoy has tried to do: explain each event from as many points of view as possible. And two is that, when you try to really look at the infinite number of things that have to happen for something as massive as a war to take place, then you (like Tolstoy) start to believe in fatalism – the idea that everything is predetermined and that free will is only an illusion.

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