This chapter has no characters. It’s just the narrator suddenly laying out a bunch of the novel’s philosophies for us.
If you’ve been paying attention (or even if you haven’t) the narrator hasn’t had all that much to say about the action so far. Sure, he’s got a good eye for detail, but he’s been hands off in the Here-Is-What-You-Should-Think department.
But now we get a long discussion of war, most of which falls into the “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing” line of argument advanced by Tom Jones.
Tolstoy calls war “an event contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature” (18.104.22.168), so there’s not too much ambiguity about where he stands on the matter.
He takes apart the idea of war as a normal thing.
First, he takes on history. What does history do, he asks. It tries to figure out why countries went to war. Then he lists a bazillion possible reasons for war. Some are political, some are economic and having to do with trade, some are personal and having to do with an insult between two rulers. Which is all well and good, but for Tolstoy this is all off point.
The point is that everything is seemingly random. It’s fine to point to a specific chain of events and say that is why the war took place, but if any of the links in that chain had gone in a slightly different direction, everything would have been different.
If soldier X had never enlisted in the army, or if several soldiers had decided to stay home, or if one of the aristocrats involved in politics had been born with a different personality, or if there hadn’t been a French Revolution and so no Napoleon on the throne, none of this would have happened.
So what does this mean?
For Tolstoy it means:
1. There are no causes for world events. Things just happen because they are meant to happen – which is a philosophy called “fatalism” (as in, everything is fated to be).
2. People think they have free will, but in reality every action affects a huge number of other people. The higher up the social or political ladder the person, the more people his actions affect. This is another philosophical strand we can call “interconnectedness” (as in, everyone is interconnected).
3. Everything that happens relies heavily on coincidence. So soldiers marching east will only fight if there are soldiers marching west at the same time – coincidentally. This seems like it contradicts the whole fatalism thing, but actually they are both ideas that come out of the idea of “randomness” – that events have a mostly equal chance of happening or not happening.
Heady stuff. We’ll let you take a minute to think about all that.