A History of Rage
Day 160 of A Year of War and Peace
“Men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past.” These are the words of Polybius, a Greek historian and Roman apologist. His book The Histories, or what fragments remain of it, serves not only as a document of how the Roman Republic came to dominate the Mediterranean world but also as a guide to the superiority of the Roman social, religious, and political institutions that empowered it to do so. The early portions of The Histories, those covering early Roman history and, later, the Punic Wars, remain the most popular with readers today. Later portions, however, particularly the material covering King Philip V of Macedon, provide plenty ready correctives of conduct for the discerning reader.
The story of King Philip V, at least as presented by Polybius, is the tragedy of a man whose downfall and defeat is born of his rage against those who have wronged him. Throughout The Histories, Polybius consistently describes Philip as angry and rageful. This rage provokes Philip to engage in unwise battles of aggression. Some of these battles he wins. In the end, however, his skirmishes with his neighbors instigate the intervention of the emerging Roman hegemony and, well, you can guess what happens next. In the previous, current, and future chapters of War and Peace, our characters rage against Anatole and against each other. Their rage is just as harmful as Philip’s.
We start off with Pierre. He’s still upset, understandably so, with his wife. He’s so upset, in fact, that just as she arrives in Moscow he’s already making plans to go away somewhere else so he doesn’t have to see her. He’s also avoiding the Rostov house because of Natasha. This is a more moral decision on his part as “it seemed to him that his feeling for her was stronger than a married man’s should be for his friend’s fiancée.” His plan of avoidance is upset when Marya Dmitrievna writes to him that he must at once report to the Rostov home to discuss a matter of grave concern.
Marya Dmitrievna, too, is angry. Mostly at Natasha — who she constantly refers to as a slut — but also at Anatole for being such a scumbag. When Pierre arrives she informs him of the scandal and Pierre joins her in her anger. In addition, Natasha is present, sitting at a window with a “thin, pale, and spiteful face.” So it’s pretty much anger all around.
There is what may appear to be some movement towards clemency in this chapter. Marya Dmitrievna thinks it wise to keep Natasha’s indiscretions a secret for as long as possible and in the meantime enlist Pierre to inform Anatole of the situation so Anatole can leave town and avoid the inevitable wrath of prince Andrei, count Rostov, and Nikolai.
Is this really clemency though? Probably not. The whole idea is predicated not on granting Anatole pardon for his sins but, rather, on the fact that the response to Natasha’s romance with Anatole is sure to be one of anger, rage, and revenge.
This is not the rational way to respond to the bad behavior of others. It’s the purely reactive way. But it can only lead to further folly. We’d all do well to avoid such reactions.
Remember King Philip V and Polybius, his latter-day biographer, who warned that, “the surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.”
Man, if you must be affected in this unnatural way at the ills of another, you should pity him rather than hate him; give up this readiness to take offense and inclination to hatred; and do not introduce these expressions that the carping multitude use, ‘Away with these accursed and abominable idiots!’
Epictetus, The Discourses