Candide, the poor bastard, suffered a childhood of instruction in that most anti-empirical of all philosophies, optimism. Pangloss, his tutor, raised him to believe that in this best of all possible worlds the glass is always half full. What Candide did not know, but what he soon learned by means of progressively worse exposures to the horrors of the world, is that the glass is half full of strychnine.
Nikolai Rostov undergoes a similar journey in today’s chapter. Things start out great for him. His squadron is nowhere near the battle. Prince Bagration wishes to preserve this state of affairs and avoid the responsibility of committing his troops to combat. He ignores Dolgorukov’s pleas to commence engagement and instead sends someone to inquire of Kutuzov what should be done next. He chooses Rostov.
Tolstoy, reminding us that we’re in one of his novels and not one of Dostoevsky’s, reports that Rostov is happy to receive these orders because he’s “cheerful, bold, and resolute” with “faith in his good fortune, and generally in that state of mind which makes everything seem possible, pleasant, and easy.”
Ah, Rostov, you Panglossian fool.
So he sets off, trotting along the lines towards his destination on the Pratzen heights. At first things are great. There’s nothing to worry about. But as he progresses things get worse and worse. He soon comes across a calvary unit preparing for battle. Then he starts to hear random cannon and musketry fire. As he continues, however, the firing increases in rapidity until it reaches such a pitch that it all combines into one giant roar of warfare. He even gets caught up in a semi-comedic encounter with the charging Russian Horse Guards. Then he runs into his old friends Boris and Berg. Boris is crazed with the adrenaline rush of first battle. Berg is happy to wave his injured hand at Rostov, joyous that now he has earned the rights to knighthood as have all his ancestors before him. Rostov continues on.
When he finally approaches his destination he looks on in horror as he realizes that the very place where he has been sent to inquire of Kutuzov is where the thick of the battle is. It’s a total mess, a place of massacre.
But he has orders. He continues on.
You’ll notice a change in Rostov in this chapter. The last time he was exposed to battle he acted the coward and retreated. This time, however, he soldiers on, intent on performing his duty. He’s taking the first steps towards being a better man and overcoming his fears.
He’s learning, just as Candide did, how to live in this worst of all possible worlds. It can be tough. So we have to be tougher, exercising our minds constantly to grapple with events that initially seem unbearable.
If you set these thoughts against your impression, you will overpower it, and not be swept away by it. But, in the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by its intensity: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one. If you become habituated to this kind of exercise, you will see what shoulders, what sinews and what vigour you will come to have. But now you have mere trifling talk, and nothing more. The man who is truly in training is the one who exercises himself to confront such impressions.
Epictetus, The Discourses