Monday, June 6, 2011

Tolstoy on True Greatness

"Great men are almost always bad men," said John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton in the oft-ignored coda to his "power corrupts" dictum, an observation echoed by Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in War and Peace:
    And lastly, the final departure of the great Emperor from his heroic army is represented to us by the historians as something great -- a stroke of genius. Even that final act of running away, which in ordinary language is the ultimate degree of baseness -- even that act finds justification in the language of historians.

    When it is no longer possible to stretch those so very elastic threads of the historical rationale any farther, when an action is manifestly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians resort to the device of “greatness.” “Greatness” would appear to exclude the standards of right and wrong. For the “great” man nothing is wrong. There is no atrocity, for which a “great” man can be accounted guilty, “C’est grand!” say the historians, and good and evil cease to exist, there is only grand and pas grand. Grand is good and pas grand is bad. Grand, according to their understanding, is the characteristic of certain peculiar animals they call “heroes.” And Napoleon making off for home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish not only his comrades but men who (according to his beliefs) has been brought there by him, feels that this is grand, and his soul is untroubled.

    “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step,” says he, seeing something sublime in himself. And for fifty years the whole world has been echoing “Sublime! Grand! Napoleon le grand! Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas!

    And it never occurs to anyone that to admit a greatness that is not commensurate with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one’s own nothingness and immeasurable puniness.

    For us, with the standard of good and evil given to us by Christ, there is nothing for which we have no standard. And there is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.
In contrast to Napoleon, described above, whom the author dismisses as "a tool of history who never anywhere, even in exile, showed human dignity," we are presented with the figure of the Russian Commander-in-Chief, His Serene Highness Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov, 1745-1813, pictured below:

Tolstoy tells us that he "alone understood the meaning of the French army's inactivity." Knowing this, he focused all of his efforts on "restraining the troops by means of authority, guile, and entreaty, from useless attacks, maneuvers, and skirmishes with the perishing army." For this, Tolstoy informs us,
    Kutuzov was openly accused of blundering. The Emperor was dissatisfied with him. And in a history recently written by order of the Highest Authorities it is said that Kutuzov was a cunning court liar, frightened of the name of Napoleon, and that by his blunders at Krasnoe and the Berezina he deprived the Russian army of the glory of complete victory over the French.

    Such is the fate not of great men (grands hommes) whom the Russian mind does not acknowledge, but of those rare and always solitary individuals who, discerning the will of Providence, submit their personal will to it. The hatred and contempt of the crowd punish such men for discerning the higher laws.
Tolstoy writes that "that feeling placed him on that highest human pedestal from which he, the commander in chief, devoted all his powers not to slaying and destroying men but to saving and showing pity on them." Tolstoy concludes, "That simple, modest, and therefore truly great, figure could not be cast in the false mold of a European hero-the supposed ruler of men-that history has invented."

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Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Very intersting contrast.

It links to something I've been thinking about recently. I'd say that Nelson Mandela is a great man, but not an evil man. Some of his successors and wannabe successors, however, are evil but come nowhere near greatness.

4:51 PM  

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