Seven years after 1812, war-torn Europe is calm. Nevertheless, the “mysterious forces that move mankind” continue to work unseen. Instead of roiling Europe, these forces churn far beneath the surface. Instead of going into battle, historical figures conduct diplomacy and enact laws. Historians call this “the reaction.”
Tolstoy believes that a law of necessity works to bring about historical events, a point he’ll expand on later in the epilogue. History doesn’t stop when wars end; the same forces continue to work in less conspicuous ways. The Napoleonic Wars had far-reaching effects as countries adjusted their borders, attempted to re-balance power, and saw fledgling nationalist movements take root.
In Russia, the “reaction’s” leader was Alexander I—the same figure who’d earlier been hailed for his liberalism by the same historians. Historians roundly condemn Alexander for his actions during this period, “on the basis of that knowledge of the good of mankind which they possess.” They condemn him not for lacking virtue, but for lacking their own views of the good of humanity, 50 years later. Presumably, these views, too, will shift as time goes on.
Historians’ criticisms of Alexander often have to do with his growing conservatism, such as granting Poland a constitution yet declaring it bound to the Russian throne, appointing conservative figures to government positions, and harshly punishing an entire mutinous regiment. Tolstoy points out that people think their view of humanity’s good is infallible, but that this view is ever-evolving.
When a modern thinker condemns Alexander or Napoleon, they do so because the man did not act according to their modern notion of the good—a notion that’s limited itself. Even if we could grant that there’s an unchanging measure of good and evil, even if Alexander could have acted according to present-day notions of progress, then what would have become of those who opposed Alexander in his own day?
Tolstoy’s point is that if Alexander had conformed to modern progressive ideas, then his own critics would have been the “reactionaries” of the day, and history would be much different; figures are best evaluated according to the standards of their own time.
If we believe that “great men” lead humanity to certain achievements, then we must explain history in light of the ideas of chance and genius. But what are these two things? If we think we don’t know why a phenomenon occurs, then we attribute it to “chance.” If we observe that some power produces an effect which seems to be beyond normal human qualities, and we don’t understand it, then we say it’s due to “genius.” On the other hand, if we renounce the idea that there’s an understandable purpose behind things, we don’t need the concepts of chance and genius.
Tolstoy critiques the view that history is guided by so-called great men. For this view to make sense, one must also uphold ideas of “chance” and “genius” that allow such great men to emerge. On the other hand, if there’s no guiding purpose behind history, such ideas aren’t necessary.
The events of the early nineteenth century in Europe involved the movement of masses of people from west to east and then from east to west. In order for this to happen, it was first necessary to form a sufficiently large military body; second, to reject existing customs; and, third, to have a leader who could justify all that followed. This man, who wasn’t even a Frenchman, strangely arose to fill that role. The ignorance and weakness of those around him, his sincere lies, and his self-confidence propelled him there, along with countless other so-called chances.
To give an example of the “great man” theory, Tolstoy here describes Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars, describing the so-called chances that swept such a “genius” into his role.
After dodging destruction in both France and Italy, Napoleon sought so-called glory by invading Africa. This idea of “glory” consists of considering one’s actions to be supernaturally significant, incapable of being bad. Even though he left Africa on shameful terms, by the time he returned to Paris, the way was cleared for him to assume power there. Napoleon was terrified and had no plan, but he was also in love with himself, bold, and a good liar, so he could justify what needed to be done.
Tolstoy continues to describe Napoleon’s career in terms of chance and genius. Tongue in cheek, he critiques the notion of “glory” as a way of deifying a person’s actions and thereby shielding them from criticism. In his thought experiment, Napoleon’s “genius” consisted only of arrogance and deceit.
As Napoleon gained more victories, Europe—which once condemned Napoleon’s “crimes”—began to recognize not only his power but his supposed greatness and glory, which now seemed “beautiful and reasonable.” As he gathered a larger group around himself and pushed eastward toward Russia, the justification of his power grew, too. It’s not so much that he prepared himself to fulfill a role as that everyone around him prepared the way for him. Everything continued apace until Moscow, when “chance” seemingly turned against him, and the movement around him moved westward once more. Now, Napoleon and his government were meaningless and reviled even by his erstwhile allies. Yet they simply sent him to an island and paid him several million.
Napoleon’s war victories persuaded people to view him as a genius, even though they’d previously seen him as a criminal. The more powerful he became, the more people submitted to him, until “chance” finally failed him in the War of 1812. After that, he was condemned once more. Tolstoy implicitly mocks the ideas of chance and genius as the factors that propel so-called great men into power—neither chance nor genius lasted very long during Napoleon’s reign.
Alexander I, who oversaw the movement of forces from east to west, shows the power of necessity even more strongly. Justified by his moral superiority, his concern for all of Europe, and his personal grievance against Napoleon, Alexander has reached the height of human power by 1815. But instead of seizing the opportunity to do good for humanity, he sees his power as insignificant and hands it over to “despicable” men instead. In the case of both figures—Alexander and Napoleon—all that’s possible is observation of the connection between their lives and other phenomena. The whole story is inaccessible to humanity.
Alexander I doesn’t conform to the “great man” theory, either. Though he amassed great power in the aftermath of Napoleon’s rule, he basically let it slip through his fingers. In sum, the great man view of history doesn’t explain very much. Their lives raise many more questions than historians can answer.