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War and peace and mathematics

September 26, 2013
Flow map of Napoleon's march into Russia

Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, by Charles Joseph Minard, 1869

Edward Tufte–author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, one of the best books written about, well, the visual display of quantitative information–has said that this “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” I can’t disagree. It’s not just the dramatic subject matter, the shock of seeing the thick band of Napoleon’s army gradually, inexorably, whittled down to a tiny sliver, the return march aligned with a graph of the falling, freezing temperature. It’s also the wealth of information packed into such a small space with so little wasted ink. Ask a modern graphic artist to make a map like this and he’ll overlay it on a map of Europe, draw in little soldier figures or perhaps explosions at the battle sites, and use fifteen different colors. Minard did none of that. The battle sites are indicated by just a name, highlighting how insignificant the battles actually are to the process of diminishment; they lead to sudden drops, but we feel as if what was lost would have been lost eventually anyway. Only sitting still in Moscow for a month can change the otherwise constant rate of loss, as if the army can only move by shedding its skin.

Compare: Charles Joseph Minard, 1869, “Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813.” Leo Tolstoy, 1869, War and Peace. It’s an astounding coincidence that perhaps the best statistical graph and perhaps the best historical novel were published in the same year and depict the same historical event. And propose, I think, much the same evaluation of it.

Last week I devoured War and Peace, reading four or five hours a day, and while I greatly enjoyed it, I’m still not sure what I think of it. It’s an amazing achievement, certainly, but what does it add up to? My first impulse is to say that, like most novels that doesn’t follow a single character till marriage or death, it doesn’t have that much in the way of internal structure, and doesn’t come to a definitive end so much as it stops. This isn’t quite accurate, but it is true, I think, that the structure of the novel matters less than the texture. We don’t look at the novel as a whole and ask, “What does progressing through this novel do to us?” Instead, we remember the experience of reading the novel for hours at a time, and ask, “What happens to us when we’re immersed in this sort of substance?”

What happens, as far as the War portions of the book go, is this: we see the Napoleonic war on both a macroscopic and microscopic level, and we come to recognize that the two have very little to do with one another. On the highest level, we see as if from afar a wave crashing in from West to East, breaking at Moscow, and inevitably receding. No one decision made this happen; it could not have happened otherwise. On the lowest level soldiers march, rest, go into battle, come out, or don’t, and we experience it as if we were ourselves there, but at the same time we feel that it’s a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, at least not on the macroscopic level. It matters only for the lives of the individual soldiers–who lives and who dies, who is a coward and who is brave, who is cruel and who is kind, who is tormented by desire and who arrives at a state of calm in the middle of the storm. Being in a battle can change these things, can change who you are, but can’t change history.

Or can it change who you are? “Perhaps not”–to instill this doubt seems to me the hidden purpose of the book. Tolstoy explicitly discourses on how Napoleon believes he controls history, but really cannot, and on how battles are really at most inflection points, not leading to any sudden reversals but in fact only marking milestones along a preordained path. The main characters of the book, Andrei and Pierre especially, experience occasional epiphanies, sometimes in battle, sometimes out, and each time: “this changed his life.” But as the epiphanies pile up, each epiphany comes to seem less important. In the end, they appear merely a symptom of a gradual process of maturation. Like Napoleon, they did not really matter.

Maturation, here, means something like “smoothing off the rough edges.” Andrei and Pierre thrash around trying to understand the essence of things, and occasionally have these epiphanies where they think they now, finally, understand it, but really the epiphanies are irrelevant, because there is nothing to understand. At the most, what they do is break off a sharp edge. By the end, both men arrive at states of rest, and no longer worry about delving to the essence of things, not because they understand intellectually, but because somehow, in a way they themselves do not understand, they intuit what is morally right. And they come to realize that this intuition has guided their actions all along, with their intellectualizing a mean sideshow; they did not act rightly earlier, not because they did not understand, but because their conscience had not been properly trained.

That’s Tolstoy. Tolstoy wants war and peace, history and ethics, to be like calculus: smooth, differentiable, determined by invisible, infinitesimally small events. To get it, though, he has to throw out reason. Reason isn’t analytic, it’s algebraic. It’s not smooth, it’s sequential. Not ~~~. Rather, A, B, C. So I’m not convinced, neither about war, nor, more importantly, about peace. Sure, broad-strokes sociological trends matters; sure, everyday habits are important. But leaders can make significant changes, even if their choices are constrained. We do face moral crises, and when we’re forced to choose, our habits matter, but so does our conscious reflection. We are not just our minds, but we are them, too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    September 27, 2013 6:13 pm

    “On the lowest level soldiers march, rest, go into battle, come out, or don’t, and we experience it as if we were ourselves there, but at the same time we feel that it’s a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, at least not on the macroscopic level.”

    That’s the feeling I get when reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, too. Even the speeches and actions of characters like Pericles and Alcibiades can’t effect the larger trends of the war that Thucydides sees at play. You get the feeling that a. given who the Athenians are, they will necessarily go to war and come close to winning, and b. being a democracy and still partially a traditional polis, they necessarily are going to make some kind of stupid mistakes and end up losing given who the opposition is

  2. September 28, 2013 6:09 pm

    I haven’t read Thucydides, but from what I’ve heard of him that sounds right. The whole “great man theory of history” was more Roman than Greek.

    Incidentally, I forgot to mention it, but some of what I was saying above was inspired by this post from Alan Jacob’s “Text Patterns” blog:

    Of course, he puts a much more positive spin on it than I do.

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