Habits and Homecomings
David Hume, reflecting on what most promotes human happiness, wrote that, “habit is [a] powerful means of reforming the mind, and implanting in it good dispositions and inclinations.” In other words, according to Hume, the mental dispositions necessary for a life of happiness are best supported by extended and dedicated habitual practice of such dispositions. We can see this in today’s chapter by looking closely at what habits Princess Marya and her father practice and how these practices are related to their personalities.
Princess Marya, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, makes a habitual practice of prayer. We’re told in this chapter that she prays in an attempt to calm her nerves because of the excitement of Princess Lize going into labor. I’m assuming Princess Marya practices Eastern Orthodoxy so her prayers probably revolve around the Orthodox Christian virtues of faith, hope, knowledge, wisdom, honesty, humility, obedience, patience, courage, faithfulness, temperance, generosity, gratitude, and love. If you’ve read War and Peace before, or if you’ve been reading along this year, you’ll certainly see that these virtues are pretty much descriptions of Princess Marya’s character. In just this chapter alone she’s shown her generosity and love by caring for Princess Lize and tending to the things in the household that need attending to.
Old Prince Bolkonsky is a different sort altogether. His habits are more secular and more severe. We’ve seen this in previous chapters. In today’s chapter we learn that he’s also in the habit of removing one winter window frame from each room as soon as the larks have returned to Bald Hills. It appears the larks have returned to Bald Hills so one of the winter window frames has been removed. The only problem is that on this particular night, in addition to Princess Lize going into labor, “it was one of those nights when winter seems to wish to resume its sway, and scatters its last snows and storms with desperate fury.”
So we see that the habits of Marya yield a warm, loving personality while the habits of her father yield a rather rigid and stern disposition.
Oh: and Prince Andrei returns today. He’s not dead. Yay!
In general, then, if you want to do something, make it a habit; and if you want not to do something, abstain from doing it, and acquire the habit of doing something else in its place. This is also the case when it comes to things of the mind. Whenever you are angry, be assured that this is not only a present evil, but that you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the fire. When you yield to sexual desire, do not count it a single defeat, but know that you have fed, that you have strengthened, your incontinence. For habits and faculties must necessarily be affected by the corresponding actions, and become implanted if they were not present previously, or be intensified and strengthened if they were.
Epictetus, The Discourses