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Tolstoy’s Napoleon: Slave of History

I recently wrote a blog post about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which Saint Constantine School seniors read and discussed in their Great Texts class. These seniors also recently read and discussed another Russian novel, published at the exact same time, in the exact same periodical: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.1 And both novels, in their own astonishing way, discuss Napoleon.

In Tolstoy, Napoleon stands apart from the many redeemed characters in the book—characters who come to know God and other people in ways that make their lives meaningful. Despite his seeming power and influence, Napoleon becomes the archetype of a person who has damned himself with self-importance. He is to be pitied and he is even more pitiful the more he rejects opportunities to reach out, even a little, beyond himself.

He is like the tyrannical man Plato describes, who, assailed by his own uncontrolled and frenzied appetites, becomes the least happy and most slavish type of man.2 Tolstoy’s Napoleon shows us how ineffectual and shallow life becomes when it is devoid of contact with the moral world. And in showing that great lack, we see what he misses.

Strictly speaking, War and Peace3 is not about Napoleon. In the list of Principal Characters that translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky provide, Napoleon is not included. The book will carry on for hundreds of pages, and Napoleon doesn’t turn up. Indeed, the great awakenings and epiphanies which mark clear turning points for characters are almost entirely focused on attending a small life, ignoring such so-called great men as Napoleon.

And yet, Napoleon is everywhere in this book. The Napoleonic wars, specifically two French conflicts with Russia in 1805 and 1812, frame the action of the book. People discuss Napoleon. The opening line of War and Peace begins, “Well, my prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than possessions, estates, of the Buonaparte family.”

Napoleon is named twice, and once as “that Antichrist,” before we even know any setting, or even the name of the character speaking. Characters debate Napoleon’s greatness. Characters attribute their actions to Napoleon. Envoys report speaking to Napoleon; Napoleon’s orders are read; and finally Napoleon shows up to review a field of battle.

The narrator devotes dozens of pages to essay the supposed greatness, genius, and impact of Napoleon, and finds Napoleon’s greatness, genius, and impact drastically, feebly wanting. Napoleon comes off loving pomp and ceremony, and his image of himself as being right and powerful (“which to his mind were the same” (p. 622)).

And yet the characters who interact with Napoleon walk away underwhelmed. To them he is small and insignificant, “a little man with white hands” (p. 415),  “an empty man” (p. 103) “who wished very much that I would say ‘Your Majesty’ to him” (p. 259). And the narrator asserts that Napoleon is a “slave of history” (p. 605).

For a book not about Napoleon, Napoleon is everywhere. And when Napoleon isn’t there, his absence is felt.4

I think my favorite passage in all the thousand-plus pages is when Napoleon surveys the battlefield after Borodino. According to War and Peace, Napoleon performed this ritual after every battle to test his nerve and remind him of his greatness (p. 814). But this time, something new happens to Napoleon. The battlefield “overcomes” him, and all his visions of himself:

Personal human feeling for a brief moment got the upper hand over that artificial phantom of life which he had served so long. He transferred to himself the sufferings and death he had seen on the battlefield. The heaviness in his head and chest reminded him of the possibility of his own suffering and death. At that moment he wanted for himself neither Moscow, nor victory, nor glory. (What more glory did he need?) The only thing he wished for now was rest, tranquility, and freedom. (p. 815)

Suddenly, out of a morbid routine, there is hope for this slave of history, this empty, small, and insignificant man, this Anti-Christ—even if this hope is “for a brief moment” or fragile—because above “the artificial phantom of life” there is the real world. That real world consists of possibility, mortality, an end to toil, and freedom. And there’s a felt moral element in this non-artificial world which connects a solitary man to others when his mind is awakened to their sufferings and deaths.

Napoleon experiences this moral world in mainly an introspective way—he is reminded “of his own suffering and death.” This is self-directed, but not self-important. It’s the kind of sober knowledge of your own mortality that allows you to seek more important things, which is why Napoleon suddenly wishes for “rest, tranquility, and freedom.” This is not, perhaps, as significant as a beatific vision of God, or a raising of one of Plato’s cave dwellers to see the Good, but it is a movement towards those things. And in that movement is hope.

But, it lasts only for a brief moment.

Then, someone asks for his opinion on some unimportant business, and Napoleon “gave the instruction only because he thought an order was expected of him. And again he was transferred to his former artificial world of phantoms of some sort of greatness, and again…he began to obediently fulfill that cruel, sad, oppressive, and inhuman role which had been assigned to him.”

The passage continues at length,

And not only for that hour and day were reason and conscience darkened in this man who, more than all the other participants in this affair, bore upon himself the whole weight of what was happening; but never to the end of his life was he able to understand goodness, or beauty, or truth, or the meaning of his own actions, which were too much the opposite of goodness and truth, and too far removed from everything human for him to be able to grasp their meaning. He could not renounce his actions, extolled by half the world, and therefore he had to renounce truth and goodness and everything human. (p. 815)

Napoleon’s moment of hope fails him. Or, he fails his moment. He’s given this chance to seek better things, and he recoils. The language is passive, “again he was transferred to his formal artificial world” it says; but he chooses nevertheless. He gives the order, and he gives it because he believes he’s supposed to. This little-soul Napoleon on the precipice of repentance believes His Imperial and Royal Majesty, Napoleon Buonaparte I, Emperor of France, must issue a command appropriate to his office.

And this choice is more than the command. He won’t “renounce his actions.” He won’t admit he’s wrong. It’s petty business which recoils his soul. You can almost feel the fear of being wrong, see him looking towards that awesome goodness surrounding him, and recognize the comfort he grasps in issuing a command. The damning result follows simultaneously. He has, not passively, but actively rejected the true world beyond phantoms and so “he had to renounce truth and goodness and everything human.” 

C. S. Lewis has passages like this5, and they call back Plato and the New Testament and Boethius and Dante. Passages like this affirm a moral reality that not only has consequences in the outside world, but on the character and the soul of the individual. Without the effects on the individual, Tolstoy could not say that Napoleon would never understand “the meaning of his own actions,” because part of the meaning is how they change him, even the apparently petty choices.

More than that, you need a robust moral framework to assert such things. And probably (very probably) you need a theistic grounding of morality to make the distinction between some “world of phantoms” and “truth and goodness and everything human.”

Unfortunately, Tolstoy himself seems to move away from this type of thinking (I emailed the translator, Richard Pevear, and he said that Tolstoy eventually “rejects the notions of the metaphysical, the spiritual, the transcendent, the mystical, the eschatological, and replaces them all with the ‘moral.’’). And yet, he writes passages which retain such compelling appeals to something beyond us, such that, insofar as you participate in the good, you can flourish as a human; insofar as you do not, you cease to be human.

In his, “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace” (included as the Appendix in the Pevear/ Volkonsky translation), Tolstoy says, “Wherever in my novel historical figures speak and act, I have not invented, but have made use of the materials, of which, during my work, I have formed a whole library, the titles of which I find it unnecessary to set down here, but for which I can always give the reference,” (p. 1222). This qualification is both impressive, given the volume of instances in which the historical characters act and speak, and (as translated) cleverly specific.

But with Napoleon he does something more. Tolstoy shows us the character of Napoleon and shows us the hope of near-repentance, and the devastatingly fearful return to a world of artificial phantoms.

  1.  Both novels were serialized through a periodical—a common practice at the time—and later published in their own volumes as books. In this case the periodical was The Russian Messenger. War and Peace published from 1865-1867; Crime and Punishment in 1866. If you happen to be a resourceful, wealthy, and incredibly friendly benefactor, Christmas is coming up, and an original edition of one of those 1866 Russian Messenger periodicals would be mighty welcome!
  2. Plato, Republic, Book IX (579 d-e).
  3. All citations come from Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Classics (2007).
  4. I am reminded of the way Jean-Paul Sartre—that Babe Ruth of pedantic writers—describes what he means by “nothingness” in Being and Nothingness: suppose you were planning on meeting Pierre at a cafe, and when you arrive at the designated time, Pierre’s not there: his nothingness is everywhere. Sartre says, “his absence fixes the cafe in its evanescence,” Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, Special Abridged Edition, Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Citadel Press (2001), p. 10.
  5. Lewis even has a piece describing Napoleon, as a wraith describes someone seeking out Napoleon in the afterlife. Lewis pictures Napoleon in a Hell-palace of his own making, “walking up and down—up and down all the time—left-right, left-right—never stopping for a moment….And muttering to himself all the time. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. It was the fault of the Russians. It was the fault of the English.’ Like that all the time. Never stopped for a moment. A little, fat man and he looked kind of tired. But he didn’t seem able to stop it.” C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Simon & Schuster, (1996) p. 22.

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