My birthday falls on the one hundred and sixty-second day of the year. That’s today. So, despite there being any number of worthy reflections and meditations found in today’s chapter I’d like to indulge myself just a little bit and focus on one particular philosophical practice that I need to work on the most. It just so happens, happy coincidence, that the character who most needs the same practice is my favorite character from back when I first read War and Peace so many years ago. That character is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and the philosophical practice we both need to work on is making sure our actions match our words.
Prince Andrei has returned to Russia. It’s quite a scene he’s re-entered. Rumors of his fiancée swirl about town. These rumors are partially confirmed by the letter Natasha wrote him. Natasha herself has attempted suicide and lays ill and immobile across town. The villain in the story, Anatole Kuragin, is the brother-in-law of his best friend, Pierre. You’d think Andrei would be devastated. He’s not. At least, that is, he doesn’t appear to be. Bolkonskys, recall, are ice cold.
When Pierre visits him he finds Prince Andrei to be loud and animated in his discussion with his family. He even looks healthy and rejuvenated from his travels.
Andrei concludes his happy conversation with his family and takes Pierre aside into his room to discuss private matters in a decidedly more somber tone. He asks Pierre if the rumors of the elopement are true. Pierre answers honestly and Andrei, not wishing to hear any more on the subject, provides Pierre with a package of Natasha’s belongings to be returned to her. It’s during this conversation that Pierre notices something is off with Andrei. He might not be as good as he’s pretending to be. “Pierre now recognized in his friend,” Tolstoy writes, “a need with which he was only too familiar, to get excited and have arguments about extraneous matters in order to stifle thoughts there were too oppressive and too intimate.”
Before the two friends return to the main room to have dinner Pierre asks if the marriage will be called off. Andrei answers in the affirmative. But, Pierre asks, what about Andrei’s former talk of forgiveness?
“I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven,” Prince Andrei replies, “but I didn’t say that I could forgive her. I can’t.”
The bad news is that Prince Andrei is falling into the trap, familiar to probably all of us, of abandoning his principles during a time of hardship.
The good news is that there is still time to make amends.
Prove your words by your deeds. This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom, — that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same.
Seneca, Letter XX