These questions, leaving aside the essence of life’s business and excluding any possibility of discovering that essence, like all questions asked at trials, were aimed only at furnishing that channel down which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow, leading him to the desired goal, that is, incrimination. As soon as he began to say something that did not conform to the purpose of incrimination, the channel was removed, and the water could flow wherever it liked. Besides that, Pierre experienced the same thing that an accused man experiences in any court: perplexity as to why all the questions were being asked of him. He had only the feeling that this trick of furnishing him with a channel was being used only out of indulgence or courtesy, as it were. He knew that he was in the power of these people, that it was only power that had brought him there, that only power gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the only purpose of this gathering was to incriminate him. And therefore, since there was power and the wish to incriminate, there was no need for the trickery of questions and a trial. It was obvious that all answers would lead to finding him guilty. (960-961)
Pierre’s predicament during his trial is that the purpose of the French trial is not to discover the truth of what happened, but rather to prove his guilt. The comparison that Tolstoy makes is to directing water flowing down through channels; if it doesn’t go the way the prosecutors and judges want it to, it’s allowed to spill over and is ignored.
This passage is very similar to the courtroom scene from Paths of Glory, in which Kirk Douglas’ Colonol Dax defends three WWI French troops randomly chosen to stand trial for cowardice after their units were unsuccessful at being able to complete an impossible mission. Dax’s strategy is to show that all the men that day retreated, and to highlight the absurdity of trying three alone for cowardice. But his lines of questioning are deemed irrelevant, destroying his case:
Dax: Aside from your sad failure to give throat to spirited battle cries, was your behavior different in any respect from that of the other men?
Prosecutor: Objection. That’s a matter of conjecture.
Dax: Well, I’d like to point out that this soldier has distinguished himself in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. With the court’s permission, I’ll read citations for bravery that he’s already earned on two occasions. First, citations in the Orders in the Army for bravery—
Judge: —That’s immaterial. The accused is not being tried for his former bravery but for his recent cowardice. Medals are no defense.
Dax: May I call witnesses to his character?
Judge: You may not. But you may call witnesses to the effect that he reached the German wire.
Dax: Mr. President, no one in the entire regiment got anywhere near the German wire, including myself.
Judge: Call the next accused. If you’re through, Colonel.
And so on.
The point of neither of these courtrooms is justice; both are set up solely to prove the guilt of the defendants. The game is rigged, of which Pierre is aware throughout his trial and which Douglas’ Dax realizes after attempting to defend the three soldiers.