After further musings on the enigma of history in the abstract and philosophical Second Epilogue, the narrator reflects on human power. Power, which he defines as the collective will of the people transferred to one ruler, is the only identifiable motor that drives history forward. But power is impossible to define, so the mystery of history is insoluble. It is impossible to explain why Napoleon, for example, despite a repeatedly expressed desire to invade England, never took any steps to do so, but instead invaded Russia, a country he wanted as an ally.
The enigma of historical change implies the theological question about free will and the extent to which any individual is truly free in his actions, whatever his illusions of freedom may be. According to the narrator, it is just as impossible to imagine total freedom as it is to imagine total determinism. In the end, the narrator puts forth the idea that we must necessarily depend on a power of which we are not conscious. This idea amounts to a recognition that, though our sense of freedom is indispensable, so too is our repressed understanding that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, a force that moves our lives forward.
The fortunes of the Rostov family continue their fluctuations, but end on an optimistic upswing that bodes well for the future of Russia. Despite Tolstoy’s presentation of Nicholas as an honorable son making sacrifices for his family, the author allows room for a bit of criticism. The same aristocratic disregard for money matters that ruined the Rostovs is still present and still harmful, as we see in the fact that Nicholas suffers so his mother can continue her financially oblivious lifestyle. Yet we still sense there is hope for the future. Mary’s love ensures that Nicholas and his family are saved financially and suggests that better fortunes are fated for the future of Russia as a whole. It is important that enrichment comes from spiritual sources such as love rather than from economic ones—Nicholas does not consider going into trade. Nicholas’s new wealth is like manna from heaven rather than the fruits of enterprise. In his farm management, Nicholas is not interested in new western agricultural science, but shows a markedly traditionalist attitude toward his land that aligns him with his own Russian peasants more than with modern western landowners. Tolstoy thus hints that Russia can prosper as Nicholas prospers, despite a history of profligacy and waste, while still remaining true to his Russian traditions.
Readers who make it to the end of the novel often complain about the abstract dryness of the Second Epilogue, which reads more like a treatise on the philosophy of history than the conclusion of an absorbing piece of fiction. Yet the Second Epilogue, while undeniably difficult, is essential to understanding Tolstoy’s deepest meanings in War and Peace. Here, the author’s obsession with the irrationality of history throughout more than a thousand pages of the novel becomes relevant to more than just our ability to grasp what takes place on the field at Borodino. History is not simply an interpretation of events, but an investigation of their true causes—which, in Tolstoy’s explanation, is ultimately God. We finally see here that the question of history’s inexplicability is really a question of theology, individual free will, and our ability to judge our ownership of our actions and our lives.
Our unconscious dependence on hidden forces, the idea with which Tolstoy ends his mammoth novel, is really a final tribute to God’s secret laws, which are inscrutable to human minds. This inscrutable truth is seen not merely in wartime events like the inexplicable Russian victory over the French, but in personal events like Nicholas’s sudden and unexpected decision to wed Mary. Though this marriage initially seems just as irrational as Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino, in the end we sense that it is just as fated, and therefore yet another component of God’s mysterious, higher plan for human history.