Tolstoj’s Scientific Language in War and Peace and Later Works

Arkadi Klioutchanski, University of Toronto

In this paper, I discuss the use of scientific terminology by Lev Tolstoj in his artistic works. Science played an important role in the development of Tolstoj’s thought throughout the second half of his life. Only in War and Peace, however, in creating his unique “philosophy of history,” did he employ a critical mass of direct references to science that gave an impression of a specific “concept” based on “scientific ideas.”

In the 1860s Tolstoj “was affected by the general interest in science and felt the necessity in War and Peace of giving a “scientific” explanation for his idea.” (Orwin) Tolstoj’s ability and willingness to use scientific terminology should not be taken for granted. During the 1860s, he had just begun to “discover” science and this process was reflected in “War and Peace.” During this same decade, Tolstoj also started to distinguish more clearly between Science and Humanities. On February 11, 1866, he wrote in his notebook: “All human ‘sciences’ (nauki) that have as an object a human being are condemned to uselessness and twaddle. Philosophy. History. Law.” In this statement, Tolstoj de facto separates Science and Humanities, although the Russian word “Nauka” conflates the two. He could, therefore, feel a necessity to “protect” History and to try to put it under the cover of Sciences. During that period he seems to have believed that Science can offer a definite, indisputable answer to questions it poses. As late as in 1880 he clamed that “In Science, people can agree. One [scientific point of view – AK] might be correct, but not so in Faith.” His graduate disillusionment with Science was greatly influenced by the fact that scientists did not all agree about what they were discussing.

In the 1860s, Tolstoj was still a neophyte with respect to Science and scientific thought and was enthusiastic about this newly discovered source of intellectual inspiration. Such inspiration, however, had necessarily to translate itself into an artistic one as well. One can see in War and Peace both an expression of a “scientific concept” and a wide use of “scientific metaphor.” (Vaganova) 

The use of scientific terminology for artistic purposes complicates the question about its place and role in the novel. It is possible that not only did Tolstoj’s “concept of history”  prescribed the use of scientific terms but also that the chosen vocabulary could, to a certain extend, in its turn have had an impact on what the “scientific concept” tended to look like.   


Orwin, Donna Tussing, Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 188.

Vaganova, Z. “Of Newton and Darwin: Scientific Metaphors and the Endings of Leo Tolstoy’s Novel.” Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1995.