This book about young aristocratic Russians in the time of the Napoleonic war is certainly beyond my complete comprehension. Hence I’ll focus on 2 themes that stood out to me: power and the pursuit of happiness.
The war provides the perfect background to explore the theme of power and influence over people. „war began. In other words, an event took place which defied human reason and all human nature. Millions of men set out to inflict on one another untold evils – deception, treachery, robbery, forgery, counterfeiting, theft, arson and murder – on a scale unheard of in the animals of law-courts down the centuries and all over the world, though at the time the men responsible did not think of these deeds as crimes.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.667). „Every last man oft hem clearly knew beyond doubt they were all criminals, and they had to move quickly to hide all traces of their crime.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1073).
It is power that binds people together in groups: “Pierre could not see these people as individuals; he saw them all together and in movement.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1131).
„There are two sides to life for every individual: a personal life, in which his freedom exists in proportion to the abstract nature of his interests, and an elemental life within the swarm of humanity, in which a man inevitable follows laws laid down for him.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.669).
But power is not simple: Leaders can’t order and events will happen. Orders don’t correspond to events.
“From the incalculable series of Napoleon’s orders that were never carried out, one series of orders that were carried out, not because of any essential difference between these and the ones not carried out, but simply because this series happened to correspond with the course of events bringing the French soldiers into Russia.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1337).
„It was necessary for those millions of men who wielded the real power – soldiers, shooting or bringing up supplies and guns – to do what they were told by one or two feeble individuals.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.669). „If any of these causes had been missing, nothing could have happened.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.669).
So what is the role of leader and what is the role of those being led - the leaders provide the moral: „Since time began and men started killing each other, no man has ever committed such a crime against one of his fellows without comforting himself with the same idea. This idea is ‚the public good’, a supposed benefit for other people. No person in control of his passions is ever aware of this benefit, but a man fresh from committing such a crime always knows certain where the benefit lies. Rostropchin knew.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.990).
“(1) Power is a relationship between a given person and other persons by which the less directly a person participates in a collective enterprise the more involved he is in expressing opinions and theories about it and providing justification for it.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1341).
“(2) The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have supposed, by the exercise of power or the intellect or both together, but by the actions of all involved; all the people who come together in such a way that those who participate most directly in the activity assume the least responsibility for it and vice versa.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1341). “But these justifications are very necessary at the time, shifting moral responsibility away from the men who produce the events. These short-term measures operate like brushes on the front of a train clearing the rails ahead.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1339).
“In moral terms power is the cause of the event; in physical terms it is those who are subject to that power.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1341).
The second theme is the pursuit of happiness or a purpose in life: The main characters live in Russian aristocratic society - a society that favours shallowness and vanity.
Instinctively the main characters know, that this is no way of living and is the source of their unhappiness. When Andrey Bolkonsky lies severely wounded on the battle field: „How can it be that I’ve never seen that lofty sky before? Oh, how happy I am to have found it last. Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There’s nothing, nothing – that’s all there is. But there isn’t even that. There’s nothing but stillness and peace. Thank God for that!“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.299).
So all main characters in the book look for a purpose in life and they try out pretty much everything – a journey through plenty of philosophical ideas. But all of them fail – but towards the end Tolstoy develops his unique way.
A main source of happiness is the feeling of being part of a whole and containing this whole in oneself: „Pierre glanced up at the sky and the play oft he stars receding into the depths. ‚And it’s all mine and it’s all within me, and it all adds up to me!’ thought Pierre.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1134). In a dream Pierre recognizes this idea clearer: “’Wait a minute,’ said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux and sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing it or merging into it. ‘This is life,’ said the little old teacher. (…) God is in the middle and each drop tries to expand and reflect Him on the largest possible scale. And it grows, gets absorbed and compressed, disappears from the surface, sinks down into depths and bubbles up again. That’s what happened to him, Karatayev: he has been absorbed and he’s disappeared.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1185).
Being part of a whole and containing it, leads to unconditional love of the world:
„’Yes, it’s love ...’ (his thoughts were lucidity itself), ‚but not the kind of love that loves for a reason, a purpose, a cause, but the kind of love I felt for the first time when I was on my death bed and I saw essence of the soul, love that seeks no object. (…) .... When you love with human love you can change from love to hatred, but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death, nothing can destroy it. It is the essence of the soul.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1021).
Unconditional love also implies the danger of being indifferent to the world and life:
„Karatayev enjoyed no attachements, no friendships, no love in any sense of these words that meant anything to Pierre, yet he loved and showed affection to every creature he came across in life, especially people, no particular people, just those who happened tob e there before his eyes. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and he loved Pierre, his neighbour. But Pierre felt that for all the warmth and affection Karatayev showed him (an instinctive tribute to Pierre’s spirituality), he wouldn’t suffer a moment’s sorrow if they were to part.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1080).
Thus there is a catch to this principle uncondititional love. It more or less means renouncing life. „Loving everything and everybody, always sacrificing oneself for the sake of love, meant loving no one person, and not living this earthly life. And the more he absorbed this principle of love, the easier he found it to renounce life, and the more effectively he destroyed the dreadful barrier that the absence of love sets up between life and death.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1091).
Thus love should be unconditional but it never ends up being undiscriminating. The character who live a happy life in ‘War and Peace’ always find a partner that they cannot help but love more than the rest of the world. „It was a sudden awareness that life, seen though his love for Natasha, was still precious.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1091). „’Love gets in the way of death. Love is life. Every single thing I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is – everything exists . only because I love. Everything is bound up with love, and love alone. Love is God, and dying means me, a tiny particle of love, going back to ist universal and eternal source.’“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1093).
So in the end, this love means restriction in the world. So for Tolstoy happiness doesn’t exist in freedom, but in restriction: „It was Natasha, and he loved her. (...) By now Pierre’s embarrassment had almost disappeared, but he felt that all his former freedom had disappeared with it. He felt that now there was a judge listening to his every word and every action, someone whose judgement mattered more than the judgement of everybody else in the world.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1241).
And this restriction applies not only to love, but also to the material world:
„It was only here and now that Pierre had fully appreciated fort he first time in his life the enjoymentof eating when you are hungry, drinking when you are thirsty, sleeping when you are tired,keeping warm when it is cold and talking to a fellow creature when you feel like talking and you want to hear men’s voices. Through deprivation Pierre now saw the satisfaction of his basic needs – good food, cleanliness and freedom – as the ultimate happiness, and the choice of an occupation or lifestyle, now that this choice was so restricted, seemed such a simply matter that he forgot that a surfeit of luxury takes all the pleasure oout of satisfying our basic needs and maximum freedom in the choice of occupation, which had been provided for him through education, wealth and his position in society makes the actual choice of an occupation extraordinarily difficult, because it destroys the need and desire for any such thing.“ (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1126).
“In his prison shed Pierre had learnt, though his whole being rather than his intellect, through the process of living itself, that man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within, in the satisfaction of natural human needs, and any unhappiness arises from excess rather than deficiency. (…) He had learnt that just as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, neither is there any situation in which he should be unhappy and not free. He had learnt that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are never far away (…) He learnt that when he had married his wife by his own free will (so he had thought), he had been no freer than he was now when they locked him up in a stable for the night.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1179).
The best purpose in life is no purpose “And from habit he would start asking himself questions. ‘What comes next, then? What am I going to do?’ And immediately he knew the answer: ‘Nothing, I’m just going to live. Oh, it’s marvellous!’. And it was the lack of any purpose that gave him the complete and joyous sense of freedom underlying his present happiness. He could seek no purpose now, because now he had faith – not faith in principles, words or ideas, but faith in a living God of feeling and experience.” (Tolstoy, 1868, p.1230).