Day 175 of A Year of War and Peace
Changes are afoot for our old friend Nikolai Rostov. It’s been awhile since we last met with him and today he seems a bit different. Previously, he’s been angry, quick-tempered, and irascible. Not so today. Today he’s agreeable and easy-going. Late in the chapter, as he listens to a speech by a fellow soldier he disagrees with, we’re offered a possible explanation for why he seems so well-adjusted now and that reason is that recently in his life “he had gained experience.”
What, then, has experience taught him?
The answer to this question is hinted at throughout the chapter. It’s never made explicit but it seems like Nikolai has become more cautious about battling against the natural flow of events. Before, you’ll recall, he’d get apoplectic over his father’s playful jesting or, say, the theft of a friend’s wallet.
Today, however, in response to an adverse situation — here the letter his family writes him imploring him to return home — he doesn’t get upset. He recognizes that his natural duty as a soldier is to remain with his regiment so he calmly writes back to his family that he will not be returning home.
This living with acceptance is reflected and contrasted with the experience of his fellow soldiers and the officer class respectively. For the officer class the retreat from Vilna is “accompanied by a complicated interplay of interests, arguments, and passions.” For the Pavlograd Hussars, however, “it was a very simple and agreeable business.” This discrepancy of experience of the same event is due to how the two groups approach the problem. The officer class is worried about something they have no control over: the future and the enemy’s response. The Hussars, on the other hand, merely follow orders and don’t allow themselves to think too far ahead, preferring instead to focus on the tasks at hand.
As the story moves forward, pay close attention to Nikolai Rostov’s character. Try to note when he does and does not apply the lessons he has learned from experience.
If you wish to keep your choice in accord with nature, you are entirely secure, all will go easily, you should have no trouble. For if you wish to preserve what is in your own power, and is naturally free, and are contented with that, what else have you to care about? For who is the master of things like these? Who can take them away from you? If you wish to be a man of honour and trust who shall prevent you? If you wish not to be hindered or compelled, who shall compel you to desires and aversions contrary to your judgment? The judge, perhaps, will pass a sentence against you which he thinks fearful; but how can he make you react to it with aversion? Since, then, desire and aversion are in your own power, what else have you to care for? Let this be your introduction, this your narrative, this your proof, this your victory, this your peroration, and this your applause.
Epictetus, The Discourses