Flattering Mirror of the Proud
Envy and its vicious cousin ambition have long been the subject of tragedy. Aeschylus’s Oresteia, for example, was first produced at the City Dionysia way back in 458 BC. In the first of the plays in that series Aeschylus has one of history’s most ambitious men, Agamemnon, proclaim, “How rare, men with character to praise a friend’s success without a trace of envy, poison to the heart — it deals a double blow. Your own losses weigh you down but then, look at your neighbor’s fortune and you weep. Well I know. I understand society, the flattering mirror of the proud.”
While ambition is not the main theme of the Oresteia, it is Agamemnon’s ambition to conquer Troy that provokes him to butcher his own daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Iphigenia’s mother, in return, butchers Agamemnon. Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, then butchers Clytemnestra. It’s butchery all around. Kind of an odd family tradition, but who am I to judge?
At any rate, the ravaging butcheries of ambition needn’t be presented so gruesomely as they are in Aeschylus. They can be much more subtle and silently soul crushing as I suspect they are for Boris Drubetskoy in War and Peace.
Boris, from the beginning, has been a relentless social climber. We can’t fault him for this. We know, for instance, that his family, while of good name, are of poor financial position. This inauthentic act he’s had to play in order to claw his way to the middle of Russian society does not, at first glance, appear to have harmed him in any way. Even Tolstoy, a blunt Christian moralist if there ever was one, remains neutral in his presentation of Boris’s clearly ambitious, maybe even avaricious, character. But if we look beyond the surface of Boris’s story I think we find the damaging nature of his ambition.
In today’s reading, to take one example, he must hold back his true thoughts about Ippolit’s Roi Prusse joke. Instead of sharing his thoughts on the joke Boris “smiles circumspectly, so that it might be taken as ironical or appreciative according to the way the joke was received.” And this isn’t the first time, nor the last, we’ll see Boris subjugate his true self in order to present this more politically correct, socially acceptable persona.
Again, we can’t be sure of the debilitating nature of this self-imposed inauthenticity because Tolstoy’s development of Boris’s character favors neither a negative nor a positive reading. But there must, I believe, be at least some level of seething Boris experiences as a result of having to suppress his true feelings all the time. Then again, maybe he understands that’s just the price to pay for social advancement. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that by chapter’s end Boris has developed a relationship with Helene and that hasn’t worked out too well for any of our characters so far!
Take your average Boris today. Imagine the envy he feels admiring the things and positions of his social superiors. Imagine the sacrifices of time, thought and personal expression required to fuel the ambition necessary to obtain those things for himself.
Is it worth it? At what cost?
When you see a man take up the robe of office, therefore, or hear his name bruited in the law courts, do not envy him; the price of these distinctions is life.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life