“Know thyself,” that pithy Delphic aphorism inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo, has enjoyed lengthy purchase throughout the ages from its extensive employment in the great Socratic dialogues to its more humble station as a popular, though unfortunate, tattoo decision. Today its wisdom is manifest as Nikolai Rostov is confronted with what may prove to be the most important decision of his young life.
Just yesterday we asked why fate placed Nikolai in Voronezh. The governor’s wife answers that question when she takes him aside at the party to ask if he would like for her to arrange a marriage match with Princess Marya Bolkonsky who also just happens to be in Voronezh. While initially Nikolai is struck flush with shyness and fear at this suggestion he eventually comes to understand the gravity and conflict facing him.
Recall that he promised Sonya he would marry her. Recall also that his mother expects him to marry a rich heiress because, frankly, the Rostovs are broke. Marya is a rich heiress. Her wealth could unbreak them. Nikolai, however, rebels against this logic. “The very idea of marrying for money repulses me,” he tells the governor’s wife. On the other hand he feels a unique fondness for Marya. He likes her very much. He sees his rescue of her as fate at work.
So he must choose.
Will he marry Marya or Sonya? In order to help him make this decision he could return to our initial meditation here at A Year of War and Peace: the role of the roles we play in life. Is it more virtuous to play the role of a dutiful son and make his mother happy by marrying Marya? Or is it better to honor his promises and marry Sonya? Is there some alternative act?
In the end, however, just as it is for all of us, it’s up to Nikolai himself to decide what mask he wants to don and what character he wants to play.
“But this,” you say, “would not be worthy of me.” Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I; for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself; for men sell themselves at various prices.
Epictetus, The Discourses