A divine being exists outside of time and can determine the direction of humanity’s movement over time. But human beings necessarily participate in time. When a human being issues an order, it never exists spontaneously without representing a whole chain of events that have gone before it. For example, saying that Napoleon ordered the army to go to war actually reflects a long series of consecutive events that led up to his order. Plenty of orders are issued that are never carried out. So an order shouldn’t be viewed as the cause of an event. Describing any given order is always a generalization.
Modern history is more complicated than ancient history because it exists within time. If a divine being gives an order, that order isn’t caused by anything else, and nothing can thwart its being carried out. But human orders, existing within time, aren’t like that. They’re the product of many other events, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be carried out.
Then what is the relationship between orders and events? The answer lies in the fact that the individual who orders is also a participant in events. The relationship between the one who orders and the ones who are ordered is called power. This relationship is exemplified in an army, which can be pictured as a pyramid with the largest number of people (the army’s privates, who participate most directly in the action) on the bottom and fewer and fewer people (officers, generals, the commander) rising toward the apex. Both here and in other areas of joint action, the greater mass of people participate more directly and give fewer orders; the smaller number give more orders and participate little or not at all. In other words, the one who orders does little else.
Unlike divine beings, human beings participate in the events over which they exercise power. Here Tolstoy offers a definition of power in terms of the relationship between the one who orders and the ones who are ordered. Generally, the more directly someone participates in the action (like an ordinary soldier), the fewer orders that person will give; the less they participate, the more orders they’ll give (like a general).
When events take place, like Europeans slaughtering one another, people offer various justifications—like the welfare of France, the ideal of liberty, and others. These justifications don’t make much sense, but they help remove people’s sense of moral responsibility for what they’re doing.
Tolstoy suggests that one who gives orders for events often tries to absolve himself of doing so by offering justifications that distance him from said events.
When historians only consider historical figures’ orders, they conclude that events depend on orders. When we consider the relationship between figures and the masses, we find that they and their orders depend on the event.
When power is understood as the relationship between those who give orders and the masses who carry them out, it complicates the conventional historical view that major figures bring about events by giving orders.
Now it is possible to answer “those two essential questions of history”: first, what is power? —The relationship between people in which one who expresses opinions and justifications for a joint action has taken the less direct part in it. Second, how is a group action produced? —Not by power, but by all people’s joint activity, such that those who participate in the event most directly take the least responsibility upon themselves, and vice versa.
Tolstoy brings together his last few points by describing power as being wielded by someone who participates less directly in events but offers justifications for it; and the production of an event is carried out by a mass of people who are more directly involved, but who take less responsibility. Again, this should be pictured as a pyramid.
If history were simply about external things, then this argument would be sufficient. But history has to do with humanity. Therefore the matter of human free will is important. If people truly had free will and were able to act as they pleased, then history would just be a series of accidental events. On the other hand, if people’s actions are governed by any laws, then there can’t be free will, because human actions would have to submit to laws.
History involves another complicated set of questions involving free will and law. Tolstoy argues that in order for history to make sense, it has to be one or the other.
Human beings are conscious of themselves as free. Experiments and arguments show that human beings are subject to laws like gravity, for example; the same kind of experiments could show that a human being’s actions are subject to constitution, character, and motives. But even if the results of such an experiment could be shown to a person, they wouldn’t believe it. Nobody could live that way, because a person’s efforts, the very impulse to live, are “strivings towards greater freedom.”
Human beings feel as if they’re free, and this feeling is essential to life. If people believed their every action was governed by law, they would lose the will to live.
Theology, jurisprudence, ethics, and history have addressed the question of free will in various ways. It’s only in our day that so-called “advanced” people— “a crowd of ignoramuses”—have determined that the naturalists’ response to the question gives the full answer. Naturalists, citing the theory of evolution, claim that the soul and freedom do not exist. But human beings’ origins—whether through evolution or through direct creation by God at a specific point in time—make no difference in addressing the question of free will. It leaves unanswered how human consciousness of freedom combines with the law of necessity to which humans are subject.
In Tolstoy’s day, some naturalists argued that the theory of evolution proved that there’s no such thing as free will. Tolstoy dismisses this claim as a non-answer, not because he’s making a judgment about evolution one way or the other, but because human beings believe they have free will, and that’s what’s at issue in his argument.
History has an advantage over theology, ethics, and philosophy in addressing the question, because it’s not concerned with the essence of the human will, but with the manifestation of that will under certain conditions. In other words, it studies the conjunction of free will and necessity after that combining has already occurred. Instead of defining freedom and necessity in advance, history studies many phenomena to derive definitions of freedom and necessity. Every such phenomenon is a product partly of freedom and partly of necessity. Depending on the perspective from which an action is examined, the ratio of freedom and necessity in that action differs, but it’s always inversely proportional—the greater necessity appears, the lesser freedom appears, and vice versa.
In other words, history isn’t trying to make a scientific or theological claim about human free will. It’s just trying to answer the question of how much free will accounts for a given event, and how that free will combines with laws of necessity.
Understanding the relationship between freedom and necessity rests on three bases. The first is the relationship of the person committing an action to the external world. If a person is considered in isolation, their actions appear free. But when that person’s relationships are taken into account—whether other people, work, or their environment—it becomes clear that the person is influenced by other things. Freedom decreases, necessity increases.
To understand this relationship, a historian has to understand a person’s relationships. If a person is considered in isolation, they look like they’re acting freely; but the more their relationships are examined, the more complex the picture becomes.
The second basis is a person’s relationship to time. In such cases, our sense of a person’s freedom decreases or increases depending on the amount of time that’s passed between the committing of the act and our judgment of it. An action close to us in time seems more free, while an event that’s distant in time appears foreordained because we can’t imagine it not happening as it did. For example, the Napoleonic Wars, relatively recent in time, appear to be the product of heroes’ wills. In contrast, the Crusades appear to be the product of necessity, because of the way the history of Europe subsequently unfolded.
The passage of time affects our interpretation of events. The closer in time an event, the easier it is to identify the many variables involved. But when an event is in the distant past, we can see everything that’s taken place since, and such an event appears to have been determined by laws—we can’t picture things happening in a different way than they did.
The third and final basis is the relationship to the causes that produced the act. When we don’t understand the cause of an act, we recognize more freedom in the act. But the more causes we recognize, the more we see the law of necessity at work. For example, if we know that a criminal was raised by wicked people, it mitigates his guilt.
Cause is another factor. Basically, the more we see the complexity of an event, the more it appears that the event must have been foreordained.
No matter how we examine a historical event, however, we cannot imagine total freedom or total necessity. We can’t imagine a person totally freed from external influences, whether freedom within space, within time, or from any causes. In fact, a being who is outside of space and time and totally independent of causes isn’t actually a human being.
It’s not possible to imagine a totally free human being, because a human being is defined in large part by their relationships to other things.
In the same way, we can’t imagine a person who’s subject only to the law of necessity. It is impossible to know all the spatial conditions within which a person operates, time is infinite, and the chain of causes of any event is endless—so we necessarily imagine some room for freedom.
On the other hand, a human being governed completely by laws is impossible as well. No human being is completely defined by relationships to other things.
Reason concludes that human beings are subject to laws of necessity. A human being’s consciousness is aware only of freedom. Necessity (reason) studies freedom (consciousness). Thus these two forms of thinking are related to each other as form (necessity) to content (freedom). When we separate these two forms, we get the concepts of freedom and necessity; when we unite them, we see human life clearly. For the historian, what is knowable is called the laws of necessity; what is unknowable is freedom. Freedom is “the expression of the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life.”
In short, human beings feel that they are free, but they are also subject to laws. While both necessity and freedom are indispensable for human life, historians can’t access or understand freedom completely. They can only define laws.
If history recognized human freedom as a force that influences events, it would be the same as if astronomy recognized a free force that moves the planets. The recognition of free action destroys the existence of laws. History’s task is to examine laws. All sciences are like this. When Newton formulated the law of gravity, he applied it to all heavenly bodies, both great and small. In the same way, history shouldn’t concern itself with causes, but should instead look for the laws common to all events.
Again, Tolstoy suggests that it isn’t history’s job to try to understand freedom; it can only study laws, like any other scientific discipline does.
Ancient cosmology was destroyed when Copernicus proved that the earth moves, not the sun. Ever since historians began to look at mathematical laws, relationships, and conditions that contribute to human events, the foundations of history were shaken. Yet history continued to be studied as if events were the result of free will. Both approaches are engaged in a fierce struggle. However, the law of necessity doesn’t destroy the foundations of society, as its detractors fear.
Tolstoy suggests that there has been a revolution in history equivalent to the Copernican revolution in science. People fear that history’s emphasis on law destroys human freedom, but Tolstoy argues that this is unfounded.
In astronomy people fought over the supposed immobility of the earth; in history they fight over human freedom. Just as we can’t feel the earth moving, we can’t feel our dependence on externalities and causes. In both cases, it is necessary “to renounce a nonexistent freedom and recognize a dependence we do not feel.”
As far as astronomy is concerned, the earth’s movement is established fact. It’s the same in history—human beings are dependent on laws that don’t feel real to them. While human beings will always feel conscious of freedom, history cannot address that feeling; it can only address law.