Ethos and Athos

Day 169 of A Year of War and Peace

An arrogant mind breeds its own adversity. Herodotus tells the story of King Xerxes’ mad quest to separate Mount Athos, by means of a canal, from the mainland of Greece during the initial phase of his ill-fated war with the Greek people. As should have been foreseen, the project continuously falls in on itself, consuming precious time and resources. “It seems to me, when I consider this work,” Herodotus writes, “that Xerxes, in making it, was actuated by a feeling of pride, wishing to display the extent of his power, and to leave a memorial behind him to posterity.” This hubris, and the treasure squandered to satisfy it, is all the more ironic considering that Xerxes, mere pages later in Herodotus’ chronicle, cries out in lamentation over the fact that time, with its insatiable hunger, will eat everything, including his great army, erasing every memory and rendering all meaningless within even the short space of a single century.

Napoleon has his own arrogant plans for time to eat. His Mount Athos is Russia, represented in today’s chapter by Balashov and his delivery of Tsar Alexander’s terms for peace. Like Xerxes, Napoleon, puffed up with pride, speeds along the route to his own destruction with wishes for war.

He’s chill at first. He admits Balashov to his magnificent court with the courtesy and luxury due to a visiting dignitary. His speech, while confident, betrays no anger and is inviting of dialog. It’s only when things go against his desires that he falters and loses himself to a haughty fury. This occurs when Balashov delivers his Tsar’s demand that Napoleon withdraw beyond the Niemen and that no talks of peace may be commenced until that demand is satisfied.

This irritates Napoleon. Right away everything changes. His left leg erupts in uncontrollable quivering. His speech becomes more harsh and curt. His angry words feed his frenzied soul and he loses control. His hubris reveals itself as he claims to know everything about Alexander’s army and war plans. He even starts boasting fabrications about his army, ballooning their numbers beyond all reason.

A common refrain of A Year of War and Peace is the stoic insight that there are things under an individual’s control and things not under an individual’s control. Napoleon seems unaware of this distinction. Tolstoy writes: “It was plain that Balashov’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside of himself had any significance for him because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will.” This confusion of what is truly under his control and what is not is the source of Napoleon’s frustration today.


Remember the distinction to be drawn between what is yours and what is not yours.

Epictetus, The Discourses

This is the one hundred and sixty-ninth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.

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