I started reading War and Peace in Russian a little over a year ago, and Saturday I finally finished it. (I took quite a bit of time off between the four parts, or I would have finished sooner.) Like Proust, the man needed an iron-willed editor. Actually, an apter comparison would be with Beckwith, since in each case the book is damaged at the end by a long, largely irrelevant, amateurish section that should have been omitted. But let me start with the good stuff.

I’ve read it twice in English (in college and in the mid-’90s) and now in Russian, and each time the characters come to life in the same mysterious way. How does Tolstoy do it? From the protagonists to the minor walk-ons, they have the unruly undeniability of actual people, and the reader gets sucked into their messy lives no matter how many postmodern deconstructions of narrative he or she may have absorbed. I get mad at Prince Andrei with the same sort of exasperated affection I direct at my own brothers, not with the distanced feeling of irritation I experience with, say, Proust’s Marcel. I want good things to happen for Pierre and Natasha much more than I do for any characters in Hemingway. It’s a great gift, that ability to infuse life.

And he certainly doesn’t do it with fancy prose. There’s nothing in Tolstoy as gorgeous as, say, this bit from Goncharov’s 1849 «Сон Обломова» (“Oblomov’s Dream,” which became the ninth chapter of the novel when it was published a decade later): “Но лето, лето особенно упоительно в том краю. Там надо искать свежего, сухого воздуха, напоенного — не лимоном и не лавром, а просто запахом полыни, сосны и черемухи; там искать ясных дней, слегка жгучих, но не палящих лучей солнца и почти в течение трех месяцев безоблачного неба. Как пойдут ясные дни, то и длятся недели три-четыре; и вечер тепел там, и ночь душна.” (‘But summer, summer is especially intoxicating in those parts. It is there that you must seek fresh, dry air, filled — not with lemon or laurel, but simply with the smell of polýn’ [I’m not sure if it means ‘wormwood’ or ‘mugwort’ here], pine, and bird cherry; there seek clear days, lightly burning but not scorching rays of the sun, and almost three months of cloudless sky. When the clear days come, they last for three or four weeks; and the evening is warm there, and the night sultry.’) To read that in Russian is to want to read it aloud, and to read it aloud is to want to memorize it. Tolstoy doesn’t work that way; his prose can be very effective (see my discussion here), but basically it’s workmanlike and often clunky. No, he’s not a prosateur but a storyteller, and storytelling is a gift, perhaps an unanalyzable one.

I’ll go on to talk about the end of the novel, so if you want to avoid spoilers (who will die and who will live? and who will turn out to be a false embodiment of the motive force of history?), don’t proceed below the cut.

It’s always somehow a surprise when Natasha and Pierre get together (though not at all a surprise that Sonya gets dumped), and the ending of the novel proper (before the Epilogue) is perfect: “— Только для чего же в Петербург! — вдруг сказала Наташа, и сама же поспешно ответила себе: — Нет, нет, это так надо… Да, Мари? Так надо.” (“Only why does he have to go to Petersburg?” said Natasha suddenly, and quickly answered herself: “No, no, it has to be that way… Doesn’t it, Marie? It has to be that way.”) It has the satisfying feeling of a Faulkner climax, and frankly, I think the novel should have ended there, with “Так надо” summing up Tolstoy’s approach to history and life.

But of course it doesn’t end there. The First Part of the Epilogue carries the survivors’ story another seven years forward; Nikolai marries Princess Marya (saving the Rostov fortunes) and the two keep poor Sonya around the house as a sort of familial hanger-on while Nikolai turns into a stern but wise gentry landowner (how his serfs love him!), and Pierre and Natasha have kids as she turns into a dumpy housewife (but with occasional flashes of the old girlish fire) and he learns to bow to her preferences. All of this is preceded by four chapters of historical theorizing about Napoleon (for it is he who turns out to be a false embodiment of the motive force of history!) and the movement of peoples from west to east and from east to west (a cheap symmetry with which Tolstoy is inexplicably obsessed), and by the time I’d waded through that (of which there was plenty in the latter part of the novel proper) I was pretty impatient and wishing he’d quit while he was ahead. The superficial way in which he zipped through the exposition of Nikolai’s development as a landowner didn’t change my mind, but eventually, when Pierre and Natasha came to visit and long-developed strands wound together, I warmed to it, and by the time of the brilliant ending, in which orphaned Nikolenka (the son of Prince Andrei, who dies so memorably in the presence of his beloved but rejected Natasha after the retreat from Moscow), inspired by Pierre’s tales of the young men trying to oppose the reactionary government of the day (later to become the ill-fated Decembrists whose attempted revolt would sputter out five years later, and about whom Tolstoy originally wanted to write the novel), cries out while lying down to go to bed: “А дядя Пьер! О, какой чудный человек! А отец? Отец! Отец! Да, я сделаю то, чем бы даже он был доволен…” (‘And Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful person! And my father? My father! My father! Yes, I will do something that even he would be satisfied with’)… by that time, I was reconciled to the First Appendix, even with its longueurs and unsatisfying character development.

But nothing will reconcile me to the Second Appendix (or, to give it its proper title, the Second Part of the Epilogue). To tell you the truth, I almost skipped it, as I had the last time I read the novel in English. I vividly remembered how it had bored me as a college student. But how could I say I’d read the book in Russian if I skipped the end? And maybe I had been too callow then, not ready to appreciate Tolstoy’s subtle grasp of history…. No, I was right the first time. I didn’t read every word; once he’s lumbered into a line of argument and you can see how the next few paragraphs are going to go, it’s hard to make yourself sit still for the dogged exposition. I read and skimmed, read and skimmed. And let me tell you, it’s like being bludgeoned with the same words and phrases repeated and repeated and repeated like the raven’s “Nevermore!” until you want to shout “It’s OK, Lev Nikolaevich! I get it: history is not directed by great men, that is merely how it seems to us! Spare me the analogies to ships and wakes and to the latest scientific discoveries, and tell me some more about those wonderful people you created!” But in vain: he’s done with the people, and utterly determined to refute the errors of the historians of his day. Alas, no one has cared about those historians and their theories, erroneous or not, for over a century (Buckle, anyone?), and anyway Tolstoy was a novelist, not a historian, no more equipped to refute professionals than I am to refute string theory. The Second Appendix is the literary equivalent of an extremely long-winded Hyde Park orator, haranguing passers-by about how the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. Or, to bring the analogy up to date, like a blogger spewing thousands of words about how things are going to hell in a handbasket, sure that with enough repetition and sarcasm he can bring you around to his point of view. I guess what I’m saying is, if you get all the way through the First Appendix, you can put the book down with a light heart. You’ve done your duty by literature; just ignore the grumpy ghost of Tolstoy glaring from the corner, muttering dustily.

For your salad course, if your taste buds are awakened by the thought of historical analysis and you want to read a good one, here are the two latest posts at future historian Greg Afinogenov’s Slawkenbergius’s Tales: Beards and Beckers I: The Cultural and the Social and Beards and Beckers II: The Highest Stage of Historiography.
And for dessert: The Daily Growler takes on the Rooshans: “Dostoevsky and Tolstoy! They are a different matter. I live in these two dudes’s books when I start reading them.” Ain’t it the truth.

Addendum (April 2015). For an interesting take on the novel that emphasizes the historical aspect (and the fact that the “happy ending” is not that happy if you remember that the males are going to wind up on Senate Square facing tsarist guns a few years later), see Andrei Zorin’s TLS essay (18 March 2015), “Tolstoy replays history.”

Addendum (June 2015). I just got to the part on War and Peace in Richard Freeborn’s chapter (The Nineteenth Century: 1855-80) in the excellent Cambridge History of Russian Literature, and I can’t resist quoting this excerpt:

As a family chronicle based largely on his own and his wife’s family, War and Peace ends at this point.

As an investigation of the supposed mainsprings of history, and as a historical novel, however, it ends with the second epilogue. Here the fatalism which seems to govern so much of the historical fiction is given an extended theoretical justification which owes something to Herzen, Schopenhauer, de Maistre and others but, in all its essentials, is Tolstoyan. The main target of the theory is the idea of historical leadership, to which Tolstoy opposes the notion of history as a movement of peoples generated “not by power, not by mental activity, not even by a combination of one and the other, as historians have thought, but by the activity of all people taking part in the action […].” In fact, for all the apparatus of philosophical argument which Tolstoy brings to bear, his theory of history no more reconciles the concepts of freedom and necessity, of individual and swarm life, which comprise the experience of his fictional heroes and heroines, than it satisfactorily explains exactly why the Napoleonic invasion occurred and why in the end the status quo was restored. It does emphasize the didactic purpose behind Tolstoy’s intention, an element that would dominate his work in the final three decades of his life and has obscured for many the greatness of his achievement as a writer.

The last bit is overstated (are there really many people for whom the greatness of his achievement as a writer is obscured for that reason?), but it’s an excellent putdown, in its sober scholarly way.


  1. Yes, that awful appendix. I mean, I more or less agree with him, but by the time I’m done I want to espouse great-man history just out of pique 🙂
    But he is the most marvelous creator of characters you feel as people, isn’t he? I read it every five years or so — well, except the damn appendix — and the same (yet different) magic takes hold, each time.

  2. Thinking about Tolstoy… Yes, this astonishment at someone so brilliant
    as an author, so apparently and incredibly clever and yet so dull and
    didactic as a philosopher, all at the same time… A lot of insightful
    people were also astonished by it, apparently. My favourite description
    of this astonishment is the “Mystery of Tolstoy” by Mark Aldanov, the
    most convincing theory attempting to provide an explanation — “The
    Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin (another mystery is why Berlin,
    who is very thorough at giving an overview of contemporary views on
    Tolstoy and going so far as to mention some of the now deservedly
    forgotten Soviet writers, doesn’t mention Aldanov’s work at all; is it
    Aldanov’s slight but perceptible anglophobia, or was Berlin not so
    universally knowledgeable after all?).
    Another thing I can’t fail to remember when reading about Tolstoy is the
    late Lev Losev’s poems (http://lib.ru/POEZIQ/LOSEW_L/stihi.txt):
    Знаем эти толстовские штучки:
    с бородою, окованной льдом,
    из недельной московской отлучки
    воротиться в нетопленый дом.
    “Затопите камин в кабинете.
    Вороному задайте пшена.
    Принесите мне рюмку вина.
    Разбудите меня на рассвете”.
    Погляжу на морозный туман
    и засяду за длинный роман.
    Sorry, couldn’t resist quoting… I wish I could translate as easily.

  3. I think blogging doesn’t bring Hyde Park Corner “up to date”, just parallels it, as Hyde Park continues to attract speakers.

  4. First, congratulations, Languagehat, on finishing. I love rereading War and Peace every few years or so… for the characters and stories, but not that second appendix! I skipped it entirely in my last reading. Reading all the essays on history in college (albeit in translation) and then skimming them in Russian a few years ago feels like more than enough.

  5. Sorry, couldn’t resist quoting
    Don’t apologize—I very much enjoyed that! My guess about why Berlin ignored Aldanov is that everyone ignored emigré authors back then; when I was a Russian major 40 years ago, we heard nothing about the emigrés, we just studied classics and Soviet authors.

  6. Oh, you are right – first of all Lev Nikolaevich is a great storyteller! When I was 11-13 years old, I was constantly re-reading War and Peace. As a rule I skipped almost all war scenes but thoroughly enjoyed the peace ones. There were many things I didn’t and obviously couldn’t understand then, but somehow the story itself was irresistible, you just had to read it again and again.

  7. Great summary, and you’re quite right about the old man’s rambling. I’ve always found his views of life and people mildly disgusting, all the more so for his ability to bring them so much to life through his characters.

  8. John Emerson says:

    I actually do espouse a reform version of the Great Man Theory of History. Call it the middlesized man theory of history (no caps).
    Many sophisticates push the Blind Forces Theory of History so far that you can’t get them to admit that anyone ever does anything. For example, the book I just read (Walter Karp’s “Politics of War”) makes a strong argument that William McKinley was personally responsible for the Spanish American War (and above all for the Philippine intervention) — that McKinley made up his mind on war at the beginning of his term, and that at every point no one in government or out ever was ahead of him in their desire for war.
    Maybe Karp has his facts wrong, but he makes a detailed argument. But plenty of sophisticated liberals reject out of hand the very possibility that anyone in government or anyone else ever does anything, calling it a conspiracy theory. They supplement their anti-Great-Man thinking with a debunking of the very idea of “intention”, plus a Freudian explanation that no one ever has any idea why it really is that they do the things that others (albeit wrongly) think that they do.
    In fact, governments, and especially armies, are triggered mechanisms designed to do things on command, and someone in a position of command can do things (e.g. Ariel Sharon or George Bush).

  9. Yes, I’ve never understood how anyone can maintain with a straight face that history would have gone on just the same if, say, Napoleon or Lenin had never been born. It’s one thing to say Great Men have been overemphasized, quite another to say they’re irrelevant.

  10. Bademantel says:

    if, say, Napoleon or Lenin had never been born
    Hitler! You’ve forgotten Hitler!

  11. That frivolous interjection having been made, I quite agree with John and Hat. I was brought up to look for “underlying causes” and “economic forces” in order to iron out “singularities” in history, but I’ve belatedly started to notice a lot of things that didn’t have to happen at all — it was people that made them happen. Would world history be the same if Alexander the Great hadn’t later conquered the Persian Empire? Would it be the same if Qinshihuang hadn’t conquered and invaded the states of China? Not to mention people like Muhammed (who devout Muslims would probably not put in this category) and Chinggis Khan. Rather hackneyed questions, but it seems to me that the actions of these Great Men had an absolutely decisive impact on history. For instance, without Chinggis Khan single-handedly uniting the Mongolians and rewriting the map of Central Asia, it is possible that the world would be quite a different place today.

  12. William McKinley was personally responsible for the Spanish American War
    In Australia’s case, it is well known that John Howard almost single-handedly brought about the sending of Australian troops to Iraq. This may not have great historical consequences, but is still typical of the way in which personalities can overcome other “forces” and bring about different historical outcomes.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    A perhaps consonant thought on the needs-an-editor point, from the other side of the Proust/Tolstoy comparison (Rick Brookhiser in a 7/1/09 blog post):
    “Just now I am reading aloud to my wife Jeanne the new Penguin translation of In Search of Lost Time. to me Proust stands out as the only prose writer who is clearly an amateur, and also considered great. I am two thirds of the way through The Guermantes Way, and his amateurism is a trial. There is perhaps less gibberish in In Search of Lost Time than there is in War and Peace, but there is much more wheel-spinning and tedium. Tolstoy’s failures are clearly segregated, and easy to spot: anything he says about history, art, or the Russian soul. Proust’s indiscipline shows itself on almost every page. I have a feeling that a good editor could have shaved the equivalent of at least 200 pages from what I have read so far.”

  14. A very apposite quote, and I think he’s spot-on about the difference. “Tolstoy’s failures are clearly segregated, and easy to spot”: exactly.

  15. Here‘s the direct link to Brookhiser. (I disagree with his idea that professional writers conceive of their work as an assignment, but it’s a natural way for a journalist to think.)

  16. I often think about 9/11 in this light. What if it hadn’t happened? Bush probably would have served one term, fiddling with tax laws. I don’t think they could have made a case for the Iraq war without it.
    I agree with those above who say that personalities matter in history. I also agree a bit with Tolstoy that there is a lot of chaos and happenstance. And I agree with you all that Tolstoy made his characters alive. Part of the trick is those tiny little descriptions that are everywhere — someone moving a hand, pausing, looking to the side — and the exact details (that Nabokov made his students note and remember) like wallpaper or shoes. And dialogue.
    Makes me want to curl up with a thick book…

  17. This historic turn of the discussion reminds me of Aldanov yet again; what he wrote, with characteristic irony, was that one has to possess Tolstoy’s self confidence and strength of conviction to try to prove the insignificance of personalities in history — and use Napoleon as an example.

  18. In the end, the only way to soundly refute the Great Man theory is with a device that lets us examine the counterfactuals that lack the Great Man in question directly, quia absurdum est. We simply can’t know, for example, if Osama bin Laden had never lived, whether another leader would have arisen who would have decided to bomb the World Trade Center in roughly the same time-frame.
    So in the end, Great Man vs. Historical Forces is simply not an empirical argument at all.

  19. We simply can’t know, for example, if Osama bin Laden had never lived, whether another leader would have arisen who would have decided to bomb the World Trade Center in roughly the same time-frame
    No, we can’t know, in the sense we can know that 2 + 2 = 4, but it’s absurd to think that idea is in a realm of possibility that needs to be considered by a rational person. Similarly, without Lenin there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution (actually a coup d’état, but let’s not get into that). It’s impossible to know how things would have developed, and one can make arguments for various possibilities (democratic socialism? some sort of business-oriented state?) but the disaster that actually overtook Russia could not have happened without Lenin.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Would it be the same if Qinshihuang hadn’t conquered and invaded the states of China?

    Reminds me fondly of the movie. After he has finished killing everyone, his wife, an unhappy Zhou princess played by Gong Li, reminds him that he had promised there would be peace. He starts grinning and boasts: “Now there’s peace!!!”

    but the disaster that actually overtook Russia could not have happened without Lenin

    and the batshit crazy Willem Zwo and a long, long, long list of other people.
    “We are all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”
    – Richard Dawkins

  21. In the end, the only way to soundly refute the Great Man theory is with a device that lets us examine the counterfactuals that lack the Great Man in question directly, quia absurdum est. … So in the end, Great Man vs. Historical Forces is simply not an empirical argument at all.

    Well, depends on how far one’s notion of empiricism could be stretched. The argument could be made quasi-empirical by conducting various thought experiments.
    A discussion group that I have been following, off and on, for some 15 years now, is dedicated to exactly this kind of experimentation:
    The material is, as could be expected, of varying quality and different in intent. A lot of people take it as a pretext to write historical prose, which is fine (and so are the results — sometimes); but some are genuinely taking it as a method of historical study.

  22. Bill Walderman says:

    “but the disaster that actually overtook Russia could not have happened without Lenin”
    “and the batshit crazy Willem Zwo and a long, long, long list of other people”
    including Nikolai Alexandrovich

  23. John Emerson says:

    I have toyed with the idea that Big Men and single actions can never be credited with any great accomplishment, but can often be blamed for great disasters. Accomplishing great things usually requires many hands, whereas ruining things is as easy as pie. If you don’t believe, give me something nice and I’ll ruin it for you.

  24. Is it worth mentioning Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books (not that I am a big fan or know them well)? The premise was that someone had developed a predictive theory of history which worked great until some mutant Napoleon type showed up.

  25. Funny you should mention that; I was just reading today about some modern scientist (?) who got his start by reading the Foundation trilogy and becoming fascinated by the “science of history.” I wish I could remember who it was, but you know how it goes, in one brain and out the other…

  26. I don’t see any particular evidence one way or the other. The idea is not necessarily that if there is no Napoleon then there would be someone called Ponaleon Maleoparte who would attach Russia in 1812 and would retreat disastrously through snow and so on. The idea is that both France and Russia resolved internal pressures at that time and place and if that did not happen, they would resolve the same pressures at a different time and in different ways but with the same results as far as countries as a whole are concerned, but individual fates would be different. Another possible way of looking at it is to apply the idea of karmic debt and suffering that accounts for some portion of the debt to countries instead of people – it may be accounted now in one manner or in 200 years in a different manner alltogether and history at first glance would look completely different but the underlying mechanics of pain, death, happiness, despair and such are the same while dates, events, who was in alliance with who, who lost a battle or one war or another – all completely changed even perhaps, if you remember that story, a butterfly is inadvertently killed in Jurassic period.
    How would anyone prove it one way or the other?

  27. I was just reading today about some modern scientist (?) who got his start by reading the Foundation trilogy and becoming fascinated by the “science of history.” I wish I could remember who it was
    And my wife solved the mystery: it was Paul Krugman!

  28. I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.
    W.Somerset Maugham

  29. Would world history be the same if Alexander the Great hadn’t later conquered the Persian Empire?
    But Alexander the Great did not conquer the Persian Empire! When we’re saying he did, we are really using a metonymy. What actually happened is that Alexander’s army conquered the Persian Empire. Of course we’re told that Alexander was a great military leader, which is supposed to have made all the difference, but should we unquestioningly believe that? It’s not like he passed an SAT or something.
    There’s simply no objective way to measure a leader’s impact on the success of armies or nations. We usually think of Churchill as a great leader because he led Britain to victory in World War II. I too have enormous respect for Churchill, but look at his allies. FDR was extremely ill throughout the war. Stalin was an exceedingly poor commander. Has that prevented the US or Russia from winning the war?

  30. The question is not: did Alexander need help to conquer the Persian Empire? Of course he did. The question is: would Greek troops have conquered it (and remained in control of much of it for centuries) without Alexander? And I don’t see how one could answer that in the affirmative.

  31. You are basically making a circular argument here. You’re considering Alexander a great commander because without him the Greeks would never have conquered Persia; and you argue that the Greeks would never have conquered Persia with another king because, well, Alexander was such an exceptional military leader!

  32. I’m saying nothing about Alexander’s greatness as a commander. I’m saying that had he not existed, the Greeks would not have done what they did; i.e., history would have been greatly altered, thus contradicting the “great men don’t make any difference” theory. Is that really such an opaque argument?

  33. It’s not an opaque argument, it’s just an unfounded one. We do not know what the Greeks would have done without Alexander. Moreover to believe that “history would have been greatly altered” is to believe that Alexander was an exceptional king. I’m not saying he did not make any difference, but he was not acting in a vacuum.

  34. We do not know what the Greeks would have done without Alexander.
    We do not know that the sun is going to come up tomorrow morning. I think the idea that the Greeks would have wound up ruling Bactria without Alexander is approximately as silly as the idea that the sun will not come up tomorrow morning. You are, of course, free to disagree, but I have often noted that people’s philosophical preconceptions sometimes get in the way of their common sense.

  35. So your argument is that, first, my point of view is silly, and, second, that it may lack common sense. Humm.

  36. Let’s take an example much closer to ourselves. Let’s imagine George Bush Sr. never had any children. Would the US have had a conservative president back in 2000-04? I think it would. Would there be pressure on him to invade Iraq? Of course there would. Would there be false evidence of WMD? Sure, that wasn’t even done by Bush. Would there be a war? Most probably there would. Does that mean Bush is not responsible for the war? No it does not.

  37. So your argument is that because a president of the United States may not have had that great an influence on world events, neither did Alexander the Great? Humm.

  38. I mean, obviously if you’re ideologically committed to the belief that there are no “great men” (in the sense of people without whom history would have been very different), you’ll dismiss every example by saying that history would have been the same anyway. Alexander, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler? Things would have happened pretty much the same without them. I think that’s an absurd view, but obviously I can’t convince you and you can’t convince me, so I’m not sure what the point of the discussion is.

  39. Interesting thing I have observed over time, as my interests made me witness numerous debates on the “laws of history” is that participants are rarely given to moderation: it’s either all chance and “great men”, or all “laws of history”.
    I guess the great philosophical systems of the past centuries have accustomed us to there being a complete non-contradictory answer to all meaningful questions. So the lack of historical significance of the personality of one George W. Bush is taken as evidence of all personalities being relatively unimportant to the course of historical events; if, as this view implies, there were an over-arching theory of historical probability, this would be a valid approach, just like 2×2=4 would be sufficient to prove that 3×2=6. But this is emphatically not the case in history. The historian begins where the natural scientist stops: it’s all about the particulars. Every imaginable theory can find its “confirmation” in the huge mass of known facts: you just have to choose the right facts.
    There definitely were personalities whose presence or absence was not, as far as we can know, demonstrably important for the course of historical events. There also were historical events that changed the world beyond recognition, and pivoted on presence, absence, and whims of a particular person. For example, not jut the event itself, but the timing and course of World War I defined everything for the history of the next century; even if we agree that _some_ war was inevitable, the timing, and the course of it could well have been different, and depended on personalities in a lot of cases. The personality of Henry VIII is a visible cause in a lot of events that shaped the next two centuries of British history. Yes, it’s open to question if Alexandre was really a genius and if his military skill was indeed important in conquering Persia; but without him the Greeks (well, the Macedonians — some say there were more than enough Greek mercenaries fighting on the Persian side) would not have gone that far in the first place.

  40. Yes, that’s my approach too. Many, probably most, historical tides may well be independent of the actions of individual personalities, but that obviously doesn’t mean that all are, and I simply don’t see how anyone could claim that history would have taken pretty much the same path absent the men I named in my previous comment.

  41. Don’t get me wrong, Hat; I’m not by any means a committed opponent of Great Man theories. I really don’t think we would have gotten any recognizable United States without George Washington. I described him thus on Lameen’s blog, with some giveaway hyperlinks: “[a] national founder [who] wrapped up his rebellion against the colonial power, not by using his supreme military rank to seize power in the newly independent country, but by retiring to his own lands for six years while others ruled. He then came to power through peaceful and democratic means, held office for eight years, and voluntarily retired again, this time for the rest of his life, despite every prospect that he could have become de facto President-for-Life if he had wanted to.”
    But Osama bin Laden? No way. I can easily imagine an essentially equivalent al-Qaeda led by some other disaffected son of a rich Saudi family, or even with an Islamist leader of some other origin who conceived the idea that a symbolic strike against that particular symbol of American wealth and power would be a Good Thing for his cause. By the same token, would the last eight years have been so very different if W had remained an alcoholic and Jeb had been elected, as the Bush family seems to have more or less expected? I doubt it. For that matter, is it really so inconceivable that Philip II, if he hadn’t been inconveniently assassinated during the initial stage of his invasion of Persia, could have finished the job himself, with the no-doubt competent assistance of his son Alexander?
    Even bypassing the unknowability of counterfactuals, I think your examples aren’t particularly well chosen.

  42. Huh? I said nothing about Osama, and I agree with you about him. My examples were Alexander, Napoleon, Lenin, and Hitler; I didn’t originally bring up Alex, Bathrobe did, but s.v. argued about him so I added him to the list. I think the examples are fine, and I entirely disagree that Philip would have gone as far as Alex (and he certainly wouldn’t have instituted the quasi-nativist style of rule Alex did, which allowed the empire to survive so long).

  43. I have seen people seriously argue that the most influential man of the XX century was actually Fritz Haber (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber-Bosch_process): absent his “nitrate fixation” chemical process, Germany, not having access to natural nitrates to manufacture ammunition, would have had to sue for peace after Marne and World War I would have ended with all the empires firmly in place. Imagine what that could do to XXth century history: Lenin dies in Switzeland and is only known to the most learned historians, Hitler is (probably) a total unknown.
    For want of a nail…

  44. But scientific/technological invention is precisely the area in which the “great man” theory is shakiest. Every great advance seems to have been invented by two or more people almost simultaneously. I confess I know nothing about Haber or nitrate fixation, but I’m guessing if he hadn’t developed it, someone else would have around the same time. (Besides, I think the premise is flawed; Russia fought on for a long time with ludicrously inadequate supplies of ammunition, artillery, rifles, boots, you name it.)

  45. Every great advance seems to have been invented by two or more people almost simultaneously. I confess I know nothing about Haber or nitrate fixation, but I’m guessing if he hadn’t developed it, someone else would have around the same time.

    “Around” is crucial. Those who argue about Haber’s contribution being important to the course of European history don’t say he was the only one who could do it or that no one would have developed it “around the same time”. Indeed, it took the intervention of others and many more years to develop his tabletop reactor into an industrial process. What is being claimed (and I don’t have the knowledge to either support or reject the claim in question) is that the discovery, and the Haber-Bosh industrial process dependent upon it, could have been easily delayed for several crucial years by, say, untimely death of Haber (he used to tinker with noxious agents under high pressure and had sustained some poisonings as a result). In which case the World War would have been seriously affected.

  46. In which case the World War would have been
    seriously affected.

    Very likely, but who can say how and to what extent? I’m not saying it’s a cockamamie theory, just that it seems a lot less convincing.

  47. Whether or not Haber was essential to the process, certainly the Haber process itself was essential to the twentieth century. The history of the world is (among many other things, of course) the history of fertilizer, and it is divided into the Age of Manure, the Age of Guano (starting in the 18th century, when the guano reserves of the Southern Hemisphere began to be tapped, and finally the Age of Industrial Fertilizer. It is the amount and quality of fertilizer available that sets the hard limit on the expansion of human population. Without the Haber process, we could not have increased our population as we did during the past century: we would have hit the Malthusian limits a long time ago.

  48. January First-of-May says:

    An hour or so ago (as of when I started writing this comment), I was sent to this post from the recently commented on “Eight Years of Language Hat”. I was surprised at the depiction of the last chapters of War and Peace – it never occurred to me to read them that carefully.
    Twenty minutes ago, I decided to re-read the most recent 30 or so re-runs of Irregular Webcomic! (having apparently forgotten it for about a month).
    Five minutes ago, I stumbled on the original annotation for comic 1402, the first fully black IWC! strip (there’s been another one later, IIRC). The annotation touched on the definition of art, and its application to 4’33”.
    But it was the quote – well, retelling – at the end of the annotation that struck me the most. For it was in those lines that I immediately recognized something I read just recently.

    This is what it said (I changed a bit of formatting):

    “Douglas Hofstadter once wrote in his seminal book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid that it’s difficult for an author to write something with a sudden, unexpected ending, because the fact that the reader is running out of pages makes it obvious well before the end that the ending must be coming soon. He suggested a way to prevent this. I’ll discuss this in the context of a novel, just to make the concept clearer.

    The idea is that you actually end the story partway through the book, so that you can’t tell from how much remains how close you are to the end. Just filling the rest of the book with blank pages isn’t good enough, because a reader can just turn back to the last bit of text and figure out that that’s where the story ends. So when the story ends, you keep writing more of the events that happen afterwards. In this way you fill an extra 10 or 30 or 100 pages of the book, thus making it impossible for someone to tell where the actual end of the story is without reading it.

    And in order to make it clear where the end of the story is to the diligent reader who works all the way through, you subtly change the writing in some way when the end occurs. You could change the mood or the writing style or the characters or the topic, in a way that marks a clear disconnect to the diligent reader. The reader will then know where the true end of the story occurs, and realise that everything that comes after it is just filler text to fool them into thinking that there was more to the story than there really is.

    I think that’s a pretty amazing idea. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone actually do it, though.”

    The moment I read it, and re-read it again, I immediately recognized how similar this was to your description of War and Peace. It’s almost as if Tolstoy was using this idea deliberately.

    It is, of course, chronologically impossible that Tolstoy actually took the idea from Douglas Hofstadter and/or David Morgan-Mar (the IWC! author). It’s unclear whether Hofstadter would have been familiar with War and Peace; Morgan-Mar probably was but only vaguely.
    (For the record, the Hofstadter original appears to be from Dialogue 13, “Aria with Diverse Variations”. I have not actually read the original text, however.)

    Perhaps the weirdest thing about all of this is that I would have never recognized the connection had I not happened to read both of the relevant posts in the space of an hour.
    (I wonder if anyone noticed it earlier.)

  49. That’s quite fascinating; I’m glad you experienced it and brought it here!

    I was surprised at the depiction of the last chapters of War and Peace – it never occurred to me to read them that carefully.

    Well, that’s the thing about reading in Russian — I can’t do it any other way. I read quickly and rarely have to look things up, but I can’t skim the way I do in English; I have to read and absorb every sentence word by word. That’s great for great writing, but torture for boring, repetitive writing. I can assure you I won’t be reading the last part of W&P again — I’ll stop when the plot does!

  50. @January First-of-May: As I recall, immediately after that dialogue in Gödel, Escher, Bach, there is a silly change of pace. A polceman shows up and arrests the two characters who have been having their philosophical discussion, so…

  51. David Marjanović says:

    Without the Haber process, we could not have increased our population as we did during the past century: we would have hit the Malthusian limits a long time ago.

    More specifically, I once read (easily 20 years ago) that two thirds of the nitrogen in our bodies comes from the Haber-Bosch process. In other words, without that process, the world population could at most be a third of what it was at the time of that writing.

    Fritz Haber has rendered the existence of easily five billion people who are alive today possible.

  52. “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

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