Greater Kindness and Tender Compassion

Day 155 of A Year of War and Peace

(Don’t) Be Like Mike

Existence is senseless. At least it appears that way sometimes, populated as it is with so many bad actors, natural disasters, and people who continue to insist The Rolling Stones are worthy of comparison to The Beatles. In the equation of life, then, human absurdity is the constant and an individual’s response to adverse circumstances is the variable. Arthur Schopenhauer, longtime friend of A Year of War and Peace, helps us solve for this equation with his suggestion that aesthetic experience is intimately related to truly understanding the world. Recent social science seems to support him. So what can art tell us about a major question in today’s chapter — how best to respond to irrational, angry, and harmful men?

Sometimes the best guidance is to know what not to do. Michael Corleone, patriarch of the Corleone crime family, offers us a prime example of what not to do. In his life he’s confronted with all manner of bad men who test his character. His greatest test of character comes when he learns that his brother, Fredo, has betrayed him to a rival crime organization. Of all the potential responses to this information Michael Corleone chooses first to ostracize his brother and then to have him killed. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in all the history of virtue ethics fratricide finds no serious advocate. Indeed, we see the horrible results of this act for Michael Corleone: a life of guilt, regret, familial breakup, and, worse, a starring role in the failure of a sequel that is The Godfather, Part III.

Natasha Rostov’s Fredo is old prince Bolkonsky. It’s the old prince’s unreason and poor character, in part, that has placed her in her current predicament. If he were to have responded to news of his son’s engagement like a normal human being things would have gone, probably, a bit more smoothly. Instead, his action has lead Natasha to be introduced to Anatole Kuragin with potentially disastrous results. Fortunately for Natasha, this chapter offers her three paths of response to dealing with someone like the old Prince.

The first path is shown by Marya Dmitrievna. She counsels that Natasha return immediately to Otradnoe with her family. The idea is that if Natasha remains in Moscow she might be party to a dispute between the young prince Bolkonsky and the old when the younger returns to town. This, it is felt, might sour the relationship. Better to wait it out.

The second path is shown by Marya Bolkonsky. She has written a letter to Natasha. In that letter she first apologizes for the calamity that was their earlier meeting. She then argues that Natasha should forgive the old Prince for his behavior. He’s old and cranky, and, at heart, he wants what is best for his son.

The third and final path is shown by Anatole Kuragin. He writes Natasha a letter inviting her, little Robert Lovelace that he is, to elope with him against her family’s wishes. That’s probably not the best of ideas.

A Year of War and Peace is big on forgiveness. We’d go with Marya Bolkonsky on this one. We’d go with her anywhere. She’s great.


No soul should be hated, none neglected; nay, rather, their very imperfections should demand greater kindness and tender compassion.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace

This is the one hundred and fifty-fifth 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.

I’m also very interested in hearing what you have to say about the novel. So leave a comment and let me know.

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

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