Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tolstoy on Morality and "Greatness"

From War and Peace, p. 1267-8, speaking in regards to how historians treat the retreat of Napoleon out of Russia (and his exploits in general):

When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic thread of historical ratiocination any farther, when an action flagrantly contradicts all that humanity calls good and even right, the historians fetch out the saving idea of 'greatness'. 'Greatness' would appear to exclude all possibility of applying standards of right and wrong. For the 'great' man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a 'great' man can be blamed.

'C'est grand!' cry the historians, and that is enough. Goodness and evil have ceased to be: there is only 'grand' and not 'grand'. Grand is good, not-grand is bad. To be grand is according to them the necessary attribute of certain exceptional animals called by them 'heroes'. And Napoleon, taking himself off home wrapped in a warm fur cloak and abandoning to their fate not only his comrades but men who (in his belief) were there because he had brought them there, feels que c'est grand, and his soul is at ease.

'From the sublime' (he saw something sublime in himself) 'to the ridiculous there is only one step,' said he. And for fifty years the whole world has gone on repeating, 'Sublime! Grand! Napoleon le grand!'

Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas!

And it never enters anyone's head that to admit a greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one's own nothingness and immeasurable littleness.

For us who have hte standard of good and evil given us by Christ, nothing can claim to be outside the law. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.

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