Why the World Bank should declare a freeze on big land deals

October 5, 2012

Oxfam and the Beatles; crowdmapping corruption; no more pity; rise of the megacities; telenovelas v babies; big in Bangkok; land grabs on camera: links I liked

October 5, 2012

What does Tolstoy's War and Peace teach us about Causation, Complexity and Theories of Change?

October 5, 2012
empty image
empty image

Just finished reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an amazing work, which quite possibly justifies the blurb’s ‘greatest novel in any language’

Leo Tolstoy, development guru

Leo Tolstoy, development guru

claim (who on earth decides these things and how?). I read it 30 years ago, but to be honest, I’m not sure I understood much of it then.

Tolstoy manages to combine the enthralling human saga of Russia’s experience of invasion by France under Napoleon, and the French’s subsequent retreat, with a profound meditation on the nature of history and change. I started it as holiday reading, supposedly time out from the day-job, but I couldn’t help wondering what Tolstoy would say about some current development debates. At times it feels as if in his frustration with the causal explanations of the day, he is banging on the doors of complexity theory. Some choice quotes, mainly from the concluding meditation on the nature of history at the end of Book Two:

Tolstoy on causation and attribution (are you listening, MEListas?)

‘It is beyond the power of the human intellect to encompass all the causes of any phenomenon. But the impulse to search into causes is inherent in man’s very nature. And so the human intellect, without investigating the multiplicity and complexity of circumstances conditioning an event, any one of which taken separately may seem to be the reason for it, snatches at the first most comprehensible approximation to a cause and says ‘There is the cause’……

There is, and can be, no cause of an historical event save the one cause of all causes [i.e. God}. But there are laws governing events: some we are ignorant of, others we are groping our way to. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we finally give up looking for causes.’

Tolstoy on Command and Control and the fallacy of hindsight (cf Ros Eyben’s work on aid)

‘History shows that the expression of the will of historical personages in the majority of cases does not produce any effect – that is, their commands are often not executed and sometimes the very opposite of what they order is done…. Every command executed is always one of an immense number unexecuted. All the impossible commands are inconstant with the course of events and do not get carried out. Only the possible ones link up into a consecutive series of commands corresponding to a series of events, and are carried out.

Our erroneous idea that the command which precedes the event causes the event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and out of thousands of commands, those few which were consistent with that event have been executed we forget about the others that


were not executed because they could not be.’

Tolstoy channels Amartya Sen on Freedom and Wellbeing

‘All man’s aspirations, all the interest that life holds for him, are so many aspirations and strivings after greater freedom. Wealth and poverty, fame and obscurity, power and subjection, strength and weakness, health and disease, culture and ignorance, work and leisure, repletion and hunger, virtue and vice are only greater or lesser degrees of freedom.’

And finally, I’m definitely with Tolstoy on the meaninglessness of free (read ‘political’) will:

‘In history, what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown we call freewill. Freewill is for history only an expression connoting what we do not know about the laws of human life.’

It’s 1500 wonderful pages – get stuck in. As for me, the boxset of the 1972 TV adaptation with Anthony Hopkins has just arrived (see pic). Good times.


  1. Would’ve been so fab if he’d used non-sexist language instead of ‘men’… but I’ll let him off, on this point he’s a man of his time (sic)…

  2. I wonder if Tolstoy, who recognises the limits of command and control, ever considered what the outcome would be of preaching fatalism and resignation to the vissisitudes life?

    He seems to have at least motivated someone today!!!

  3. I enjoyed reading this post, thanks for this!

    I wonder what lessons you think we could draw from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on the challenges for accountability and the rule of law..

  4. Thanks Duncan,

    I’ll gladly pass on your blog entry to the dean of the 250-strong Tolstoy clan: his great grand-child, who lives in Italy.

    You are sure right about his view of history. Merejkovski (if I remember correctly) pointed out that the novel needed such an underpinning to justify its scope.

    One may add that the novel is a celebration of the emergence of the Russian language.

    Tolstoj, nevertheless, was a troubled man, who forced his intimate diary on his wife, obtaining hers in return. This vain search for “truth” wrecked just about the relationship.

  5. Thanks Duncan – as an historian with an interest in development it is really exciting to see these things pop up in your excellent blog.

    Tolstoy is brilliant at deconstructing the old ‘crowns and coronets’ view of history, and making chaos, complexity and unintended consequences come alive.

    On the other hand – as you note in your last quote – he is also quite a fatalist, and at the end of W&P one ends up wondering how do us, tiny ants, can influence any of the big tides of history.

    I suppose that what historians and social scientists try to do (at least that is what I try to do) is work out how the ants make things happen…

    Finally, what I started out wanting to suggest, for those who are interested in Tolstoy’s theory of History, there is Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History’.

Leave a comment

Translate »