An ancient sophism states that if Achilles is walking 10 times faster than a tortoise, he can never overtake a tortoise that’s walking ahead of him. Each time Achilles covers the distance that separates him from the tortoise, the tortoise still gets ahead of him by one-tenth of that distance. According to ancient mathematics, this problem seemed insoluble. Today, a branch of mathematics deals with infinitesimal quantities and is thus able to deal with the problem of continuous movement as well.
Tolstoy opens this part with further reflections on history. Basically, his point here is that history is constantly on the move, and because of this fact, it’s impossible to fully “catch up” with the tiny components that make up history’s whole.
Something similar happens when dealing with the problem of historical movement. Humanity moves according to a countless number of simultaneously acting human wills. It’s history’s job to try to make sense of discrete events, yet that’s not really possible, because each event continuously follows another; there’s no “beginning.” No matter how tiny the unit a historian selects, that unit is inevitably arbitrary. Historical laws can only be understood by attempting to integrate these countless infinitesimal units.
Tolstoy argues that it’s impossible to isolate historical events in order to study them, because each is a product of a chain of other events that can’t be traced back to a clear beginning. Historians must therefore make arbitrary choices. Typically, this means figuring out how individual events fit together.
The first 15 years of the 1800s were an extraordinary time in Europe. To explain it, historians identify the French “revolution” (really the actions of a few dozen men in Paris), tell Napoleon’s biography, name his supporters and detractors, and call this the origin of what happened in the wars. But this is inadequate. To really study history’s laws, it’s necessary to look at the “masses” instead of at kings and other larger-than-life figures.
Tolstoy argues that the conventional history of the Napoleonic Wars is insufficient. Traditionally, historians choose a handful of events, centering around a small number of “important” individuals, in order to explain how the wars came about. But Tolstoy holds that so-called “great men” are only a small part of the story.
On the evening of August 26th, the Russian army is convinced that they’ve won the battle of Borodino. That’s why Kutuzov begins making plans for renewed battle the following day. But as reports come in of the extent of the army’s devastation, the Russians realize that decisively crushing the French is impossible. There are too many wounded, they haven’t been resupplied, dead commanders have not been replaced, and those capable of fighting are unrefreshed. Because of all this, and because of the remaining French momentum, the Russians ultimately cede Moscow to the French, retreating 80 miles beyond it. It’s easy for armchair historians to criticize Kutuzov for this, but the reality is that he didn’t choose to surrender Moscow; he made hundreds of smaller decisions along the way.
After Borodino, Russian morale is high, but circumstances make it impossible to keep fighting. Kutuzov is much criticized for allowing the French to advance from Borodino to Moscow. But Tolstoy argues that the decision to abandon Moscow really wasn’t a single, discrete decision for which Kutuzov can be blamed; such big decisions are really just the product of many lesser decisions that came before them.
After retreating from Borodino, the Russians are camped at Fili. After surveying the position, Ermolov tells Kutuzov it’s impossible to fight from here. Beside a road on Poklonnaya Hill, Kutuzov, a crowd of generals, and Rastopchin debate the position in detail, constituting an unofficial council of war. The more people talk, the more Kutuzov recognizes the helplessness of their position. He sees that even if it weren’t physically impossible, both generals and men believe it is, and they can’t fight under those circumstances.
Kutuzov, always sensitive to his people’s morale, knows that his soldiers’ state of mind is more important than the physical details, like position and supplies, that people usually bring up in councils of war. In other words, if his men don’t believe a battle is winnable, it won’t be.
In Andrei Savostyanov’s peasant cottage, another war council gathers. Most of the family huddles in the kitchen, but Malasha, the six-year-old granddaughter, gets to stay; Kutuzov gives her a lump of sugar. Malasha watches as generals crowd around the table with maps and plans. The generals wait two hours for Bennigsen, who’s savoring his dinner, to join them.
Tolstoy illustrates the impact of war on seasoned generals and anonymous peasant families alike, as the highest Russian general takes notice of a six-year-old girl.
Bennigsen starts the discussion—can “Russia’s sacred and ancient capital” be abandoned? Kutuzov interjects that this is a meaningless question. The real question is whether to accept battle—thereby risking the loss of both Moscow and the army—or to surrender Moscow without a battle. Debate ensues. While a few side with Bennigsen, believing that Moscow’s fate isn’t sealed, most argue instead over the direction in which the army should retreat.
Bennigsen, who’s always ambitious and seeking his own angle for personal advancement, frames the discussion around a rather manipulatively emotional question. Kutuzov sees through this, knowing the real issue is whether the army can afford another costly battle.
Little Malasha doesn’t understand this discussion. Instead, she observes the anger between Kutuzov (whom she thinks of as “Grandpa”) and Bennigsen (whom she calls “Long-skirts”). She takes “Grandpa’s” side. Kutuzov reminds Bennigsen that defending Moscow would require re-forming the troops in close proximity to the enemy, which is always dangerous. After this, discussion fades. Finally, Kutuzov stands up and orders a retreat. The generals disperse gloomily. Malasha runs off to supper. Only Kutuzov keeps sitting there, asking himself when and how retreat became inevitable—he never expected this.
Malasha might not understand the debate, but she catches the salient point—that the two important generals don’t agree. Though Kutuzov wins, it’s a hollow victory—the decision not to defend Moscow is a tremendous blow to Russian pride. Like all historical events, however, that decision isn’t a singular moment, but something that a long string of circumstances renders inevitable.