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
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