Absurdity, Injustice, and a Bestial Kind of Madness
Nikolai continues apace with his tour de force of change and personal development today. He begins the chapter by channeling first Boris and then Prince Andrei as he rushes into battle. From Boris he borrows an eye for opportunity, noting an opening of attack against the onrushing French dragoons. Hoping to capitalize on this opportunity he borrows Prince Andrei — and Tolstoy’s — idea that it’s the agency and spontaneity of individual soldiers who mold the battle, not the generals, and he leads the charge against the dragoons.
At first things go brilliantly. His charge is a success. The French dragoons draw back. The ones who don’t are taken down. Nikolai himself takes down one particular dimpled French dragoon, striking him down with his sabre.
But something happens inside of Nikolai when he sheds this man’s blood. The animation born of the rush forward in battle diminishes completely. A confused feeling, something akin to shame, fills his heart. For the remainder of the chapter Nikolai broods and meditates over the fate of his dimpled French soldier. His thoughts of the absurdity and injustice of war lead him to an almost proto-Tolstoyan position of pacifism. And all just in time for his superiors to award him the St. George’s Cross and a starring role in any future attack in need of a brave officer! Poor guy.
The vice of cruelty is not innate to man and is unworthy man’s kindly temper; it is a bestial kind of madness to delight in blood and wounds, to cast off humanity and be transformed into a creature of the forest.
Seneca, On Clemency