Human-ness in Tolstoy

Human-ness in Tolstoy and AI

Man, do I regret never reading War and Peace when I was a student.

Yes, it is super long and seemingly about trivial court manners in Czarist St. Petersburg. It opens that way and in past efforts, I put it down a dozen times. This time, I was reading the Gutenberg ebook in my Kindle app, and I stumbled over Buonaparte in the first few pages. A cocktail party conversation about politics, just like when you get your friends together, but about the war of the moment.

And on the other hand, hero worship:

So I searched for Napoleon in the book and decided to only read the passages that mention him. About 500. Virtually every page.

Tolstoy narrates Napoleon’s thoughts:

And points of view all around him circa 1812 when Napoleon was transforming/creating Europe, crashing through borders, toppling the traditional aristocracy, redefining warfare, deploying a uniform system of laws, putting scientists in charge of policy, and putting crowns on his head.

I am rather into Napoleon at the moment as I have been admiring William Duggan’s “Napoleon’s Glance” (on strategy), Clausewitz’s “On War” (on military strategy), Geddes’ “On Grand Strategy” (guess), the cool Jean-Jacques David paintings of the 5’ 7”-not-so-short-Corsican kicking ass, his hometown near Bastia, Corsica on a visit last summer, and here also in this novel as Tolstoy waxes prolix to the max on my favorite subject of the 2017-2018 school year.

Being into Napoleon got me to the payoff.

The Second Epilogue (yes, Second). Holy smokes it is amazing. It is a philosophical essay in 12 parts. And it makes an argument that the whole 1,000 pages of ballgowns and injured officers were meant to set up.

He could have spit it out earlier.

Tolstoy does have a theory. The theory is that Napoleon didn’t make history. It happened to him. He wants to refute this view:

There is nothing you can find in studying Napoleon that gives you the history of Europe following 1789. Tolstoy tackles all the bits and pieces of counteraegument you can dream up. He tackles some other theories too (the march of culture, the power of ideas…). He is the anti-Nietszche (“superman”) and I think he is channeling Marx.

Tolstoy is saying that if people made history, then studying them would tell us about history. But it predicts nothing.

Here is the summation:

History is a science seeking to explain why things happen.

But history has the tricky job of issuing laws about a subject that can disagree (humans).

In fact if history manages some laws, it erases a deeply held conviction held by humans: free will.

Not so deeply held though, as many things (crimes of insanity or passion, or orders followed, or youthful indiscretions) are rarely charged against us as guilty acts of free will. “That wasn’t me.”

Indeed, it is time to face up to reality. When Copernicus made his star map, a basic premise of astronomy was over: that the earth doesn’t move. Same here. We can predict a lot using statistics and laws, and the rest it is time to just leave as the unimportant remainder, aka free will.

At least we get coherent laws instead of quibbling about Napoleon’s genius vs Alexander’s vs Nelson’s vs the French people etc.

And finally:

So Tolstoy wants to say that nations and history move due to laws, not free will.

Fast forward.

Today: biology is destiny (said Freud in the 1930s).

More sleep = greater intellectual destiny

Body type = your running destiny

Physics = boundaries of consciousness

Psychology exercise = transformation of mental health


Robots will never give love.

The last one doesn’t fit. The first four say science and patterns define the human boundaries.

The last one says science can never re-create one of the things we value.

Your Amazon Echo tells your kids a joke. Is it your kids learning about the world, or your kids being brainwashed by non-human voices?

Here is a leading techno-skeptic from MIT:

Sherry Turkle on Love

This girl had grown up in the time of Siri, a conversational object presented as an empathy machine — a thing that could understand her. And so it seemed natural to her that other machines would expand the range of conversation. But there is something she may have been too young to understand — or, like a lot of us — prone to forget when we talk to machines. These robots can perform empathy in a conversation about your friend, your mother, your child or your lover, but they have no experience of any of these relationships. Machines have not known the arc of a human life. They feel nothing of the human loss or love we describe to them. Their conversations about life occupy the realm of the as-if.