Boris Does His Duty
There can exist an inverse relationship between the amount of embarrassment a son experiences and the amount of doting a mother exercises upon him. That’s exactly what’s going on with Boris and Anna Mikhailovna in this chapter as she forces him to make an appearance at Count Bezukhov’s estate with the clear intention of ingratiating the boy into the good will — literally — of a dying man.
The two encounter a bit of trouble with the hall-porter but are soon admitted to see Count Vasili who has taken up temporary residence there. Count Bezukhov himself is too sick to see anyone except for a famous doctor brought in from Petersburg. Count Vasili is even colder to Boris and Anna Mikhailovna than the hall-porter when he meets with them. Clearly, he senses a rival for the Bezukhov fortune in Boris, the dying Count’s godson. Anna Mikhailovna assures Vasili that this is not the case, invites him to sit next to her, and then instructs Boris to go find Pierre and invite him to dinner with the Rostovs.
I admire Boris’s behavior in this chapter. He is faithful and deferential to his mother even though he is very much embarrassed and humiliated by the situation she has placed him in. He understands that this visit to Count Bezukhov’s is a transparent attempt to weasel some money from a dying old man. Boris, I’m sure, would rather make it in the world on his own. In fact, in the next chapter he says as much to Pierre. Despite all this, however, just as Epictetus in our first meditation would have it, Boris dutifully plays the role of obedient child and does as his mother instructs.
A child’s submission to his parent’s will is an ancient, practical, and, so far as I can tell, a universal social law. For Boris this custom was probably taught to him at whatever the Sunday School equivalent is in the Russian Orthodox Church. I fear, however, in this youth-centered society we’re building, that this custom is being eroded. I share Montaigne’s doubt that “any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it.” Naturally, there are exceptions. Some things should change but only after prudent reflection and with good reason because there is often embedded wisdom in inherited tradition.
So with that in mind I’ll leave you today something they probably taught Boris back in his Russian Orthodox Sunday School class:
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.