Delivery from the Snare
Can it be that the only fate worse than death is birth? That we are born into a world of suffering is not often disputed. It is a truth universally acknowledged, in fact, unbounded by time and place. Lamentations of sorrow issue forth from the rippling waters of the Elizabethan River Thames alongside which Shakespeare wrote of an existence weary with disasters and tugged with fortune all the way back to the banks of the Vedic Ganges from which flows the insight that the bhūtātman is overcome by confusedness, bewilderment, and distraction as a bird caught in a snare. So we stand, like Sophocles’s Oedipus, born to misery.
We’re at a point in our novel where all of our characters are acutely aware of this reality. Pierre has only recently survived a horrible captivity. The Rostovs have lost Petya. Marya and Natasha have lost Prince Andrei. Moscow is in ruins.
How to bear it all?
Pierre is already on the path to enlightenment. He’s learned from Platon Karataev to detach himself from the world and render all to God. Pierre even hints at this in today’s chapter when he agrees with Marya that in hard times it is hard to live without faith. This is sensible advice for theist and atheist alike. So much of our suffering is born of our attachment to people, places and to things. What catches the bhūtātman bird in a snare, remember, is the thinking that “This is I” and “That is mine.”
Do but remember these general principles: ‘What is mine? What not mine? What is allotted to me? What does God will that I should do now? What does He not will? […] Why, then, are you vexed? There can be no contest without an uproar. There must be many trainers, many to cry out in applause, many officials to supervise, many spectators. “But I wanted to live in tranquility.” Why, lament then, and groan, as you deserve. For what greater punishment is there to those who are uninstructed, and disobedient to the orders of God, than to grieve, to mourn, to envy; in short to be disappointed and unhappy? Do you not wish to deliver yourself from all this? […] The only way to a happy life (keep this rule at hand morning, noon, and night) is to stand aloof from things that lie outside the sphere of choice,to regard nothing as your own, to surrender everything to the deity and fortune, to appoint those to watch over things who God Himself has appointed and to devote yourself to one thing only, that which is your own and free from all hindrance.
Epictetus, The Discourses