Don’t Talk Politics
Day 4 of A Year of War and Peace
A mother’s love is unassailable. She will do anything for her child. Such is the devotion Princess Drubetskaya shows for her son, Boris, in the early portion of today’s chapter. Princess Drubetskaya is worried because Boris is about to leave for the war and she wants nothing more than to secure him a post in the relative safety of the Guards. To this end, she accosts Prince Vasili as he’s attempting to leave Anna Pavlovna’s soiree. At first she encounters difficulty with the old man. Vasili reconsiders, however, after she reminds him of his debt to her father who once helped Vasili when he was a young man just starting out. Perhaps more persuasive, however, is her implicit argument that she will not cease nagging until he relents. So he does. Having achieved her goal she returns to sit quietly in the corner and await the end of the party.
Across the room, Anna Pavlovna isn’t having as much success curbing the enthusiasm of young Pierre. Indeed, she fails completely. Much to the horror of the guests, particularly the royalist vicomte Mortemart, Pierre endorses Napoleon’s actions, including the assassination of the duc d’Enghien, saying it was a political necessity and showed “greatness of soul.” Pierre is immediately attacked from all sides for taking this position in favor of the politics of revolution. Instead of mounting a defense of his ideas he retreats into a childish, confused, and, yet, kind grin. We’ll see this type of thing a lot from Pierre. Part of his charm is his unconfident and indecisive nature. He’s pretty much a Millennial before it was cool to be a Millennial.
Pierre is not alone in his admiration of Napoleon. Prince Andrei is supportive of the Napoleon regime too. But whereas Pierre is stammering and unsound in the articulation of his political viewpoints, Prince Andrei is lucid and sharp. This is a dynamic that will continue throughout the novel.
Let’s return to the idea of our social roles in life. We’ll compare two different ideas on our behavior and duties to others.
The first meditation is taken from this chapter and it’s Prince Vasili’s thoughts on how best to deal with the nagging Princess Drubetskaya:
Influence in society, however, is capital which has to be economized if it is to last. Prince Vasili knew this, and having once realized that if he asked on behalf of all who begged of him, he would soon be unable to ask for himself, he became chary of using his influence.
-Tolstoy, War and Peace
Contrast this with what Seneca has to say:
Nature bids us to do well by all . . . Wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.
-Seneca, On the Happy Life
Who gets it right? Is Seneca just a breezy idealist? Or is the social realism of Prince Vasili too harsh and unforgiving?