A Sovereignty Ancient
Past the midnight hour along a chilly Russian roadside strewn with decomposing animals, human and horse alike, Pierre Bezukhov joins a campfire to enjoy the warm, pleasant storytelling of Platon Karataev.
Platon has no business being pleasant. His fever is still with him, though subdued by the hour. He speaks feebly. His body is withering away. And, let’s face it, a wartime deathmarch isn’t typically an event one associates with good cheer. Yet, that abiding spark of amenity animates from within the good man’s heart.
The story he tells is actually a favorite of Tolstoy’s. Tolstoy published it later, after fully fleshing it out, under the title “God Sees the Truth but Waits” and considered it to be one of the few stories he ever wrote that satisfied his high artistic standards.
It is a story about forgiveness. It begins with two travelling merchants. The merchants rest one night at an inn where, under cover of darkness, one of them is murdered. The murder weapon, a knife, is placed under the pillow of the surviving party. The innocent survivor is convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. He endures his unjust punishment and many years later one of his fellow prisoners, a convicted murderer, upon hearing the wronged one’s story, tearfully and regretfully confesses that he is actually the murderer and begs the merchant’s forgiveness. The merchant forgives him. The process of the merchant’s exoneration and release is set in motion but it’s too late. He dies as he lived in prison.
While the subject of this parable, forgiveness, may inspire Pierre at a later date today it’s more Platon’s telling of the story that heartens him. We’re speaking here of Platon’s general disposition, his aforementioned pleasantness. Platon’s cheeriness is something we’ve witnessed since his introduction. Today Tolstoy draws our attention to it multiple times. Platon is described as having “happy light in his eyes.” At chapter’s end Pierre reflects on Platon’s storytelling. “And Pierre’s soul was dimly but joyfully filled,” Tolstoy writes, “not by the story itself but by its mysterious significance: by the rapturous joy that lit up Karataev’s face as he told it, and the mystic significance of that joy.”
Platon Karataev emerges as Pierre’s great teacher in War and Peace but it’s not necessarily Platon’s wisdom that draws Pierre’s attention. It’s more his pleasant personality: For when deeds and words are wreathed in grace, favor and liberality their sweetness attracts an eager ear.
My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly, and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.
Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words