The fount of purest wisdom is sometimes drawn from a contaminated source. So it is in Samuel Richardson’s classic Clarissa when the rapist rake Robert Lovelace, in conversation with his former friend John Belford, says that “religion, if it has taken proper hold of the heart, is the most cheerful countenance-maker in the world.” Disciples of Dawkins may take issue with this sentiment but Tolstoy certainly doesn’t. He seems to endorse it in today’s reading when he returns us to the Bolkonsky estate at Bald Hills to meet the God’s folk.
As Prince Andrei and Pierre approach the estate they espy what appear to be a few peasants scurrying away from them and into hiding. These are the God’s folk. They’re hiding because they think it’s the old Prince who is returning home. Prince Andrei smirks and draws Pierre’s attention to them, telling Pierre that his father consistently banishes them from Bald Hills but Marya, in her only act of filial defiance, just as consistently invites them back in.
The God’s folk are impoverished pilgrims who beg their way to and from Christian holy places. Tolstoy found inspiration for these characters in real life as his aunt often offered such people assistance, shelter, and sustenance on the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana.
This chapter offers us an interesting opportunity to test Lovelace’s aforementioned observation by comparing and contrasting the God’s folk and Princess Marya on the one hand and her brother Prince Andrei on the other.
Let’s start with Prince Andrei. We know he’s not exactly the world’s foremost spiritual man. He’s probably even an atheist, though his lofty thoughts of the lofty sky betray at least a modicum of belief in a supreme being. At any rate, his faith, if it exists at all, does not even begin to approach the faith of his sister and her God’s folk. And how does he behave towards these people of faith in today’s chapter?
He behaves rather poorly. Sure, Andrei’s cold and ironical tone with Marya and the God’s folk is part of a playful, long-established tête-à-tête between the two siblings but, still, he comes off as being mean spirited and cruel. He’s constantly pushing them, even insulting them. This sarcasm and ill-treatment indicates, for me at least, a profound unhappiness in Prince Andrei. And this despite his revelation during yesterday’s chapter.
On the other hand we have the content and, I would say, even happy God’s folk. These people have nothing. Certainly not the material wealth of the Bolkonskys. And, yet, they’re happy just to get by on their way to wherever their spiritual journeys take them. Even when Prince Andrei mocks them they repay him with blessings.
Then there’s Princess Marya. What strikes me most about her today is her charity. She internally expresses sympathy for Pierre who she knows is going through so much. She also seeks to protect the poor God’s folk from her brother’s nasty remarks. This is the behavior of a well-adjusted and content person.
The common denominator of joy between Marya and her God’s folk is their faith, that “cheerful countenance-maker.”
And if anyone is unhappy, remember that he himself is responsible, for god made all mankind to be happy, to enjoy peace of mind. He has furnished them with the resources to achieve this, having given each man some things for his own, and some not for his own. Whatever is subject to hindrance, compulsion or deprivation is not his own; whatever is not subject to hindrance is his own. And the true nature of good and evil he has placed amongst the things that are our own, as was befitting in one who cares for us and protects us with paternal care.
Epictetus, The Discourses