A Consciousness of Wrongdoing
In our liberal age there is an emphasis on the moral foundations of care and fairness. This is perhaps why a common criticism of War and Peace today is that is focuses on the stories of the Russian aristocracy to the exclusion and detriment of the peasant and serf class. Contemporary readers, therefore, often extend a tender and caring compassion towards the peasants of the novel. But fault finds a home in even the most sympathetic of us. These past few chapters show that even the oppressed peasants can act poorly.
They’ve essentially imprisoned poor Princess Marya and made it so she cannot flee the invading French forces. They have every right to stay where they are, of course, but they have no right to detain another. Nikolai Rostov recognizes this truth so when he learns of their perfidy he summons all his well-known fury and gets to work rectifying the situation.
He storms the peasant gathering and demands to see the village Elder. When a peasant named Karp imperiously confronts him Nikolai smacks him into submission. This show of force is enough to send the other peasants immediately into a state of cowering submission. They apologize, admit their wrongdoing, and begin preparations for Princess Marya’s evacuation.
The admission of fault and seeking of atonement is a virtue. In that respect it would have been much better for Karp and his accomplices if they had reformed freely rather than under the compulsion of Nikolai Rostov.
‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right.
Seneca, Letter on Travel