By Jill Russell,2014-11-27 12:23
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     BOOK ELEVEN: 1812


     Absolute continuity of motion is not comprehensible to the human

    mind. Laws of motion of any kind become comprehensible to man only

    when he examines arbitrarily selected elements of that motion; but

    at the same time, a large proportion of human error comes from the

    arbitrary division of continuous motion into discontinuous elements.

    There is a well known, so-called sophism of the ancients consisting in

    this, that Achilles could never catch up with a tortoise he was

    following, in spite of the fact that he traveled ten times as fast

    as the tortoise. By the time Achilles has covered the distance that

    separated him from the tortoise, the tortoise has covered one tenth of

    that distance ahead of him: when Achilles has covered that tenth,

    the tortoise has covered another one hundredth, and so on forever.

    This problem seemed to the ancients insoluble. The absurd answer (that

    Achilles could never overtake the tortoise) resulted from this: that

    motion was arbitrarily divided into discontinuous elements, whereas

    the motion both of Achilles and of the tortoise was continuous.

     By adopting smaller and smaller elements of motion we only

    approach a solution of the problem, but never reach it. Only when we

    have admitted the conception of the infinitely small, and the

    resulting geometrical progression with a common ratio of one tenth,

    and have found the sum of this progression to infinity, do we reach

a solution of the problem.

     A modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing

    with the infinitely small can now yield solutions in other more

    complex problems of motion which used to appear insoluble.

     This modern branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, when

    dealing with problems of motion admits the conception of the

    infinitely small, and so conforms to the chief condition of motion

    (absolute continuity) and thereby corrects the inevitable error

    which the human mind cannot avoid when it deals with separate elements

of motion instead of examining continuous motion.

     In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing

    happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable

arbitrary human wills, is continuous.

     To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of

    history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all

    those human wills, man's mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected

    units. The first method of history is to take an arbitrarily

    selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others,

    though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event

always flows uninterruptedly from another.

     The second method is to consider the actions of some one man- a king

    or a commander- as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills;

    whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed by the activity

of a single historic personage.

     Historical science in its endeavor to draw nearer to truth

    continually takes smaller and smaller units for examination. But

    however small the units it takes, we feel that to take any unit

    disconnected from others, or to assume a beginning of any

    phenomenon, or to say that the will of many men is expressed by the

    actions of any one historic personage, is in itself false.

     It needs no critical exertion to reduce utterly to dust any

    deductions drawn from history. It is merely necessary to select some

    larger or smaller unit as the subject of observation- as criticism has

    every right to do, seeing that whatever unit history observes must

always be arbitrarily selected.

     Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the

    differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men)

    and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum

    of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.

     The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe

    present an extraordinary movement of millions of people. Men leave

    their customary pursuits, hasten from one side of Europe to the other,

    plunder and slaughter one another, triumph and are plunged in despair,

    and for some years the whole course of life is altered and presents an

    intensive movement which first increases and then slackens. What was

    the cause of this movement, by what laws was it governed? asks the

mind of man.

     The historians, replying to this question, lay before us the sayings

    and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris,

    calling these sayings and doings "the Revolution"; then they give a

    detailed biography of Napoleon and of certain people favorable or

    hostile to him; tell of the influence some of these people had on

    others, and say: that is why this movement took place and those are

its laws.

     But the mind of man not only refuses to believe this explanation,

    but plainly says that this method of explanation is fallacious,

    because in it a weaker phenomenon is taken as the cause of a stronger.

    The sum of human wills produced the Revolution and Napoleon, and

    only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.

     "But every time there have been conquests there have been

    conquerors; every time there has been a revolution in any state

    there have been great men," says history. And, indeed, human reason

    replies: every time conquerors appear there have been wars, but this

    does not prove that the conquerors caused the wars and that it is

    possible to find the laws of a war in the personal activity of a

    single man. Whenever I look at my watch and its hands point to ten,

    I hear the bells of the neighboring church; but because the bells

    begin to ring when the hands of the clock reach ten, I have no right

    to assume that the movement of the bells is caused by the position

of the hands of the watch.

     Whenever I see the movement of a locomotive I hear the whistle and

    see the valves opening and wheels turning; but I have no right to

    conclude that the whistling and the turning of wheels are the cause of

the movement of the engine.

     The peasants say that a cold wind blows in late spring because the

    oaks are budding, and really every spring cold winds do blow when

    the oak is budding. But though I do not know what causes the cold

    winds to blow when the oak buds unfold, I cannot agree with the

    peasants that the unfolding of the oak buds is the cause of the cold

    wind, for the force of the wind is beyond the influence of the buds. I

    see only a coincidence of occurrences such as happens with all the

    phenomena of life, and I see that however much and however carefully I

    observe the hands of the watch, and the valves and wheels of the

    engine, and the oak, I shall not discover the cause of the bells

    ringing, the engine moving, or of the winds of spring. To that I

    must entirely change my point of view and study the laws of the

    movement of steam, of the bells, and of the wind. History must do

    the same. And attempts in this direction have already been made.

     To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject

    of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals,

    and the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are

    moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance

    in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it

    is evident that only along that path does the possibility of

    discovering the laws of history lie, and that as yet not a millionth

    part as much mental effort has been applied in this direction by

    historians as has been devoted to describing the actions of various

    kings, commanders, and ministers and propounding the historians' own

reflections concerning these actions.



     The forces of a dozen European nations burst into Russia. The

    Russian army and people avoided a collision till Smolensk was reached,

    and again from Smolensk to Borodino. The French army pushed on to

    Moscow, its goal, its impetus ever increasing as it neared its aim,

    just as the velocity of a falling body increases as it approaches

    the earth. Behind it were seven hundred miles of hunger-stricken,

    hostile country; ahead were a few dozen miles separating it from its

    goal. Every soldier in Napoleon's army felt this and the invasion

moved on by its own momentum.

     The more the Russian army retreated the more fiercely a spirit of

    hatred of the enemy flared up, and while it retreated the army

    increased and consolidated. At Borodino a collision took place.

    Neither army was broken up, but the Russian army retreated immediately

    after the collision as inevitably as a ball recoils after colliding

    with another having a greater momentum, and with equal inevitability

    the ball of invasion that had advanced with such momentum rolled on

    for some distance, though the collision had deprived it of all its


     The Russians retreated eighty miles- to beyond Moscow- and the

    French reached Moscow and there came to a standstill. For five weeks

    after that there was not a single battle. The French did not move.

    As a bleeding, mortally wounded animal licks its wounds, they remained

    inert in Moscow for five weeks, and then suddenly, with no fresh

    reason, fled back: they made a dash for the Kaluga road, and (after

    a victory- for at Malo-Yaroslavets the field of conflict again

    remained theirs) without undertaking a single serious battle, they

    fled still more rapidly back to Smolensk, beyond Smolensk, beyond

the Berezina, beyond Vilna, and farther still.

     On the evening of the twenty-sixth of August, Kutuzov and the

    whole Russian army were convinced that the battle of Borodino was a

    victory. Kutuzov reported so to the Emperor. He gave orders to prepare

    for a fresh conflict to finish the enemy and did this not to deceive

    anyone, but because he knew that the enemy was beaten, as everyone who

had taken part in the battle knew it.

     But all that evening and next day reports came in one after

    another of unheard-of losses, of the loss of half the army, and a

fresh battle proved physically impossible.

     It was impossible to give battle before information had been

    collected, the wounded gathered in, the supplies of ammunition

    replenished, the slain reckoned up, new officers appointed to

    replace those who had been killed, and before the men had had food and

    sleep. And meanwhile, the very next morning after the battle, the

    French army advanced of itself upon the Russians, carried forward by

    the force of its own momentum now seemingly increased in inverse

    proportion to the square of the distance from its aim. Kutuzov's

    wish was to attack next day, and the whole army desired to do so.

    But to make an attack the wish to do so is not sufficient, there

    must also be a possibility of doing it, and that possibility did not

    exist. It was impossible not to retreat a day's march, and then in the

    same way it was impossible not to retreat another and a third day's

    march, and at last, on the first of September when the army drew

    near Moscow- despite the strength of the feeling that had arisen in

    all ranks- the force of circumstances compelled it to retire beyond

    Moscow. And the troops retired one more, last, day's march, and

abandoned Moscow to the enemy.

     For people accustomed to think that plans of campaign and battles

    are made by generals- as any one of us sitting over a map in his study

    may imagine how he would have arranged things in this or that

    battle- the questions present themselves: Why did Kutuzov during the

    retreat not do this or that? Why did he not take up a position

    before reaching Fili? Why did he not retire at once by the Kaluga

    road, abandoning Moscow? and so on. People accustomed to think in that

    way forget, or do not know, the inevitable conditions which always

    limit the activities of any commander in chief. The activity of a

    commander in chief does not all resemble the activity we imagine to

    ourselves when we sit at case in our studies examining some campaign

    on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a

    certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment.

    A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event-

    the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in

    chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so

    he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event

    that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping

    itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted

    shaping of events the commander in chief is in the midst of a most

    complex play of intrigues, worries, contingencies, authorities,

    projects, counsels, threats, and deceptions and is continually obliged

    to reply to innumerable questions addressed to him, which constantly

conflict with one another.

     Learned military authorities quite seriously tell us that Kutuzov

    should have moved his army to the Kaluga road long before reaching

    Fili, and that somebody actually submitted such a proposal to him. But

    a commander in chief, especially at a difficult moment, has always

    before him not one proposal but dozens simultaneously. And all these

    proposals, based on strategics and tactics, contradict each other.

     A commander in chief's business, it would seem, is simply to

    choose one of these projects. But even that he cannot do. Events and

    time do not wait. For instance, on the twenty-eighth it is suggested

    to him to cross to the Kaluga road, but just then an adjutant

    gallops up from Miloradovich asking whether he is to engage the French

    or retire. An order must be given him at once, that instant. And the

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