"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 26, 2014

Napoleon’s Cold, Free Will, and the Battle of Borodino

Many historians say that the French did not win the Battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold. His military genius was fogged by headache, sneezing, and sinus congestion.  If it is true that individuals can indeed play a decisive role in determining the course of history, then it was not Napoleon’s malaise and indisposition that was the cause, but that of his valet who had forgotten to bring the Emperor’s waterproof boots on the day before the battle, thus obliging His Highness to inspect the troops in cold, wet, and waterlogged leather.

Yet, the unfortunate forgetfulness of the valet was not his fault at all.  He, a conscientious and obedient aide, would never have omitted such an important piece of the Emperor’s gear if he hadn’t been distracted by a letter from his fiancée which had been received shortly before the French army crossed the Niemen.  The fiancée later recanted her words – a harsh rebuke to the young valet – but the damage had been done. She had always been an impulsive girl, and her parents were quite happy that she finally was betrothed, for although they were of modest means, the valet, thanks to his service in the military camp of the Emperor, was relatively well off.

The point is clear, and Tolstoy was neither the first nor the last to suggest that ever human event is a result of the chance happenings of those which preceded it.  The classic legal case studied at Harvard Law School concerns a traffic accident in which a Brookline woman was instantly killed when she swerved to avoid a dog which had darted out in front of her, causing her to swerve and hit the lamppost on the South side of Boylston Street.

The case revolved around the issue of negligence.  The owners of the dog, argued the lawyers for the deceased woman’s family, had violated Boston city ordinances by allowing their dog to be off leash.  The beating of the dog because of his defecation on the priceless Persian rug in the living room provoked the terrier’s dash and therefore was an additional factor to be considered by the jury.  The defense argued that neither the dog nor its owners were at fault, but the City of Boston which had planted Maple trees which had obscured the lamppost.  Moreover, the driver of the oncoming vehicle, a carpenter from Chelsea, was an illegal immigrant from Cape Verde who had never had any instruction in the rules of the road.  This was not surprising because Jose Fernandes da Cunha lived in a small village without paved roads, no electricity, and no school.

Tolstoy’s idea, however, is far more complicated than the case of the cold or the terrier. The network of interconnected personal factors that combine to produce a war is so complex that cause and effect are irrelevant.

Napoleon began the war with Russia because he could not resist going to Dresden, could not help having his head turned by the homage he received, could not help donning a Polish uniform and yielding to the stimulating influence of a June morning, and could not refrain from bursts of anger in the presence of Kurakin and then of Balashev.

Alexander refused negotiations because he felt himself to be personally insulted. Barclay de Tolly tried to command the army in the best way, because he wished to fulfill his duty and earn fame as a great commander. Rostov charged the French because he could not restrain his wish for a gallop across a level field; and in the same way the innumerable people who took part in the war acted in accord with their personal characteristics, habits, circumstances, and aims. They were moved by fear or vanity, rejoiced or were indignant, reasoned, imagining that they knew what they were doing and did it of their own free will, but they all were involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work concealed from them but comprehensible to us. Such is the inevitable fate of men of action, and the higher they stand in the social hierarchy the less are they free…

Providence compelled all these men, striving to attain personal aims, to further the accomplishment of a stupendous result no one of them at all expected—neither Napoleon, nor Alexander, nor still less any of those who did the actual fighting (War and Peace, Part Ten, Chapter I)

This only partially describes the equally complex historical events that contributed to Napoleon’s going to war in the first place.  The French people were complicit in the rise of the megalomaniacal Napoleon because they responded to his vision of Empire and willingly submitted to his autocratic but still popular rule.  It was, after all, not the feudal, aristocratic, and abusive rule of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their corrupt and venal courtiers. Had the First Coalition not cocked up their defenses against Napoleon in his first European adventures, Napoleon’s ambitions might have been stalled in Austria. 

Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to...

We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

So Napoleon sat in his camp chair surveying the battle below, falsely and arrogantly assuming that the outcome would be a result of his genius and his will alone, while the truth was far from this idealistic vision:

Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.

Tolstoy adds one more piece to the already complex puzzle of cause-and-effect. The Battle of Borodino or any other military engagement for that matter would never be fought if it weren’t for the willingness of the soldiers.  Napoleon never killed anyone at Borodino, but his hundreds of thousands of troops did.  There is a powerful conviction in collective will, and although each soldier comes to the battlefield with his own history and conditioning, an army must act together to win. 

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.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. 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, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

Tolstoy noted that the armies of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander were well matched in numbers, leadership, and positioning; but the key to the battle was the will of the Russians. They were defending Mother Russia and were repulsing an invasion by a foreign barbarian.  Napoleon did not and could not have measured in any objective way that spirit, that primitive sense of place and belonging, that expression of historical imperative.


The Tsar’s generals ponder the question of responsibility and guilt.  When Kutuzov reflects on the necessity of abandoning Moscow to the French, he says:

When he had dismissed the generals Kutuzov sat a long time with his elbows on the table, thinking always of the same terrible question: "When, when did the abandonment of Moscow become inevitable? When was that done which settled the matter? And who was to blame for it?"

Shakespeare shared the same conviction about the inevitability of historical events.  He understood that given human nature – self-serving, self-interested, aggressive, protective, ambitious, and relentlessly ambitious – history would always repeat itself.  Shakespeare was uninterested in deciphering the complex of historical antecedents to an event or even dwelling on the ultimate randomness of human happenings.  He simply wanted to show that whether the king was John, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Richard II or Richard III, their acts would be predictable.  The individual variations that characterized their scheming, plotting, and subversion were what made history interesting – the only things in fact.

Which brings me to the question of free will.  Neither Shakespeare nor Tolstoy felt that there was any such thing.  Any individual action whether by king, emperor, or slave was predetermined.  All collective actions – those of nations, armies, or regiments – are conditioned in the same way.  Both Shakespeare and Tolstoy understood that the outcome of events could not be predicted, for the disaggregation of current and past contributing factors can only happen ex post facto.  No one could predict the outcome of Borodino before the battle, but in retrospect there was no doubt why Napoleon was defeated.  Which is why, concluded Tolstoy and Shakespeare, there will always be wars.

Few secular philosophers put much stock in free will. The Existentialists and the Post-Modernists see the course of human history much like Shakespeare and Tolstoy.  Individual events are meaningless; good and evil are artificial constructs; human nature is ineluctable and irresistible; and Man’s only recourse is reluctant acceptance.  This conclusion is little different from those of Buddhism and Hinduism who arrive at the same end point, albeit via very different paths.

Within the last twenty-five years free will has been further downgraded.  Not only are we subject to environmental conditioning, but our DNA may be responsible for more of our beliefs, attitudes, convictions, and actions than ever thought.

Only Catholics stick to their guns when it comes to free will, for without the freedom of choice between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, Damnation and Salvation are meaningless.  There is no evil in the world, said Augustine, just the absence of good; and it is the duty of all Christians to fill the void with purposeful, right actions.

It is hard for ‘Progressives’ to accept the premise that there is no such thing as free will – that history is predetermined by past events, genetics, and hardwiring.  It is impossible for them to believe that global warming is neither good nor bad but simply one blip on the infinite timeline of universal history; or that human attempts to slow it may interrupt an unknowable but predetermined set of conditions leading to the next Ice Age.

How to live in a predetermined world without feeling a sense of worthlessness or hopelessness? Read War and Peace and Henry VI. Humanity is there in all its glorious craziness and diversity. Who cares whether or not our choice to bed Sasha B. has been fixed centuries ago?

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