Hold to the Precious Few

Day 301 of A Year of War and Peace

Petya Rostov has no chill. A Mojavean thirst for glory scrambles his mind into miscellany and his speech into senselessness. He seeks to slake his thirst by joining Denisov’s guerrilla detachment. What Petya wants here is an opportunity for heroic exploit but what he needs is a therapeutic dose of adderal and a seat for one at the children’s table. His impulsive behavior and imprudent conduct betray an immature mind ignorant of proper disposition.

His first error is in disobeying his general. That general dispatched him to Denisov’s detachment but forbade him from taking part in any action while there. Clearly, Petya’s design for future honor as a war hero means he will disobey this command.

His second error is in talking too much at dinner. Epictetus warns about such gratuitous speech. “And let silence be the general rule,” he writes, “or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words. And rarely when the occasion calls we shall say something; but about none of the common subjects.” Petya takes his talk in another direction, maniacally spouting off a scattered potpourri of inanity about knives, raisins, coffee pots and flints.

His final error is the father of his first two: He focuses too much on the future at the expense of the present. Tolstoy describes Petya’s high delight and blissful excitement as leading him to be “always in a hurry to get where he was not.” The place he wants to get is a future crowned in the noble renown of martial triumph. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that the future is traversed only over the bridge of the present. So he won’t get there then if he doesn’t pay attention now. More importantly, however, the celebrity he seeks is a dissipating mist, an evanescent chimera. It is a feat that might be grasped but can never be held. Better to focus on the only time he truly has control over. He must understand that, to quote a philosopher who has wrestled with this issue, the time is now.


Cast aside other things, hold to the precious few, and besides bear in mind that every man lives only in the present, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or is uncertain. Brief is man’s life and small the nook of the earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is the three hundred and first 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.

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