Two days ago A Year of War and Peace posed a question. That question had as its topic, as a handful of the chapters in this project have had before, the role of duty in one’s life. Specifically we asked whether readers believe that Nikolai and Sonya’s duty to be obedient children trumps their duty to be true to themselves. That question is a tough one and finding an answer, if one can even be found at all, is probably even tougher. I think, however, that an answer may be found, perhaps controversially, in an understanding of natural law as articulated by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University during a talk on bloggingheads.tv:
There are some moral norms, some principles of right action which can be understood by unaided reason — that is, by reason unassisted by any revelation from God or the Gods, or divine sources of any type — a knowledge of what’s upright, and what’s wrongful, and that this knowledge is itself rooted in the flourishing of human beings, and human well-being and fulfillment properly understood.
That may seem like a flatly deontological understanding of natural law. But, as Robert Wright, professor George’s interlocutor in the talk, suggests it’s actually quite consequentialist. That is, if an action or behavior fails to promote human flourishing and well-being then it cannot be said to be part of the natural law. So it’s the consequences of action that determine their moral worth, not any set of preexisting rules themselves. If we accept this conception of natural law it seems as if Tolstoy answers our question in today’s chapter because Nikolai and Sonya’s decision to marry and live for themselves leaves the Rostov home in nothing like a state of flourishing, well-being, and fulfillment.
Quite the opposite.
The countess is a mess. She refuses to offer the couple her blessing. She bursts into tears of vexation and pretty much remains in that state for the duration of the chapter. At one point she confronts Sonya and cruelly reproaches her for her “ingratitude.” She claims that she will never accept Sonya, “that intriguer,” as her daughter.
Naturally, this upsets Sonya. Nikolai, in turn, is also upset. So much so that instead of retiring from the army to marry Sonya, as had been his plan, he now decides to flee his dysfunctional home for the safety of his regiment once again.
So now Sonya is even more unhappy because she is once again separated from Nikolai. The funk of the house even throws Natasha into agitation and impatience. She starts to sour on her relationship with Andrei. The count, financial pressures building, decides that the estate near Moscow must be sold. In order to sell it the family needs to go to Moscow. That’s impossible, however, as the countess is literally sick and tired of it all and rendered immobile. They wait a bit but the frustration and disappointment is so much for her that it becomes clear she cannot make the journey so the count takes Natasha and Sonya with him to Moscow, leaving her behind.
In summation, the Rostov family is separated and under great distress.
Perhaps this mess could have been avoided had Nikolai and Sonya, contra Hume, curbed their passion and reasoned their way towards their proper duties. Whether that’s possible is the subject of a different essay but, at the very least, it can serve as an ideal model of decisionmaking.
Constantly, and, if it be possible, on the occasion of every impression on the soul, apply to it all the principles of physics, ethics, and dialectics.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations