Between Fire and Ice
We wash before eating because our hands teem with an excess of life. As the primary tools of discovery and manipulation, our hands collect an abundance of germs and bacteria throughout the day that, if unchecked, might make us sick. Water and soap washes the danger away. On the other hand, pun intended, action taken in extreme fear of germs, such as the mysophobic withdrawal from everyday living and the constant washing of hands, deprives one of the very life one is attempting to preserve. The same can be said of our social life. An extreme indulgence of excess sickens the soul just as much as antisocial asceticism. Natasha knows. She’s lived both types of lifestyles. Today it seems she has found the happy and healthy moderation between her fiery former self and the hermitism that characterized her post-Andrei breakup period.
Natasha, recall, has always been our most impetuous character. Certainly our most passionate. She has leapt at life with the eagerness of a trapeze artist and the impulsivity of a toddler. She was bound to fall. When she did, after her ill-advised dalliance with Anatole Kuragin, she retreated completely from social life. Here also was no improvement. Her experience during this period of the novel was dull, gloomy and morose.
It is only now, exercising a temperate lifestyle within the boundaries of marriage and family, that she finds happiness and purpose. Some may argue that her total dedication to her husband and family is also a form of excess. As Seneca says, however, “in the case of virtue there need be no fear of any excess, for in virtue itself resides moderation. That cannot be a good that suffers from its own magnitude.” Familial love and dedication is a virtue.
Finally, Natasha has moved away from total isolation towards society. She embraces the society of her family while treating with indifference society as a whole. This participatory perspective of life stands in stark contrast to how she retreated after the Anatole debacle. There she sought to counteract her former fiery persona with total sequestration. It didn’t work. But her moderate life now does seem to be working. She is finally and truly happy.
Let Natasha’s lesson be that the answer to excess is not absence.
Our principle, you remember, is ‘life according to nature’; but it is against Nature to torment one’s body, to loathe neatness easily come by, to make a point of squalor, to use victuals that are not only cheap but loathsome and repulsive. It is frugality that philosophy asks, not affliction, and frugality need not be slovenly. This I hold is the correct mode: life should be steered between good mores and public mores; men should respect our way of life, but they should find it recognizable.
Seneca, Letter on Moderation