With young Nikolai’s words, the narrative has come to a close. This second part is an extended essay on the nature of free will. Many skip this, but it’s worth reading. And it’s certainly related thematically to the novel. Tolstoy has been fascinated with human behaviour – what makes people behave one way, and not another. It is only a short step from this to asking what governs the historic movements of people – why the great events of history happen. There are many passages in the novel where Tolstoy had directly touched upon this theme, but here, he explores in greater detail the question of freedom of will: when human beings act, to what extent do they have control over their own actions?
First of all, Tolstoy throws great scorn on the reasons historians give for the great historical events. In the first chapter of this essay, Tolstoy gives us a devastating and quite hilarious parody of the reasons historians normally give for the French Revolution and for the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy’s parody is very unfair, to be sure, but hugely enjoyable.
The conclusion Tolstoy eventually comes up with is certainly debatable, and I do not know enough about philosophy to debate it. There is no such thing as freedom of will, Tolstoy concludes. Everything is predetermined. But the nature of this predetermination is so complex and the product of so many minute reasons – and infinity of infinitesimally small causes – that the human mind is not equipped to understand the nature of this predetermination. Thus, we are given an erroneous impression of freedom of will, whereas, in fact, none exists.
A contentious conclusion, certainly; but one that cannot detract from the sheer glory of the novel itself.
[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]