Prince Andrei Puts His Guiding Principles To Work

Day 106 of A Year of War and Peace

It was not within my power to find a suitable image of Epictetus so I went with this instead. Boom: stoicism!

The ancient stoics, much like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky himself, were a practical sort. They scoffed at mere theories of the good life. Instead, they focused on developing actual practices that made life good. Arrian, a second century disciple of Epictetus, a stoic philosopher, once compiled a handy collection of his great teacher’s precepts. This collection he called The Enchiridion, or, The Handbook. The idea was to have a short manual at the ready to consult throughout the day - kind of like Mao’s Little Red Book only without the class warfare and murderous revolutionism. Arrian’s compilation opens with the central insight of Epictetus’s thought, already familiar to readers of A Year of War and Peace: “Of things some are in our power, and others are not.”

Epictetus’s idea was that if you wanted to maintain joy, εὐδαιμονία, in your life you must properly distinguish between these two things, greeting with natural acceptance and indifference all that is without your power while directing all that is within it towards virtuous ends. Tolstoy presents no evidence that The Enchiridion occupies a place in Prince Andrei’s study. Tolstoy did, however, list Epictetus as an “enormous” influence on his own thinking, albeit much after the writing and publication of War and Peace. Nevertheless, Epictetus’s stoic philosophy is strong in the novel in general and this chapter in particular.

Today’s chapter details Prince Andrei’s mission to enact Russian military reform. He’s already given the subject great thought and drawn up a draft of his proposals. This, opinion and personal action, are things that fall within his power.

He must now, however, move to a domain that is not within his power: getting his proposals enacted into law. He encounters much resistance. As he encounters this resistance we see him constantly remind himself, just as if he had The Enchiridion committed to memory, that some things are not in his control and he should accept that, focusing only on those things within his control.

When Emperor Alexander treats him coldly Prince Andrei reminds himself that the Emperor’s feelings towards him are not within his power: “‘I know myself that one cannot help one’s sympathies and antipathies,’ thought Prince Andrei, ‘so it will not do to present my proposal for the reform of the army regulations to the Emperor personally, but the project will speak for itself.’”

Later, having gained an audience with Count Arakcheev, the Minister of War, instead, Prince Andrei learns that his meeting probably won’t go well because Arakcheev is a surly and difficult man. Again, Prince Andrei applies the practical stoic philosophy of identifying what is within his power and what is not: “‘He is Minister of War, a man trusted by the Emperor, and I need not concern myself about his personal qualities: he has been commissioned to consider my project, so he alone can get it adopted.’”

So we see that by identifying the things under his control and not under his control and acting accordingly, Prince Andrei, at least in this chapter, uses stoic philosophy to help achieve his goals.


If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own faculty of choice, working at it and perfecting it, so as to bring it fully into harmony with nature; elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, self-respecting: if he has learned too, that whoever desires, or is averse to, things outside his own power can neither be faithful nor free, but must necessarily be changed and tossed back and forth with them; must necessarily too be subject to others, who can procure or prevent what he desires or wants to avoid: if, finally, when he rises in the morning, he observes and keeps to these rules; bathes and eats as a man of fidelity and honour; and thus, in every matter that befalls, puts his guiding principles to work, just as the runner does in the business of running, or the voice trainer in the training of voices: this is the man making progress, this is the man who has not travelled in vain.
Epictetus, The Discourses

This is the one hundred and sixth 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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