Page 1307. " studying the Ptolemaic worlds "


The Ptolemaic system is a defunct theory of astronomy that was widely thought to be true until the time of Copernicus and Galileo. It was an attempt to explain why some planets appeared to stop, or even reverse their course, whilst still maintaining that the earth was the centre of the universe. The idea originated in Ancient Greece, although it was based on earlier observations by the Babylonians and others in the world's earliest cities. The basics of the geocentric system were established by Aristotle's time, but refined and 'explained' by Ptolemy in the second century AD. Belief in this system faded after Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543; it was further undermined by Galileo's observations in the early seventeenth century.

Page 1308. " the miracle of Joshua the son of Nun "

 From the Old Testament Book of Joshua 10:12-13:

Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon."

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day."

This passage is often ridiculed as plainly impossible, which is perhaps to miss the point of a miracle. Tolstoy seemed to have mixed feelings about the supernatural element of faith: on one hand, passages such as this show that he felt a purely scientific explanation for the world threatened to "destroy the conception of the soul", yet when he put together his own Bible, re-translated from Hebrew and Greek sources, he edited out all mentions of the supernatural until essentially all that was left was the Sermon on the Mount. Read Tolstoy's Bible online here. 

Page 1309. " What is War and Peace? "

Russian novelists often played with the concept of the novel. Alexander Pushkin called his rhyming, 389-stanza long Eugene Onegin (1833) "a novel in verse"; Nikolai Gogol called his novel Dead Souls (1842) "an epic poem in prose". Tolstoy taking part in an established form of genre-bending with War and Peace. He considered Anna Karenina to be his first true novel.

Page 1309. " Dostoevsky's House of the Dead "

 In 1848, when the whole of Europe was caught up in a wave of revolutions, Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested as part of the liberal Petrashevsky Circle and sentenced to death. He was led out to be executed by firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last minute and exiled to Siberia instead. His semi-fictionalised memoir of this time was later published as The House of the Dead, one of the earliest works to describe the appalling conditions of Russian prisoners in Siberia, a genre that continued into the twentieth century with writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Ginzburg.

Read The House of the Dead online here.

Page 1313. " After the fall of Sebastopol "

 The siege of Sebastopol (or Sevastopol), September 1854 to September 1855, was central to the Crimean War, the conflict between Russian and an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire over control of the Black Sea area. The war is known both as the start of modern warfare, as it made use of railways and telegraphs, and as the conflict during which Florence Nightingale revolutionised nursing.

Sebastopol lies on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula. In the autumn of 1854 British, French and Turkish forces attacked the Russian-held town, though they made little progress until April 1855 when they were able to bring in reinforcements. By summer 1855 the Russians were suffering losses of up to 3,000 a day under the Allied bombardment. Towards the end of August, the French General Mac-Mahon captured a vital redoubt, leaving the Russians unable to defend themselves. They were forced to withdraw from the city, paving the way for an Allied victory. More than 200,000 men died during the siege.

Tolstoy fought at Sebastopol during the siege, and recorded his experiences in the Sebastopol Sketches, published in 1855.