In reaction to the rising prevalence of scientific theories in his day, Tolstoy opposed the notion that reality could be explained solely in terms of theories and systems. In his view, such systems push the possibility of divine will and the complexity of human events to the margins of history, thereby trying to reduce life to the easily explainable. In other words, people apply sweeping theories to life, or attribute historical movements to larger-than-life personalities, instead of recognizing that life is the product of countless interacting possibilities. For example, the novel contrasts the pronouncements of generals—normally seen to be the most consequential actors in war—with the unrecognized heroism and sufferings of everyday soldiers, whom Tolstoy implies were actually much more significant to the war’s outcome than the famous generals. Tolstoy also critiques the historians of his day for trying to explain the War of 1812 in terms of Napoleon’s genius or failure alone, instead of realizing that every battle’s outcome is the product of countless individual choices. Ultimately, Tolstoy contends that when people stop believing that God runs the world, they substitute other simplistic theories that inevitably flatten life’s true complexity.
To critique simplistic theories of how the world works, Tolstoy shows Russian generals trying to use German theories of war to make battle plans—but these theories don’t recognize more complex and variable human aspects of war, which leads them to fail. Reflecting on the council of war he observes at army headquarters, Prince Andrei articulates this critique, remarking that the size of an army is less important than the morale of its members, and these German-style plans cannot account for something human and unpredictable like morale, which doesn’t operate according to any kind of recognizable law. General Kutuzov makes this critique of simplistic theories even clearer when he falls asleep at a meeting of officers who are tediously reciting the war plan—a plan Kutuzov finds irrelevant. His sole contribution to the meeting is to say that “there’s nothing more important before a battle […] than a good night’s sleep.” Kutuzov disdains his inferiors’ over-reliance on theory because he knows from experience that something as basic as a well-rested soldier has a more concrete impact in battle than the best-laid plans.
Tolstoy also questions history’s obsession with superhuman “great men,” like Emperor Alexander or Napoleon, suggesting that the choices of ordinary people are more consequential than the actions of a few famous men. For one thing, Tolstoy depicts so-called great men as not being so great. Nikolai Rostov has always idolized Emperor Alexander, but after visiting a disease-ridden field hospital, he is disillusioned by the pomp surrounding the Emperor. Nikolai can’t reconcile ordinary men’s horrible suffering with the “self-satisfied” complacency of the rulers for whom they’re fighting. Furthermore, “greatness” actually allows amoral figures like Napoleon to get away with anything they want. To defend heroes, historians resort to so-called greatness “as if greatness excludes the possibility of the measure of good and bad. For the great man there is no bad.” If good and bad don’t apply, then the whole notion of great men governing history is suspect.
Finally, Tolstoy suggests that ordinary people matter more than great men, but this is seldom recognized. At Schöngraben, for example, Prince Andrei witnesses a low-ranking artillery officer act heroically, only to see the man berated by his superiors for minor “failures.” While Andrei tries to stand up for the man, Prince Bagration doesn’t believe him—this is one example of how the “great” come to disdain the lesser people who actually make their victories possible.
According to Tolstoy, history is always more complicated than it looks on the surface, both because of unpredictable variables and because of the vast numbers of unrecognized people whose actions combine to shape events. Because historians can’t capture all those people and variables, they inevitably simplify. Part of War and Peace’s achievement is its intricacy—the novel explores inexhaustible human complexity in a way that gives history its due, but it looks beyond the obvious and “great.”