On War & Peace

Osama Alkhawaja
28 min readFeb 9, 2023

Pick a moment in your life. One where you had to make a life changing decision. Now, think of all the the factors that informed that decision. The currents and counter-currents involved. All the emotions at play. How you felt in that moment. Think of everything in your life that had to have occurred, and gone right (or wrong) for you to be there in that moment, and for you to decide the way you did. Think of the people around you, involved or affected by that decision. Think of their motivations in parallel complexity to yours. Think of how you grew from that moment (or how you took steps backward), how you remember that moment, and how that memory changes with each retelling.

Take that complex interplay of emotions, memories, facts, distortions, and ideas, and imagine if someone else’s rendition of that moment, which was life changing to you, was merely an asterisk on their page. Imagine if your experience, your entire life, was an afterthought in someone else’s narrative. To add further discomfort, imagine if your action in that moment, as complex as it was, is written off as the result of a decision made outside your awareness or control by some other person. Would it assuage your pride at having lost your agency if the person allegedly pulling the strings is considered to be a “great man?” A once in a lifetime genius?

Now, imagine if this reductive approach applied to all historical events. A million life-changing-decisions with infinite complexity consistently sidelined by the will of “great” people. Given the complexity you know exists in your life, would that be an accurate reflection of history?

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Tolstoy’s War and Peace addresses these issues. He implores us to expand the inputs we consider relevant in seeking the cause of historical events. Rather than simply studying and psychoanalyzing the minds of political leaders, Tolstoy asks us to recognize the complex interplay of individual motivations that produce historical events. Statements like “X person led Y country to war,” ignore the fact that Y country has millions of people who are all moved by various individual causes. Some seeking glory and purpose, others seeking wealth, and so on and so forth. According to Tolstoy, these motivations preclude ascribing the actions of an entire generation to a single will. It follows that the alleged genius of men like Napoleon has no more bearing on historical events than the individual thoughts of the most lowly foot soldier.

In my opinion, Tolstoy’s attempt to minimize the effects of leaders overcorrects the issue. Certain people do have an outsized influence on the lives of others. It’s why we indict political leaders and generals of war crimes, while we have more sympathy with the soldiers carrying out the orders (in a legal context). But it’s important to recognize Tolstoy’s context. He was writing in direct response to historians who attributed all cause and effects to the genius of great men (Napoleon in particular). He was also writing during the rise of communism, which relies on an almost scientific progression of history (he takes particular issue with that). It is largely these currents that Tolstoy seeks to address.

Tolstoy also argues that the complex interplay of individual motivations precludes the finding of an objective “cause” to a historic event. This too seems to be an overcorrection. But if we redirect this analysis away from explaining past events, which we’ve gotten better at understanding, and at predicting future ones, I think his point becomes far more well recieved. With all our technology and advancements, we can hardly predict the outcome of an election let alone the future fate of empires.

— — — — — — —

This philosophy of history aside, Tolstoy’s novel allows us to follow the earth shattering events of the Napoleonic wars through the otherwise forgettable eyes of seemingly inconsequential actors. While the title suggests two separate events, Tolstoy shows us that War and Peace are always inextricably intertwined. The scope of this work is only rivaled by its depth, and the fictional characters serve as avatars for comprehending this particular historical epoch. He manages to paint a vivid image of both the forrest ( war/history) and the trees (people). In order to grow with the characters, Tolstoy exposes us to their most sacred feelings mixed in with the most mundane details of their lives. It’s no overstatement to say that this book attempts to capture life itself, in all its complexities. And there is no greater ambition than this.

Don’t take my word for it. Read the book yourself. The following sections are some passages I selected from the book on the following topics: History, War, Love, God, Fate, Crime, Death, Purpose, and Happiness. I share them here so I can always recall some of my favorite moments from the book. I hope you find them as thought provoking as as I did. And that you enjoy them too.

On History

  • “In historical events great men — so called — are but labels serving to give name to the event.”
  • “The first proceeding of the historian is to select at random a series of successive events and examine them apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event flows without any break in continuity from another.”
  • “History has for its subject the life of nations and of humanity”
  • “What is the force that moves nations?…as soon as historians of different nationalities and views begin describing one and the same event, the replies they give immediately lose all meaning”
  • “the concept of a cause is not applicable to the phenomenon we are examining.”
  • “A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: ‘What makes it move?’ The peasant answers, ’Tis the devil moves it.’ Another man says the locomotive moves becomes its wheels are going round. A third maintains that the cause of the motion lies in the smoke being carried away by the wind.”

We cannot predict events

  • “What science can there be where everything is vague and depends on an endless variety of circumstances, the significance of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can foretell when that moment is coming?”

We retrospectively change facts

  • “He began his story with the intention of telling everything exactly as it happened, but imperceptibly, unconsciously and inevitably he passed into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his listeners who, like himself, had heard numerous descriptions of cavalry charges and had formed a definite idea of what a charge was like and were expecting a precisely similar account from him, either they would not have believed him or, worse still, would have thought Rostov himself to blame if what generally happens to those who describe cavalry charges had not happened to him.”
  • “Rostov knew from his own experience that men always lie when reporting deeds of battle, as he himself had done.”
  • “All the stories and descriptions of those years, without exception, tell of nothing but the self-sacrifice, the patriotic devotion, the despair, the anguish and the heroism of the Russian people. Actually, it was not at all like that…The majority of the people of that time paid no attention to the broad trend of the nation’s affairs, and were only influenced by their private concerns.”
  • “all these suggestions of foresight concerning what happened, on the part of French and Russian alike, stand out now only because they fit in with what befell.”
  • “There are always so many conjunctures as to the issue of any event that, however the matter may end, there will invariably be people to declare: ‘I said so at the time,’ entirely forgetting that among their numerous hypothesis were some in favor of quite the opposite.”
  • “the law of ‘retrospectives’ … makes all the past appear a preparation for events that occur subsequently…”
  • “Why was the battle of Borodino fought? There was not the least sense in it, either for the French of the Russians…In giving and accepting battle at Borodino, Kutuzov and Napoleon accepted contrary to their intentions and their good sense. But later on, to fit the accomplished facts, the historians provided cunningly devised proofs of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.”
  • “If in the accounts given us by historians, especially French historians, we find their wars and battles conforming to previously proscribed plans, the only conclusion to be drawn is that their accounts are not true.”
  • “With his sixty years’ experience he knew how much dependence to put upon hearsay, knew how apt people are when they want anything to arrange all the evidence so that it appears to confirm what they desire, and how ready they are in such circumstances to overlook anything that makes for the contrary.”

We overemphasize “Great Men”

  • “The sum of men’s individual wills produced both the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.”
  • “we [must] abstain from attributing to the masses the aims that existed in the brains of only a dozen individuals.”
  • “‘whenever there has been a conquest there has been a conqueror, and every subversion of an empire brings forth great men,’ says history. ‘Yes indeed, in every case where conquerors appear there have been wars,’ human reason replies, ‘but this does not prove that the conquerors were the cause of the wars, or that it is possible to discover the factors leading to warfare in the personal activity of a single man.’”
  • “To elicit the laws of history we must leave aside kings, ministers and generals, and select for study the homogenous, infinitesimal elements which influence the masses.”
  • “the burning of Moscow was not due and cannot be ascribed to any one person or number of persons….Deserted Moscow had to burn, as inevitably as a heap of shavings is sure to burn if sparks are scattered on it for several days in succession….Even if there was any arson…arson cannot be regarded as responsible for the same thing would have happened without any incendiarism…there could be no such direct cause of the fire.”
  • “we have only to discard our researches among the reports and plans of the generals and consider the movements of those hundreds of thousands of men who took a direct part in the events, and all the questions that seemed insoluble before will at once be satisfactorily answered with extraordinary ease and simplicity.”

On War

  • “On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began: in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes … as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.”
  • “Success never has and never will depend on position, or equipment, or even on numbers — least of all on position.’ ‘What does it depend on, then?’…‘On the feeling that is in me and in him….and in every soldier…the strength of an army depends on its spirit.”
  • “A commander-in-chief never finds himself at the beginning of an event — the position from which we always contemplate it. The general is always in the midst of a series of shitting events and so he can never at any point deliberate on the whole import of what is going on. Imperceptibly, moment by moment, an event takes shape in all its bearings, and at every instant of this uninterrupted, consecutive shaping of events the commander-in-chief is at the heart of a most complex play of intrigues, cares, contingencies, authorities, projects, counsels, threats and deceits, and is continually obliged to reply to innumerable, often mutually contradictory questions.”


  • “So they are even more afraid than we are!’ he thought. ‘Is this then, all that is meant by what is called heroism? And did I do it for my country’s sake? And where was he to blame…He thought I was going to kill him. Why should I kill him? My hand trembled. But they gave me the St. George Cross.”
  • “Hesitation could be read on every face, and every heart was occupied with the question: ‘Why — for whom — must I kill and be killed.”

War is murder

  • “Princess Maria’s attitude to the war was the general attitude of women when there is a war. She feared for her brother that was in it, was horrified and amazing at the strange cruelty that impels men to slaughter one another.”
  • “To my mind tomorrow means this: a hundred thousand Russian and a hundred thousand French soldiers have met to fight, and the thing is that these two hundred thousand men will fight and the side that fights the more savagely and spares itself least will win.”
  • “The aim and end of war is murder; the weapons employed in war are espionage, treachery and the encouragement of treachery, the ruining of a country, the plundering robbery of its inhabitants for the maintenance of the army, and trickery and lying which all appear under the heading of the art of war.”
  • “Every monarch in the world…wears a military uniform, and bestows the greatest rewards on the man who kills the greatest number of his fellow creatures.”

Total war

  • “They mean to throw the whole nation at the enemy’s head.”
  • “Yes, yes,’ answered Prince Andrei absently. ‘One thing I would do if I had the power,’ he began again. “I would not take prisoners. What sense is there in taking prisoners? It’s playing knights of old. The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow; they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals…They must be put to death.”
  • “Not to take prisoners.’ Prince Andrei continued. ‘That by itself would transform the whole aspect of war and make it less cruel. As it is we have been playing at war — that’s what’s vile! We play at being magnanimous and all the rest of it. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of the lady who faints at the sight of a calf being killed: she is so tender-hearted that she can’t look at blood — but fricassée of veal she will eat with gusto.”
  • “They prate about the rules of warfare, of chivalry, of flags of truce and humanity to the wounded, and so on. All fiddle-sticks. I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805: they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder people’s homes, circulate false paper money, and worst of all they kill our children and our fathers, and then talk of the rules of warfare and generosity to a fallen foe. No quarter, I say, but kill and be killed! Anyone who has reached this conclusion through the same suffering as I have…If there were none of the magnanimity business in warfare, we would never go to war, except for something wroth facing death for, as now.”
  • “War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand and not play at war.”
  • “War, the voice had said, ‘is the most painful act of subjection to the laws of God that can be required of the human will.”

On Love

  • “he was going through that phase of young manhood when there seems so much to do that there is no time for that sort of thing, and the young man dreads to bind himself, and prizes his freedom which he needs for so much else…There will be time enough to think about love when I want to, but now I am too busy.”

I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim

  • “It did not enter his head that he was in love with the little Rostov girl, he was not thinking about her but only picturing her to himself, and in consequence all life appeared in a new light. ‘Why do I struggle? Why am I toiling and moiling this narrow, petty environment, when life, all life with its every joy, lies open before me?’ he said to himself. And for the first time for a very long time he began making happy plans for the future.”
  • “I should never have believed it if anyone had told me I could love like this,’ said Prince Andrei. ‘It is not at all the same feeling that I had before. The whole world is split into two halves for me: she one half, and there all is joy, hope and light: the other is where she is not, and there everything is gloom and darkness…I can’t help loving the light, it is not my fault, and I am very happy!”
  • “Can it be that this stranger has now become everything to me? she asked herself, and the reply came in a flash, ‘Yes, everything: he alone is now dearer to me than all else in the world.”
  • “Ever since that day…the haunting problem of the vanity and folly of all earthly things had ceased to torment him. That terrible question “Why” “Wherefore?, which till then had appeared to trouble him in every occupation, was now replaced not by another question or by the answer to the former question, but by her image…not because she was the answer to the questions that met him at every turn but because his image of her instantly lifted him to another world, a serene realm of spiritual activity, where there could be neither right nor wrong — a realm of beauty and love which was worth living for.”
  • “After his visit to Princess Maria, though his matter of life remained externally the same, all his former amusements lost their charm for him and he often found himself thinking of her.”


  • “He looked at her and was struck by the grave impassioned expression of her face. Her face seemed to say: ‘Why ask? Why doubt what you cannot help knowing? Why use words when words cannot express what one feels?”
  • “his former dark thoughts of vengeance, assassination and self-sacrifice had been blown away like dust by contact with the first human being.”
  • “he told his story with such honest conviction that he was the only man who had ever tasted and known all the sweets of love…”
  • “Her love for Rostov no longer tormented or agitated her. it filled her whole soul, had become an integral part of herself, and she no longer struggled against it. Latterly she had become convinced — though she never plainly, in so many words, admitted it to herself — that she loved and was loved…and she was happy and at peace with this state of things.”

Divine love

  • “Yes — love…But not that love which loves for something, to gain something because of something, but the love I knew for the first time when, dying, I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I experienced the ove which is the very essence of the soul, the love which requires no object. And I feel that blessed feeling now too. To love one’s neighbors, to love one’s enemies, to love everything — to love God in all his manifestations.”
  • “Human love serves to love those dear to us but to love one’s enemies we need divine love.”
  • “Human love may turn to hatred but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death, can destroy it.”
  • “suddenly her love for her mother showed her that the essence of life — love — was still active within her. Love awoke, and life awoke.”
  • “while there is life there is joy in consciousness of God. To love life is to love God. More difficult and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.”

On God

  • “‘How good it would be,’ thought Prince Andrei, letting his eyes rest on the icon which his sister had hung round his neck with such emotion and reverence, ‘how good it would be if everything were as clear and simple as it seems to Marie. How good it would be to know where to seek help in this life, and what to expect after it, beyond the grave! How happy and at peace I should be if I could say now: Lord, have mercy on me! But to whom am I to say that? Is it to the great Power, indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot turn to but which I cannot even express in words — the great All or Nothing,’ said he to himself, ‘or is it to that God who has been sewn into this amulet by Marie? Nothing, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of everything within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all-important.’”
  • “All we can know is that we know nothing. And that is the sum total of human spirit.”
  • “When she did not understand, it was sweeter still to think that the desire to understand all was pride, that it was impossible to comprehend everything, that all she had to do was to have faith and commit herself to God, Who was, she felt, at those moment guiding her soul.”
  • “O God, I submit myself to Thy will’ she thought. ‘I ask for nothing, desire nothing: teach me how to act, what to do with my will’”
  • “And it seemed to her that God heard her prayer.”
  • “Think of God looking down and listening to them…Ah, my friend, life has become a burden to me of late. I see that I have begun to understand too much.”
  • “The ways of the Lord are past finding out!’ she thought, feeling that the omnipotent hand of Providence, hitherto unseen, was becoming manifest in all that was now taking place.”
  • “The awful question that had shattered all his mental edifices in the past — the question Why? no longer existed for him. To that question Why? he now had always ready in his soul the simple answer: Because God is — the God without whose will not one hair falls from man’s head.”
  • “only one who believes that there is a God guiding us can bear such a loss as hers and yours.”

On Fate

  • “When in doubt, my dear fellow, do nothing”

Napoleon had no choice

  • “The deeds of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose fiat the whole question of war or no war apparently depended, were as little spontaneous and free as the actions of every common soldier drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (the people on whom the whole decision appeared to rest) should be effected a combination of innumerable circumstances was essential, without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands the real power lay — the soldiers who fired the guns or transported provisions and cannon — should consent to carry out the will of those weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.”
  • “Had Napoleon then forbidden them to fight the Russians they would have killed him and fought with the Russians because they had to.”
  • “To speak of what would have happened had Napoleon sent forward his Guards is like talking of what would happen if spring came in autumn. It could not be. Napoleon did not sacrifice his Guards, not because he did not want to, but because it could not be done.”
  • “In both cases his [Napoleon’s] personal activity, which was of no more consequence than the personal action of the meanest private, merely coincided with the laws that guided the event.”
  • “Napoleon, who is presented to us as the leader of all this movement backwards and forwards…whatever he did throughout this period was like a child holding on to the straps inside a carriage and imagining that he is driving it.”

Life moves us

  • “How horrified he would have been seven years before, when he first arrived back from abroad, if anyone had told him that there was no need for him to look about and make plans, that his track had long ago been shaped for him, marked out before all eternity, and that wiggle as he might, he would be what everyone in his position was doomed to be.”
  • “the habits and the acquaintances he had made in Moscow formed a current that bore him along irresistibly.”
  • “he ought not to undertake anything but wait for what was bound to come to pass.”
  • “Everything happens fortuitously”
  • “The more he realized the complete absence of self interest in the old man — who had as it were outlived the fire of his passions, leaving only the habit of them”
  • “He knows that there is something stronger and more important than his own will — the inevitable march of events…”
  • “these men who were right in the thick of the fray acted in accordance with the temper of the moment. In reality, however, all these movements back and forth did not improve of affect the position of the troops.”
  • “When was the thing done that made it inevitable?”

A million motivations

  • “all the innumerable individuals who took part in the war acted in accordance with their natural dispositions, habits, circumstances, and aims. They were moved by fear or vanity, they rejoiced or were indifferent, they argued and supposed that they knew what they were doing and did it of their own free will, where they were all the involuntary tools of history, working out a process concealed from them but intelligible to us. Such is the inevitable lot of men of action, and the higher they stand in the social hierarchy the less free they are.”
  • “Providence compelled all these men compelled all these men, striving for the attainment of their own private ends, to combine for the accomplishment of a single stupendous result, of which no one man (neither Napoleon, nor Alexander, still less any of those who did the actual fighting) had the slightest inkling.”
  • “The questions, What causes historic events? will suggest another answer, namely that the course of early happenings is predetermined from on high, and depends on the combined volition of all who participate in those events, and that influence of a Napoleon on the course of those events is purely superficial and imaginary.”
  • re: Napoleon: “Already, without orders from him, the thing he wants, and for which he only gave the order because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And fell back into his old artificial realm of fantasies of grandeur, and again…he meekly resumed the cruel mournful, irksome and inhuman role which was his destiny”

Necessity vs. Freedom

  • “the greater the estimate of necessity the smaller the estimate of freedom, and vice versa”
  • “If we study one man by himself, if we isolate him from his environment, every action of his seems free to us. But if we see any relation of his whatever to what surrounds him….we see that each of these circumstances has its influence on him and orders at least one side of his activity.”
  • “Our scale of judgement as to the greater or lesser degrees of freedom and necessity will here depend on the greater or lesser interval of time between the performance of the action and our appraisal of it.”
  • “we can never conceive of either complete freedom or complete necessity…To imagine a man perfectly free and not subject to the law of necessity we must imagine him alone, outside space, outside time and outside dependence on cause.”

On Crime

  • “Where there’s law there’s injustice.”

Right & Wrong

  • “The one thing I thank God for is that I didn’t kill the man’ said Pierre. ‘Why so?’ asked Prince Andrei. ‘To kill a vicious dog is a very good thing really.’ ‘No, to kill a man is bad, wrong…’ ‘Why is it wrong?’ pressed Prince Andrew. ‘It is not given to man to judge of what is right or wrong. Men always did and always will err, and in nothing more than in what they regard as right or wrong.’”
  • “Nothing in life seemed to him of much consequence, and under the influence of the depression that engulfed him he no longer cared about his own freedom…‘No one is right, no one is wrong.’”
  • For us who have the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, nothing can claim to be outside the law. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”
  • “For the great man, nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”

For the public

  • “One need only admit the premise that public peace of mind is in danger and any action finds justification. All the horrors of the Reign of Terror in France were based entirely on solicitude for public tranquility.”
  • “le bien public” — “the hypothetical welfare of the other people”
  • “the man who has committed a crime is always very sure where that welfare lies.”
  • “He knew now that time would never dim the bloody trace of that recollection…Why did I utter those words? They came out somehow by accident….But I did not do it on my own account. I had no choice…The mob, the traitor…public welfare.”

The system

  • “Pierre, like the others, was interrogated as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on….These questions, like those generally put at trials, left the essence of the living fact aside, shut out the possibility of that essence being discovered, and were designed only at supplying a channel along which the examining officials desire the accused’s answers to flow so as to lead to the goal of the inquiry, namely, a conviction.”
  • “His brain was racked with a single thought. Who — who was it really that had sentenced him to death? …who was it who was executing him, killing him, taking his life — his, Pierre’s, with all his memories, yearnings, hopes and ideas? Who was doing it? And Pierre felt that it was no one’s doing. It was the system, the concatenation of circumstances. A system of some sort was killing — Pierre — robbing him of life, of everything, annihilating him.”
  • “massacre committed by men who had no desire to do it…unwilling executioners.”
  • “The concepts of legal disability, admitted by all legislative codes, and that of extenuating circumstances rest entirely on these three considerations. Responsibility appears greater or less according to our greater or lesser knowledge of the conditions in which the individual was placed whose action is under judgement, and according to the longer or shorter interval of time between the perpetration of the action and its investigation, and according to our greater or lesser understanding of the causes that led to the action.”

On Death

  • “Everything did indeed seem so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought induced in him by his lapsing consciousness, as hid life-blood ebbed away, by his suffering and the nearness of death.”

Its mystery

  • “He is no more, but here, in the place where he was, is something unfamiliar and sinister, some fearful, terrifying and loathsome mystery!”
  • “When a man sees an animal dying, horror seizes him: substance similar to his own is perishing before his eyes, is ceasing to be. But when the dying creature is a human being, and a beloved one, over and above horror at the extension of life there is a severance, a spiritual wound which like a physical wound is sometimes fatal, sometimes heals, but always aches and shrinks from any external chafing touch.”

Its clarity

  • “His whole life appeared to him like a series of magic-lantern pictures which he had been staring at by artificial light through a glass. Now he suddenly saw those badly-daubed pictures, without the glass, in the clear light of day. ‘Yes, yes! There they are those living images that agitated, enthralled and tormented me,’ he said to himself passing in review the principal pictures of the magic-lantern of his life and looking at them now in the cold white daylight of his clear perception of death.
  • “There they are, those rudely painted figures that once seemed splendid and mysterious. Honour and glory, the good of society, love for a woman, the Fatherland itself — what grand pictures they used to seem to me, with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled! And it is all so simple, so colourless and crude in the cold white light of the morning which I feel is dawning for me!”
  • “During the hours of solitude, suffering and half-delirium that he spent after he was wounded, the more deeply he penetrated this new principle of eternal love which had been revealed to him, the more he unconsciously detached himself from earthly life. To love everything and everybody, always to sacrifice self for love, meant to love no one it particular, meant not to live this mundane life. And the more imbued he became with this principle of love, the more he let go of life and the more completely he annihilated that fearful barrier which — in the absence of such love — stands between life and death. Whenever, during that first period, he remembered that he had to die, he said to himself: ‘Well, what of it? So much the better!’”
  • “’Love? What is love?’ he mused. Love hinders death. Love is life. Anything at all that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is — everything exists — only because I love. All is bound up in love alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a tiny particle of love, shall return to the universal and eternal source.’ These thoughts seemed comforting to him. But they were only thoughts. There was something lacking in them, they were confused and too one-sidedly personal, too intellectual. And he was a prey to the same restlessness and uncertainty. He fell asleep.”

Its effect

  • “I don’t I can’t die, I don’t want to die. I love life — I love this grass, this earth, this air…”
  • “What made me so reluctant to part with life? There was something in this life I did not and don’t understand.”
  • “Man can be master of nothing while he is afraid of death. But he who does not fear death is lord of all.”
  • “The open question concerning life or death which hung not only over Bolkonsky but over the whole or Russia shut out all other considerations.”
  • “They, too, with the same silent appeal for protection in their eyes, gazed vainly round at the onlookers, evidently unable to comprehend or believe was coming. They were incredulous because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they could not understand, could not believe that it could be taken from them.”

On Purpose

  • “It is only subconscious activity that bears fruit, and a man who plays a part in a historic event never understand its import. As soon as he tries to realize its significance his actions become sterile.”
  • “Pierre told of his adventures as he had never thought of them before. He now saw as it were a new significance in all he had been through.”

Seeking glory

  • “Well, and then asks the other voice again. ‘Supposing a dozen times you escape being wounded or killed or betrayed. Well, what then?’ ‘Why, then…’ Prince Andrei answered himself, ‘I don’t know what will happen then. I can’t know, and have no wish to; but if I want glory, want to be famous and beloved it’s not my fault that I want it, that it’s the only thing I care for, the only thing I live for. Yes, the only thing! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God, what am I to do if all I care for is fame and the affections of my fellow-men? Death, wounds, the loss of my family — nothing holds any terrors for me. And precious and dear as many people are to me — father, sister, wife — those I cherish most — yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would exchange them all immediately for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of those men there, he thought, as he listened to voices in Kutuzov’s courtyard.”

Seeking nothing

  • “Why not wash? That’s not clean.’ said Prince Andrei. ‘On the contrary, one has to try to make one’s life as pleasant as possible. I’m alive, and it’s not my fault that I am, and so it behoves me to make the best of it, not interfering with anybody else until death carries me off.’”
  • “The Bible legend says that the absence of toil — idleness — was a circumstance of the first man’s blessed state before the Fall. Fallen man too, has retained a love of idleness but the curse still lies heavy on the human race, and not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice warns that for us idleness is a sin. If it were possible for a man to discover a mode of existence in which he could feel that, though idle, he was of use to the world and fulfilling his duty, he would have attained to one facet of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and unimpeachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole section of society — the military class. It is just this compulsory and irreproachable idleness which has always constituted, and will constitute, the chief attraction of military service.”
  • “he bore his position not only lightly but cheerfully. And it was just at this time that he attained to the peace and content with himself for which before he had always striven in vain.”
  • “The satisfaction of one’s needs — good food, cleanliness, freedom — not that he was deprived of these seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness; and the choice of occupation, that is, of his manner of life, now that that choice was so restricted, seemed to him such an easy matter that he forget that superfluity of the comforts of life destroys all joy in gratifying one’s needs.”
  • “it was precisely this absence of an aim which gave him the complete and joyful sense of freedom that constituted his present happiness.”

Seeking purpose

  • “In Prince Andrei’s eyes Speransky was precisely the man he would have liked to be himself — able to find a rational explanation for all the phenomena of life, recognizing as important only what was logical, and capable of applying the standard of reason to everything.”
  • “Prince Andrei began to live over his life in Petersburg during the last four months…he was amazing that he could have spent so much time on such useless work.”
  • “He had the unlucky capacity…of seeing and believing in the possibility of goodness and truth, but of seeing the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to take any serious part in life. Every sphere of activity was in his eyes, linked with evil and deception. Whatever he tried to be, whatever he engaged in, he always found himself repulsed by this knavery and falsehood, which blocked every path of action.”
  • “When a man finds himself in motion he always devises some purpose for his bodily exertion.”
  • “It is a well-known fact that man has the faculty of becomign completely absorbed in one subject, however trivial that subject may appear to be. And it is well known that no subject is so trivial as to be incapable of boundless development if one’s entire attention is devoted to it.”

Purpose unattainable

  • “he was suffering the anguish men go through when they persist in undertaking a task impossible for them — not because of its inherent difficulties but because of its incompatibility with their own nature.”
  • “Adjutants and generals galloped to and fro, shouted, lost their tempers, quarreled, told each other that they had come quite wrong and were late, gave vent to a little abuse, etc., and finally all washed their hands of the whole business and went forward simply in order to get, somewhere. We must arrive at some place or other! And so they, did, indeed, though not where they should have got — the few who did eventually reach their proper destination reached it too late to be of any use only in time to be fired upon.”
  • “The higher that human intellect soars in the discovery of possible purposes, the more obvious it becomes that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.”
  • “Man cannot achieve more than a certain insight into the correlation between the life of the bee and other manifestations of life. And the same is true with regard to the final purpose of historical characters and nations.”
  • “With his reason man observes himself, but only through self-consciousness does he know himself.”

On Happiness

  • “Oh, how I am afraid for her, how afraid I am!” said the countess, not realizing to whom she was speaking. Her maternal instinct told her that Natasha had too much of something, and that because of this she would not be happy.”
  • “While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned, not through his intellect but through his whole being, through life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness lies in himself, in the satisfaction of simple human needs; and that all unhappiness is due, not privation but superfluity.”
  • “just as there is no condition in which can be happy and absolutely free, so there is no condition in which he need be completely unhappy and not free. He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that these limits are not far away.”
  • “pure, unmitigated grief is as impossible as pure, unmitigated joy.”
  • “While there is life there is happiness”
  • “Countess Maria’s spirit was always striving towards the infinite, the eternal and the absolute, and could therefore never be at peace.”



Osama Alkhawaja

Lawyer writing on politics, history, and anything that interests me in at the moment