Atqui Vivere, Lucili, Militare Est
One Roman, Lucilius, once wrote to another Roman, Seneca, in order to complain about sickness. Lucilius chafed under the fact that he had recently been struck ill by a bladder infection. He worried about the damage it would do his body. He wrote to his friend that he hoped, more than anything, for health and a long life. Seneca, ever the stern stoic, doesn’t disappoint in his response. He gently chastises his friend for his complaining. Hardships such as sickness, Seneca wrote, are to be expected. In fact, the struggle against hardship is a defining characteristic of existence on earth. “Life, Lucilius,” Seneca reminded his friend, “is really a battle.”
I’m reminded of this exchange whenever I read today’s chapter as Pierre attends Bennigsen’s examination of the Russian position before the battle of Borodino. Of course we have the battle-theme parallel between both Seneca’s letter and Tolstoy’s chapter, but there’s also a deeper correspondence. I’ve always read the letters of Seneca and Lucilius as two minds attempting to make sense of a senseless world. Remember that Tolstoy wrote previously in our book that war is an event opposed to all human reason: War is senseless. I see Seneca and Lucilius in Pierre Bezukhov as he attempts to understand Bennigsen and the general’s discussion about the battle plan: “Pierre listened to him, straining each faculty to understand the essential points of the impending battle, but was mortified to feel that his mental capacity was inadequate for the task. He could make nothing of it.”
Pierre is a smart man, highly educated. Yet he cannot make sense of what the two generals discuss. Pierre’s incomprehension of the battle — the battle of life — is later reflected in the bewildered and skittish sprinting about of the rabbit along the roadside:
In the middle of wood a brown hare with white feet sprang out and, scared by the tramp of the many horses, grew so confused that it leapt along the road in front of them for some time, arousing general attention and laughter, and only when several voices shouted at it did it dart to one side and disappear in the thicket.
Lucilius and Seneca and Pierre and the rabbit and us forever fumbling about in the battle of life.
The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer: as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it. Thus the observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavours to elude or avoid it.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding