Ancient historians used to describe entire peoples in terms of their individual rulers. They believed that deities subjected peoples to these rulers and guided the rulers toward a particular goal. Modern history rejects these ideas. Instead of studying manifestations of power, modern historians study its underlying causes. Instead of gods, they elevate human heroes; instead of divine goals, they identify goals like the good of a particular nation or of mankind as a whole. Modern historians just arrive at the same ideas (that peoples are led by rulers toward specific goals) by a different route.
In the second part of the Epilogue, Tolstoy returns to a general discussion of history. He begins by suggesting that people used to think about history in terms of divine power. In modern times, however, belief in divine power is replaced by the study of human causes.
If modern historians still held to ancient views, they would say that Napoleon was a divinely ordained ruler. Instead, they look back to the rule of Louis XIV of France and his heirs. They ruled poorly. By the end of the 18th century, about two dozen men gathered in Paris to discuss ideals of equality. This led to violence all over France, including the killing of the king.
By way of illustration, Tolstoy describes how modern historians might account for Napoleon’s rule. Since they don’t believe he was divinely appointed, they identify the French Revolution as a cause for Napoleon’s rise.
Around the same time, Napoleon, a genius, rose to power by killing lots of people. He killed more people across Europe, until Russia’s Emperor, Alexander, decided to restore order in Europe by fighting Napoleon. They made a truce, then fought again, ultimately forcing Napoleon out of Russia and then, with the help of Napoleon’s old allies, drove him into exile. While sovereigns and diplomats argued in Paris, Napoleon seized power in France again, fought with the other monarchs, and was exiled once more, eventually dying. Then came the reaction, when rulers started ruling badly again.
Tolstoy continues with his humorously simplified account of Napoleon’s rise, reign, and fall. Basically, Napoleon seized and kept power because he was a “genius” (a concept Tolstoy will deconstruct later) and killed many people; after he died, Europe declined once more. This abbreviated history doesn’t explain much of anything—but that’s Tolstoy’s point.
Though this account is comical, it’s because modern history is like someone who answers questions they haven’t been asked. It doesn’t show the connection between great rulers and the movement of people. If divine power doesn’t govern people through rulers, then what force moves them? Modern historians don’t say.
There’s something missing in modern history—namely, in the absence of belief in a divine power, historians don’t explain what does move rulers and the people subject to them.
Historians often attribute this “force” to the Napoleons and Alexanders of the world. But once multiple historians begin describing the same event from different perspectives, it becomes clear that their answers are mutually contradictory. General historians, as opposed to specialized ones, look for causes in many different people’s interactions. They alternate between seeing figures as products of their time and seeing them as causes of other events (for example, Napoleon was at once a product of the French revolution and responsible for quashing revolutionary ideas). General historians identify many composite factors, but these aren’t sufficient—they still fail to identify a motivating force that acts upon these factors.
Tolstoy explains that different historians describe the same event in different ways. The most common are general historians. General historians study people’s interactions to explain how events happen—how human interactions give rise to each other. But while these historians can demonstrate many interesting connections, they still don’t explain why things happen.
There’s also a third group of historians—historians of culture. They find a motivating force in intellectual activity. Phenomena like the murder of people resulting from the preaching of equality during the French revolution, however, cast doubt on the idea that intellectual activity moves people. And even if it could be proven, it’s still not clear how ideas and the masses are connected. It’s plausible to think that Napoleon’s power somehow led to an event; it’s much less clear how the book The Social Contract led French people to start drowning one another. It’s hard to think how cultural historians draw these conclusions, except that, as scholars, they find it satisfying to suppose that their work moves masses of people; also, concepts like “culture” and “ideas” are conveniently vague.
Besides general and specialist historians, cultural historians narrow their focus to intellectual ideas. But to Tolstoy, this connection is even more tenuous, as his extreme Social Contract example makes clear. Basically, intellectual ideas don’t have a strong enough hold on a sufficient number of people to create mass movements.
When a peasant claims that a devil moves a locomotive, it’s impossible to refute him unless one could first prove that the devil doesn’t exist. When another person says that the turning wheels move a train, they have to trace their analysis back to the compression of steam in the train’s boiler. And one who claims that the blowing of the smoke moves the train just assumes that the first sign he notices must be the cause.
For another example of what he means by a motivating force, Tolstoy looks at the example of what makes a train move. While different people point to different explanations, none of these is sufficient in itself (or necessarily even valid).
The train’s movement can only be explained by the concept of a force equal to its movement. It’s the same with the movement of peoples. Some historians—those who favor heroic figures—are like the peasant who believes in the devil. Generalists who look to a force produced by other forces are like the man who points out the turning of the wheels. And the cultural historian is like the one who identifies the blowing smoke as a cause.
Just like with a train, the movement of people in history can only be explained by a sufficiently strong force. None too flatteringly, Tolstoy identifies each of his train-observers with a historian who makes a flawed argument.
Until the history of all people is written, instead of histories of separate individuals, it will be impossible to explain humanity’s movement without recourse to a force that acts on people. As it stands, the only force historians know about is power. Even those who renounce the concept of power inevitably rely on it in their historical accounts. Historians will not advance knowledge until they are able to answer the question, “What is power?”
To name a sufficiently strong force that moves masses of people, historians resort to “power,” but they don’t know how to define this.
Historians must either return to the belief that events are divinely directed, or they must explain the meaning of power. Belief has been destroyed, so the latter is the only option. If power doesn’t reside within a person—either in physical strength or moral qualities—then it must be outside of that person, in relation to the masses. Power is “the sum total of the wills of the masses, transferred […] to rulers chosen by the masses.” But this definition raises many questions about, for example, revolutions and conquests.
If the ancient belief in divine power no longer works as an explanation, then “power” must be explained in some other way. Tolstoy defines it as the total of the masses’ will, which is then transferred to rulers.
Historians explain this transfer of the will in various ways. Some see the masses transferring their wills unconditionally, and anything that opposes that power is a breach of power, or violence. This unsophisticated view can’t account for complex power struggles. Other historians see the transfer of the will as conditional, dependent on figures carrying out the people’s will. Depending on what he sees as the goal of a people’s movement, a historian might name those conditions as wealth, freedom, enlightenment, or something else.
The transfer of the people’s will to their rulers doesn’t always happen smoothly, as history amply illustrates. And if people choose a ruler to carry out their will—to ensure their prosperity or freedom, for instance—and that ruler fails to do so, then a transfer of will might not have happened in the first place.
So historians usually claim that such abstractions as freedom, equality, and progress are the goals of the people. In order to prove this, historians typically study the documents left behind by history’s most conspicuous figures. In doing so, they leave out the activities of the great majority of people. Historians of culture do no better, because instead of rulers, they only explain the motives of given writers or reformers.
Historians commonly resort to abstract ideas to explain the transfer of the people’s will to rulers, but this raises a problem: the nature of documentary evidence. By its nature, surviving documents represent the perspectives of a very small number of people.
The act of transferring the wills of the people to historical figures can’t be verified, so the theory doesn’t actually explain anything. If historians say that power is the cause of historical events but can’t explain under what conditions power is transferred, it suggests that they don’t understand what power means in the first place.
In the end, Tolstoy maintains that it doesn’t conclusively explain anything to claim that power is the transfer of the people’s will to their rulers. That “transfer” can’t be pinpointed; it’s just an ethereal idea.
Both reason and experience suggest that an individual’s will is only one part of an event such as a war. In fact, events often run completely counter to a ruler’s will. Unless divine participation is part of human affairs, then power alone can’t explain events. If a divine being ordered its will to be carried out, nothing could thwart that will. But when a person orders that their will be carried out, that person depends on others to carry out that will.
Tolstoy concludes that even ruler’s wills can’t be said to achieve much within historical events. Unless a sovereign will is imposed by a divine being, then it must be assumed that a ruler’s will can be thwarted in any number of ways.