There is a distinction between law and legislation. Creon legislated that Polyneices remain unburied. Law dictated Antigone bury him anyway.
When asked if Antigone knowingly transgressed Creon’s legislation Antigone responds, “Yes, for it was not Zeus who made this proclamation, nor was it Justice who lives with the gods below that established such laws among men, nor did I think your proclamations strong enough to have power to overrule, mortal as they were, the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods. For these have life, not simply today and yesterday, but for ever, and no one knows how long ago they were revealed.”
Antigone could have transgressed the law of familial duty and went on with her life. She was, after all, daughter — er, half-sister — of Oedipus and therefore Theban royalty. It would have been a nice, comfortable life for her. Instead she buries her brother and as punishment she is locked in a tomb where she hangs herself.
Luckily for Nikolai Rostov, the hero of today’s chapter, no such fate likely awaits him for adhering to the natural law of familial duty. Though I suspect once he learns about the extent of his father’s profligacy and indebtedness there will be a part of him that wouldn’t mind providing the old Count with some rope and then locking him in a tomb. Still, Nikolai Rostov must make personal sacrifices for his family.
For the past few years he’s been living in a “blissful condition” with the Pavlograd regiment. He’s even commanding a squadron now. But one day his Eden is invaded by a letter from his mother. This letter informs him of two things. The first thing is somewhat happy. He learns that his sister is engaged to Prince Andrei. But the letter is also a plea for him to return home to help put the family’s financial affairs in order. The old Countess writes that if he doesn’t do so she’ll have to sell their estates and beg for money in the streets.
The power of the natural law strikes him. “He had that common sense of a matter-of-fact man,” Tolstoy writes, “which showed him what he ought to do.” So he puts in for leave, throws himself a party with his army buddies, and leaves this “good, bright world” of the military to return home where everything is “stupid and confused.”
This is an important point in the novel for Nikolai Rostov. In unselfishly following the unwritten law of family duty he takes his first steps towards becoming a virtuous man. He may stumble as he learns to walk this way but at least now he seems to be on the right path.
Befitting acts are all those which reason prevails with us to do; and this is the case with honouring one’s parents, brothers, and country, and intercourse with friends.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers: Zeno