Tolstoy, history and non-violence

By Terry Hopton

It is difficult to discuss Tolstoy’s thought without invoking Berlin’s famous dictum that, ‘Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.’ Applying this to Tolstoy’s views of history, which have a prominent place in War and Peace, Berlinshows how Tolstoy’s fox-like knowledge of the many things that constitute the complexity of events was both an incentive to seek, yet an obstacle to the discovery of, the one big thing that would make sense of history. As Berlin shows, Tolstoy’ssearch for an overarching explanation of history led him to expose the deceptive character and weakness of the purported explanations currently employed by historians. However, it is not easy at first to identify what Tolstoy advocates as an alternative. This is inevitably so, because for Tolstoy the question of history is wrapped up with the far greater question of the meaning of life. This meaning, which the peasant Platon Karataev understands in War and Peace and which PierreBezukhov comes to grasp, or feel, is, according to Berlin, an experience of being part of the ‘flow of life’ in the universe; a sense of oneness with creation.


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