The Flea Presumes
Day 35 of A Year of War and Peace
We believe we can measure the size of the universe. Using a method called the “cosmic distance ladder” — a method utilizing measuring techniques ranging from simple radar ranging to the more complex cepheid variable approach — we now reckon the universe to be about 93 billion light years in diameter. Our own corner of the universe, the Milky Way, is roughly 100,000 light years across. Earth, that great raucous orb we call home, boasts a surface area of about 197 million square miles which, unfortunately, is just big enough to host a few million lawyers and politicians.
Also on our planet, however, is a delightful nineteenth-century novel called War and Peace and in the thirty-fifth chapter of the English translation of that novel there is a character named Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who has recently arrived in Brünn. He lodges at Brünn with his friend Bilibin, a Russian diplomat, and the two spend the chapter discussing the Russian and Austrian war effort against the mighty French army and its leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Prince Andrei is quite pleased. He has arrived in Brünn with news of a Russian victory against the French that he himself took part in. Bilibin is not so sanguine. It turns out Andrei’s information is incomplete. Yes, the Russians have earned a victory over the French but, more importantly, the French now basically occupy Vienna. “Prince Andrei,” Tolstoy writes, “[began] to understand that his news of the battle before Krems was really of small importance in view of such events as the fall of Austria’s capital.”
This thought disturbs Andrei’s mind. He falls from a relatively elated feeling to one of near despondency. His spirits are lifted once again, however, as he lays himself to bed with thoughts of his role in the battle the Russians won against the French.
It’s useful to trace Prince Andrei’s emotional circuit in this chapter. He starts out so happy and content. He’s like the flea working under the presumption that the blood he’s drawn from his host is all the work that is ever to be done in the world. Then, when he learns of the bigger picture, that the French enemy now occupies Vienna, all of a sudden his mood is radically changed for the worse.
But what if he were to consider an even bigger perspective? What if Prince Andrei were to contemplate the 93 billion light years in diameter of the universe and his infinitesimal place in it? What would he think then? Would he allow himself this wide range of emotion as he does in this chapter? Maybe not.
How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man! For it is very soon swallowed up in the eternal. And how small a part of the whole substance! And how small a part of the universal soul! And on what a small clod of the whole earth you creep! Reflecting on all this, consider nothing to be great except to act as your nature leads you, and to endure that which the common nature brings.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations