Hope and Fear
The narrator of G.K. Chesterton’s first Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross,” ruminating on the role of chance in criminal investigation, reflects that, “There is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss.” While no crime save the theft of a heart appears in today’s chapter there is a major coincidence in relation to Pierre Bezukhov’s character development. It may not, for those reckoning on the prosaic, be immediately apparent but it’s there. For the past few days, you see, we’ve meditated on Pierre’s recent enlightenment. We’ve noted that he’s more calm, better adjusted, well-focused and mentally tranquil. Now, as if by means of some otherworldly coincidental test of his new life, Pierre is confronted with the prospect of romantic love, a subject historically at odds with regular mental tranquility. How does he fare with this test? Does he maintain his composure?
Today he backslides a little bit. The old agitation in his behavior returns. Confusion clouds his mind. He stumbles over his thoughts and has difficulty articulating himself. All this occurs because he decides that he must marry Natasha but is not sure if she will have him as her husband. Here we return to Epictetus’s teaching that unhappiness is born from desiring something that does not come about.
It’s important for Pierre, if he wishes to continue on the path of mental tranquility, that he not allow his desire for Natasha to overwhelm him. This isn’t to say that he shouldn’t pursue a relationship with Natasha. In fact, a relationship with her might be beneficial to him. In today’s chapter, for instance, he experiences a brief moment of anattā “as if he was vanishing and that neither he nor she existed any longer, that nothing existed but happiness.”
That’s nice but he must not allow his desire to outpace his mindfulness. Otherwise he might revert to the old Pierre. The old Pierre is fun to read about, sure, but also a complete mess.
‘You will cease to fear,’ says [Hecaton], ‘if you cease to hope.’ You may ask, ‘How can things so different go hand-in-hand?’ The truth is, my dear Lucilius, that though they seem to differ that are in fact attached; one chain joins the prisoner and his guard, and these two, different as they are, walking step in the same way. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring. The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes far into the future.
Seneca, Letter on Moderation