30 March 2014

Some words of wisdom from Tolstoy’s War and Peace

As the tension eases a little, at least for now, around the situation in Ukraine, it is useful to reflect on the words of one of my favourite authors, and a major  incentive for me to learn Russian, Lev Tolstoy.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” 

― Leo Tolstoy

“A Frenchman’s self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman’s self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organized state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman, he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets. A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Kings are the slaves of history.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“To us, it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg was wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have the with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west slaying their fellows.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic threads of historical ratiocination any farther, when actions are clearly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians produce a saving conception of ‘greatness.’ ‘Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Napoleon, the man of genius, did this! But to say that he destroyed his army because he wished to, or because he was very stupid, would be as unjust as to say that he had brought his troops to Moscow because he wished to and because he was very clever and a genius”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power — the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns — should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals…”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“On the twelfth of June, the forces of Western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began–that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“The combination of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man. And the human intellect, with no inkling of the immense variety and complexity of circumstances conditioning a phenomenon, any one of which may be separately conceived of as the cause of it, snatches at the first and most easily understood approximation, and says here is the cause.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

One Comment

  1. Posted April 5, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    My favorite Tolstoy quote:

    “In historical events great men-so called-are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own freewill, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and predestined from all eternity.”
    ( Leo Tolstoy; War and Peace p.719)

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