Leo Tolstoy is saying a good deal about the difficulty of being sure of cause and effect in ecology when he writes the following about the difficulty of being sure of cause and effect in history:
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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 do 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.
These lines are from Book 11 of War and Peace, the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, first published 1922-23. For bringing it to our attention, we thank Chris Dicus, once a student in a research methodology course we taught, now a forest fire researcher at Cal Poly.
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For a brief biography of Leo Tolstoy, click here.