How to Employ the Soul
“Ordinary people think merely how they shall spend their time,” writes Arthur Schopenhauer in The Wisdom of Life, “a man of talent tries to use it.” This maxim is applicable when thinking about Nikolai Rostov, a reformed spender of time who now uses it. Think back on his past. Aside from an initial burst of patriotism that launched his military career there was never any real purpose in his service. So far as we can tell he only returned to the army because he preferred it to domestic life. Neither design nor ambition guided his leave from service either. He simply hunted because he enjoyed to hunt. He gambled because he liked to gamble. This complete lack of meaning manifested in many negative character traits. Nikolai, recall, has been one of our most mercurial, angry, and easily frustrated characters. Not so much anymore. Today, his character arc nearly complete, Nikolai is a man of contentment, his emotions approaching a state of stilly equilibrium. He achieves this state by using his time in a focused, mindful and steady manner.
The results speak for themselves:
Within four years he had paid off all his remaining debts without selling any of his wife’s property, and having received a small inheritance on the death of a cousin he paid his debt to Pierre as well.
In another three years, by 1820, he had so managed his affairs that he was able to buy a small estate adjoining Bald Hills, and was negotiating to buy back Otradnoe — that being his pet dream.
No small part of his success is due to the rather wise and humble policy he adopts of learning from those who know better. As is so often the case in Tolstoy those who know better are the serfs. From the first, Nikolai pays close attention to them. Instead of attempting to impose his proud, though uninformed, aristocratic ways upon them he listens instead. The result is that his fruitful farm produces and distributes its yield more quickly and efficiently than its competitors.
In addition to a productive farm Nikolai also develops a suite of rules for those of us who might seek to use rather than merely spend our time. This Rostovian code of conduct consists of order, strictness and fairness. It is upon this trinity of comportment that Nikolai, ever mindful, builds his material and — most importantly — his spiritual wealth.
About what am I now employing my own soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, “What have I now in this part of me which they call the ruling principle? And whose soul have I now? That of a child, or of a young man, or of a feeble woman, or of a tyrant, or of a domestic animal, or of a wild beast?”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations