Quotation for the week: Tolstoy

One of the recurring themes in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the nature of historical cause and effect. Tolstoy was convinced that to properly understand history we should turn our attention away from kings and generals and instead seek a description inspired by new areas of mathematical physics such as statistical mechanics.

Historical science in its endeavor to draw nearer to truth continually takes smaller and smaller units for examination. But however small the units it takes, we feel that to take any unit disconnected from others, or to assume a beginning of any phenomenon, or to say that the will of many men is expressed by the actions of any one historic personage, is in itself false…

Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.

This may have suffered in translation, and it’s not clear that Tolstoy had really grasped the concepts of differential and integral calculus, but it’s fascinating to see how he anticipated the modern invasion of the social sciences by mathematics.

A longer selection of quotations is available here, and I do recommend reading the full novel at least once in your life. (Tony Briggs’s Penguin Classics edition is probably the most readable English translation.) You’ll also find out how to win a battle without realising you’ve won, and why it’s meaningless to ask who set fire to Moscow…


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