Has Tolstoy been refuted by sabermetrics?

(New York City) In War & Peace, Tolstoy rejects the “great man theory of history.” Napoleon caused nothing, Tolstoy says; events just swept the emperor along with them. An example is the decisive battle of Borodino. Each foot soldier made a decisive choice whether to stand or run. Simply as a result of their aggregate choices (each of which was made freely), Napoleon ended up the victor. He was actually less free and less influential than they were, because they made him the victor.

And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will…Napoleon at the battle of Borodino fulfilled his office as representative of authority as well as, and even better than, at other battles. He did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle; he inclined to the most reasonable opinions, he made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not get frightened or run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience carried out his role of appearing to command, calmly and with dignity (Book X: Chapter XXVIII).

Ethan Arsht has used the techniques developed to estimate the impact of individual baseball players on their teams’ success (“sabermetrics”) to rank 6,619 generals involved in 3,580 unique battles across the span of history. “Among all generals, Napoleon had the highest [rank] by a large margin.” In Arsht’s model, Napoleon gets .49 of his 16.679 score from his victory at Borodino, the very battle where Tolstoy said Bonaparte had no effect at all.

In all seriousness, if you wanted to measure the relative importance of generals versus other factors, you’d have to be careful to include as many of those factors as possible in your model (terrain, morale, equipment, weather …). Arsht’s model is best designed for weighing one general against the others. That design seems appropriate for baseball teams. The main issue is which players to hire from the market. Equipment is standardized, all teams travel, and factors like fan noise must play modest roles. If you can calculate that one player makes more difference than another, you should pay him more. With generals, it is plausible that none of them make much difference. Napoleon may have been many times more effective than Rommel (who scores -1.9 on Arsht’s scale, meaning he did more good for the British than Hitler), yet maybe neither one mattered much.

Of course, the same question hovers over CEOs, college presidents, newspaper editors, and anyone else at the helm of a large organization. Tolstoy would say they are all swept along by deeper currents.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.