As if in a Tempest

Day 217 of A Year of War and Peace

Pierre Bezukhov in one chapter. That’s what I’d title today’s reading if tasked with the production of a new translation of War and Peace. Certainly few other chapters treat so well Pierre’s scattered, inattentive mind and the potential for disaster this mindset has for all who practice it.

Consider Pierre’s past. He’s a revolutionary, a Jacobin. No, actually he’s the one who must stop the heir of the French Revolution. He lives for drink and women. No, actually he’s a freemason dedicated to spiritual awakening and human improvement. Love and forgiveness are the answer. Well, actually, it’s cool to shoot dead any man you suspect has screwed your wife. Two should be abundantly clear about Pierre at this point: He has not settled on a satisfactory life philosophy and he certainly would not be able to focus his mind on being present enough to practice it even if he had one.

It’s this second point that so troubles Pierre, especially in today’s chapter: He has so little present awareness.

“Despite the incessant firing going on there,” Tolstoy writes of Pierre’s experience at the Battle of Borodino, “he had no idea that this was the field of battle. He did not notice the sound of bullets whistling from every side or the projectiles that flew over him, did not see the enemy on the other side of the river, and for a long time did not notice the killed and wounded, though many fell near him.”

Astoundingly, Pierre maintains this obliviousness throughout the entire chapter. At one point, in fact, he fails to realize that the very place he’s standing is actually the most important point of the entire battle. And by important, of course, is meant that this is where the cannon fire and grapeshot is most intensely focused.

I can’t help but think that this bloody and bruised chapter is intended to illustrate, on some level at least, the consequences of Pierre’s lack of attention to the present. The bullets and the cannonfire represent the dangers of an unfocused life. Indeed, at one point, as Pierre finally comes to understand that perhaps casually strolling through a major battle is unwise, fleeing, he asks himself, “Where am I going?”

Where am I going? This, from the very start, has been Pierre’s motto. In order to answer that question he’s probably going to need to adopt some new lifestyle practices. His first decision should be to abandon the type of mindless living he displays in this chapter. He should focus more on what he’s doing and where he is because, as Marcus Aurelius writes, “the present is the only thing which a man can be deprived.”

DAILY MEDITATION

If he has learned that he who desires or avoids the things which are not in his power can neither be faithful or free, but of necessity he must change with them and be tossed about with them as if in a tempest, and of necessity must subject himself to others who have the power to procure or prevent what he desires or would avoid; finally when he rises in the morning, if he observes and keeps these rules, bathes a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man; in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles as the runner does with reference to running, and the trainer of the voice with reference to his voice — this is the man who truly makes progress, and this is the man who has not travelled in vain.
Epictetus, Discourses

This is the two hundred and seventeenth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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