Baby, You’re a Rich Man
One of ancient Rome’s richest men, Seneca, a personal hero of mine, had some fairly idiosyncratic things to say about wealth and luxury. “With how thick a mist does great prosperity blind our minds,” he wrote. Critics complain that if this is the case Seneca must have had the world’s most powerful set of contact lenses for his own mind, affluent one percenter that he was. Those of us familiar with the logical fallacy of ad hominem, however, may ignore such statements and stick with Seneca as he discourses further on the life of the rich and famous. He was also of the opinion that, “The man who is not inflated by prosperity does not collapse under adversity,” and that, “It is the mind that makes men rich.”
Today’s chapter belongs to Count Ilya Andreevich Rostov but it’s really about Seneca and his warnings of wealth.
Though the old Count has his financial house is disorder he is still, as friends of A Year of War and Peace Tatiana Kuzmic and John Kuti point out, the patriarch of an extremely wealthy family. And if there is one thing we’ve learned about him so far it’s that it just might be him, rather than Nastasya Ivanovna whom we meet today, who is the true buffoon of the family. So maybe Seneca really isn’t too off the mark.
Just look at the hunting party Rostov is able to put together today. Fifty-four dogs, six-hunt attendants, and any number of serfs to boot. That’s quite extravagant.
His arrival at the hunt perfectly mirrors his handling of business so far in the novel: “Before the hunt, by old custom, the count had drunk a silver cupful of mulled brandy, taken a snack, and washed it down with half a bottle of his favourite Bordeaux.
“He was somewhat flushed with the wine and the drive. His eyes were rather moist and glittered more than usual, and as he sat in his saddle wrapped up in his fur coat he looked like a child taken for an outing.”
As any sports scientist will tell you, this is precisely the way one should prepare for a day of sport.
It’s no wonder, then, in this state, that the old Count fails miserably at his one job for the hunt. His one job is to post up near the wood where he can expect a wolf to be chased directly towards him for an easy kill. But just before that moment comes to him he fumbles about with his fancy snuff box and misses his chance.
This chapter is kind of a distilled metaphor for the old Count’s squandering of his wealth and the moral blindness he suffers as a result of not being able to negotiate the trappings of his riches in the first place.
Moving forward in the novel we’ll see how well his son, Nikolai, deals with these problems as he assumes responsibility for his family. The fact is he’ll probably always have money. The question, then, is how will he respond to inheriting his wealth? What lifestyle will he adopt? He can look to his father for guidance or he can look to Seneca.
Once, moreover, prosperity begins to carry us off course, we are no more capable even of bringing the ship to a standstill than of going down with the consolation that she has been held on her course, or of going down once and for all; fortune does not just capsize the boat: she hurls it headlong on the rocks and dashes it to pieces. Cling, therefore, to this sound and wholesome plan of life: indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit. Your food should appease your hunger, your drink quench your thirst, your clothing keep out the cold, your house be a protection against inclement weather. It makes no difference whether it is built of turf or of variegated marble imported from another country: what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good a roof as gold does. Spurn everything that is added on by way of decoration and display by unnecessary labour. Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic