Guest post by Jeffrey Wald.
Count Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace can be read on a variety of planes: historical fiction of the Napoleonic Wars; explication of Tolstoy’s theory of human history; exploration into “The Russian Soul”; etc. But perhaps the loudest narrative thread is the author’s clear disdain for Napoleon himself. One can imagine the venerable Count sitting up one day and deciding: I am going to destroy the pathetic notion that we (yes even we Russian victors) have that Napoleon was somehow a “great” man, even if it takes me 1296 pages to do it!
And so about three-quarters of the way through his masterpiece, we readers find ourselves in Moscow circa 1812. The French army has effectively been defeated. They are rushing from Russia as fast as their weary legs will take them. And Napoleon is with his army, fleeing right alongside them, or rather in front of them, until Berezina. There, he puts on his fur coat, gets into a sledge, and gallops off alone, abandoning his comrades. With scorn and disgust, Tolstoy describes this flight for what it is: cowardice, selfishness, and “the final degree of baseness, which every child is taught to be ashamed of.”
And yet, Tolstoy goes on to write, with increasing scorn and disgust, historians refuse to call a spade a spade and acknowledge Napoleon’s cowardice. Why? Because it does not fit with their notion of Napoleon’s “greatness,” and therefore his flight must be justified as something great and marked by genius:
Then, when it is no longer possible to stretch the so-elastic threads of historical discourse any further, when an action clearly contradicts all that mankind calls good and even just, historians resort to the saving notion of greatness. It is as if greatness excludes the possibility of the measure of good and bad. For the great man there is no bad. There is no horror that can be laid to the blame of someone who is great.
Is Tolstoy correct? Do we give the “great” person a pass? The genius, the inventor, the business giant, the political heavyweight – do we judge them by some extrinsic measure of good and bad, or by the vagaries of their supposed greatness? Do we at times excuse horrific behavior claiming the actor somehow exists outside the bounds of normal human conduct?
Tolstoy certainly thinks so, and cuts to the core of our weakness in doing so: “And it never enters anyone’s head that the recognition of a greatness not measurable by the measure of good and bad is only a recognition of one’s own insignificance and immeasurable littleness.”
Ouch! Every second of my life that I’ve spent thinking about Paris Hilton, or Prince William, or the like, now seems an utter waste.
And yet, our times perhaps suffers from the opposite extreme of Tolstoy’s. A deep skepticism pervades the air. Rather than excuse behavior claiming the person is “great,” we now adjudge greatness to no one. If good and bad are relative, can anyone be called good? Can anyone be called great? Is there such a thing as sanctity?
For Tolstoy, the answer is “yes,” there is at least One who can be called great, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the Measure and the Measurer. And accordingly, the two extremes, hailing greatness where it is not and denying greatness where it is, are removed by Him. In Christ, the plague of relativism dies, for, as Tolstoy writes, “with the measures of good and bad given us by Christ, nothing is immeasurable.”
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney, husband, and father of three boys. His short fiction, poetry, and reviews have previously appeared in a variety of print and online periodicals including Touchstone, Stinkwaves Magazine, Summit Ave Review, Whistling Shade, Philosophy Now, Light, and Plainsongs.