The Grain of a Fig

Day 289 of A Year of War and Peace

The biblical account of Abraham and his son Isaac incites the lividity of the unbeliever and inspires the fidelity of the faithful. To the sceptic the tale is proof positive of the unreason and barbarity of the ancient faith while the believer sees in it a sample of pious devotion. What must Abraham have thought of his own story though? We know that he was a man sure of his Lord. He knew rather than merely believed in the all-powerful nature of the deity and he stood as God’s favored and favorite. Yet this omnipotent and omniscient divinity, the author of all creation, saw fit to prepare for Abraham a life of disappointment, worry and hardship. Famine, death and pestilence: Abraham witnessed it all. The poor guy even had to shave the foreskin off his own cock. His greatest woe, however, was the infertility of his wife, Sarah. Though he desired few things more in life than to have children he nevertheless, despite plentiful pleas, suffered a century of childlessness. Then, the same God who blessed Abraham with a child likewise demanded the child’s sacrifice. What was Abraham to make of such a world?

Pierre Bezukhov experiences his own Abrahamic vicissitudes in our novel. We know he was once rich but now poor. Even during his imprisonment, within this one chapter, he is witness to disparate incident. Things start out as well as can be imagined for someone in his position. The French are relatively kind to him and there exists a species of brotherhood among the guards and the guarded. That all changes once the march out of Moscow begins.

It’s a complete mess. All around Pierre erupts the hoary iniquity of men: danger, insult, violence, rapine and strife. But he remains untouched by this sudden change of circumstance. “All that he now witnessed,” writes Tolstoy, “hardly made any impression on him — as if his soul, making ready for a hard struggle, refused to receive impressions that might weaken it.”

We’re not sure exactly how Pierre achieves this state of equanimity among the madness but we’re offered hints. As the chapter closes he goes off on his own during nightfall to contemplate the skies. He takes it all in: the countryside, the distant city, the expansive starry sky, and the entire cosmos beyond. He erupts in uncontrollable laughter. “All that is me,” he says. “All that is within me, and it is all I!”

It’s as if seeing himself as a component of all existence makes his troubles seem irrelevant. And what complaint is there against the man who does you wrong if you are him and he is you?


Constantly contemplate the whole of time and the whole of substance, and consider that all individual things as to substance are a grain of a fig, and as to time the turning of a gimlet.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is the two hundred and eighty ninth 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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