Friday, June 01, 2007

A slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history

I was intrigued by this quote from War and Peace. The context is the build-up to the battle of Austerlitz; what interests me is the depiction of the relationship between the large-scale progress of history and the multitudinous small-scale actions, thoughts and feelings of the many human actors involved. What was Tolstoy's philosophy of history, I wonder?

The concentrated activity, which had begun at the Emperor's headquarters in the morning and had started the whole movement that followed, was like the first movement of the main wheel of a large tower-clock. One wheel slowly moved, another was set in motion, and a third, and wheels began to revolve faster and faster, levers and cogwheels to work, chimes to play, figures to pop out, and the hands to advance with regular motion as a result of all that activity.

Just as in the mechanism of a clock, so in the mechanism of the military machine, an impulse once given leads to the final result; and just as indifferently quiescent till the moment when motion is transmitted to them are the parts of the mechanism which the impulse has not yet reached. Wheels creak on their axles as the cogs engage one another and the revolving pulleys whirr with the rapidity of their movement, but a neighbouring wheel is as quiet and motionless as though it were prepared to remain so for a hundred years; but the moment comes when the lever catches it, and obeying the impulse that wheel begins to creak, and joins in the common motion the result and aim of which are beyond its ken.

Just as in a clock the results of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French - all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors - that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

from Tolstoy, War and Peace, book 3 chapter 11 (my version is here)

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