War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy
Translation by Anthony Briggs
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910, Author)
Among many themes in Tolstoy’s classic, “War and Peace”, is the denial of the “great man” theory of history.
In terms of America, Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are historically recognized as great men. For women, it might be Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Perkins. Each were men or women of their time who stood firm in their belief about what is right. Many of their decisions were unpopular at the time of their implementation, but history proves many of their actions improved the lives of Americans.
In Tolstoy’s view leaders are great because they rise to the circumstances of their times; not because they are wiser, more intelligent, all powerful, or omniscient, but because their decisions appear right in light of history.
In America today, the question for some is whether America has a leader in President Trump who meets a similar or lower standard than most American Presidents? Is he just a reflection of our times or a “great man”?
The crises of today, and President Trump’s results:
- Resolution of a trade war with China (unresolved)
- Immigration Policy (unresolved)
- North Korean nuclear armament (unresolved)
- Afghanistan military withdrawal (unresolved)
- An acceptable Taliban treaty (unresolved)
- Peaceful government transition in Iraq (unresolved)
- Climate change policy (withdrew from Paris Accords on climate)
- Gun control legislation (unresolved)
- International alliance building (Signaled lack of cooperation with traditional allies of the United States with America First Program)
- Health care for the uninsured (Reduced number of people eligible for insurance coverage)
- American homelessness (Unresolved)
- The opioid crises (1.8 billion dollar funding to attack crises-a work in process.)
- Control of an “out of control” budget deficit. (Reduced taxes that benefit the rich more than the poor and middle class and set the table for the largest deficit in American history.)
- A coronavirus pandemic response (Unprepared in the beginning and unresolved as of March 2020.)
Tolstoy writes of conditions in 1812 Russia. He focuses on human spirit that can make individuals great enough to meet the circumstances of their time. How does Trump measure up? Is he great enough to meet the circumstances of today’s crises?
Trump’s leadership turning point internationally is withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, and diplomatic relations with traditional European Allies.
Trump’s leadership turning point domestically is recognition of universal health care as a American right, and resolution of the coronavirus pandemic.
Borodino is a small town outside of Moscow. In Tolstoy’s book, it is a site of a spiritual triumph of the Russian army over Napoleon, interpreted by some as a Russian military victory.
Leaders of the Russian army did not militarily defeat Napoleon at Borodino, but neither did Napoleon decisively defeat Russia. Napoleon moves on to Moscow but the government and its defenders leave the city to hide in the countryside.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, Emperor of the French 1804-1814)
In history and in Tolstoy’s story, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army moves to occupy Moscow but his army abandons Russia without victory, and returns to France. Tolstoy makes Borodino a turning point in Russia’s battle with Napoleon’s army.
It raises the question of whether our President’s decision is a reflection of what America stands for or what an erratic leader decides.
Napoleon lost 70,000 of his 250,000 soldiers in the Borodino battle. This is over 25% of the attacking French force in Borodino. He loses many more soldiers in the winter of his withdrawal from Moscow and his return to France.
There are many characters and themes in “War and Peace”. The three most memorable characters are Andrew Bolkonski, Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov.
Bolkonski is an elegant aristocrat with consummate personal honor, intelligence, and sophistication. However, Bolkonski elegance is found to be flawed. He fails to understand what is important in life until he is at death’s door.
Rostova is a young ingenue, thinking of a life with an aristocrat like Bolkonski. She is beautiful but ignorant of the meaning of life until its too late. She grows to understand her ignorance as Bolkonski dies.
Bezukhov is a bumbling naïf that inherits wealth, fumbles through a foolish marriage and divorce, and grows into a life of contentment and ease when he marries Rostova.
Tolstoy is not denying superiority of some over others but his story emphasizes man’s mortality, common fragility, and ephemeral existence. To Tolstoy, greatness dwells in all humankind with individual extra-ordinariness born of circumstance; not innate greatness.
Once again, this raises the question of Trump being an erratic anomaly or a reflection of who Americans have become.
There is a large element of predetermination in Tolstoy’s characters.
Every character seems destined to live their lives according to a Master’s plan. To Tolstoy, innate human frailties are determinant’s of man’s path in life.
Tolstoy implies happiness comes from an acceptance of fate, exemplified by the marriage of Bezuhov and Rostova after many tragedies and triumphs in their lives.
At the end of “War and Peace”, one gets some sense of what it means to be Russian. The exuberance of living life, working through hardship, believing in something greater than your self are all evident traits in Tolstoy’s characters. These human qualities reflect Russian tolerance for inept leadership and endurance when faced with the unendurable.
America does not have a great American President today, but at least 3 (maybe 4) have been 70% right in the last 243 years.
If not today, what about 2020? Can Americans vote for a person who can be 70% right?