Many distinguished commentators have declared Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace to be the greatest novel of all time (Mandelkar 2010, vii).
Tolstoy himself, however, was insistent that the work is not a "novel" in any standard sense. (1) And one element supporting this claim is the amount of the text devoted to the exposition of his "philosophy of history"--approximately one-sixth of the chapters in books III and IV (about twenty-five chapters in toto) plus most of part II of the epilogue, which in itself amounts to thirty-seven pages. (2) The reader finds, obtruding into descriptions of the fine-grained psychology and emotions of his cast of characters--material that is characteristic of the novel as a genre--other matter that is more like a "philosophical essay": criticism of how "the historians" do history and why what passes for explanation among historians fails a basic coherence test. These interruptions in the broader narrative seem to fit so oddly that many of Tolstoy's critics have felt War and Peace to lack unity--to be, as Henry James put it, "a loose, baggy monster."
Questions of artistic unity aside, we want to focus attention on Tolstoy's "philosophy of history" itself because Tolstoy's "problematic" is of a kind broadly familiar to economists--and indeed to rational-actor social theorists more generally. Simply put, Tolstoy is grappling with the question of how the actions and attitudes of his vast cast of characters, which he describes in acute detail and which provide his basic "novelistic" material, combine to produce the aggregate effects that constitute the "events" of human history--those operating at the level of armies and nations and peoples.
What is, for example, supposed to be the connection between, on the one hand, Prince Andrei's unsatisfying marriage to Lise or Andrei's father's tyrannical and undermining treatment of Andrei's sister, Princess Marya, or Prince Vasili's manipulation of Pierre (and of Vasili's daughter, Helene) into a disastrous marriage or Vasili's son Anatole's seduction of Natasha and, on the other hand, Russia's losses at the Battle of Austerlitz or Czar Alexander's negotiation of a cooperative treaty with Napoleon in 1807 (resulting in Russia's acquisition of Finland in 1809 from Sweden) or the collapse of that treaty, culminating in Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812?
One possibility is that details of events in Tolstoy's characters' lives are intended to symbolize the grander-scale events of human history. And there are certainly intimations in the text that Tolstoy may have had something of the kind in mind. Military analogies are not infrequently deployed. So, for example, Boris Drubetskoy is described as "laying siege" to the wealthy heiress Julia Karagina; Dolokhov and Nicolai "do battle" at cards; and so on. And in this connection, it is worth noting that Tolstoy himself regarded the attempted seduction of Natasha by Anatole to be the "crux" of the novel, so perhaps the reader is being invited to detect a parallel between this episode and the taking of Moscow by the French. In that spirit, the description of Anatole's sense of entitlement and...