Sometimes an entire book, even one as sprawling and mammoth as War and Peace, can be reduced to a single sentence. We have a candidate for one such sentence today. It comes to us through the subjective experience of cranky old Prince Bolkonsky as he thinks to himself that “justice clashes not only with his feelings but with the very possibility of life.”
So that’s it, readers! We can all go home now. We’ve learned everything Tolstoy wanted to teach us: existence is tragic, justice is impossible, life is bleak.
Actually, I’m going to stick around. I quite enjoy writing these things. And, to be fair, the injustice of it all, while a major theme of War and Peace, isn’t really the whole story. But it certainly is in today’s chapter if we take the Aristotelian notion of just deserts — the just “mean” between the vice of getting too much or too little of what one deserves — as our point of analysis. We can think of this method of analysis, in honor of the character who gave us our starting point today, as Prince Nikolaichean Ethics.
Let’s start with the old prince himself. Does he get a fair portion of what he deserves? Probably not. After all, once he was a great and celebrated general. Now he’s an aging man living in the periphery of the Russian empire. Soon he’ll be alone. His wife is gone. His son is gone. And now he must give away his daughter who he loves dearly. Granted, he expresses his love of Princess Marya by means of a brutish nastiness. But even the most dull of readers understands that this nastiness is, tragically, merely the manifestation, however confused and hurtful, of his love for her. The old prince deserves someone to grow old and die with.
What about Marya? She wants a family of her own. Does she get what she wants? Not here. Instead, she gets the complete opposite: the scoundrel Anatole. I mean, really. The concluding paragraphs of this chapter are a cruelty. There she is, Marya, playing her favorite clavichord sonata while romantically ruminating on the loveliness of her future marriage with Anatole. Anatole, meanwhile, plays footsie with Mademoiselle Bourienne right under Marya’s clavichord!
And Anatole. Nope. He gets too much of what he wants. What he wants is women and in this chapter he gets three of them fawning over him. And, if things go according to plan, he’ll get two of them forever. He’ll take a rich wife in Marya and a French paramour in Mademoiselle Bourienne. This is not justice.
Hesiod wrote that countless miseries roam among mankind and the earth is full of evils. I think the poet farmer gets it right, as any New York Mets fan can painfully attest. Because our experiential encounter with objective reality is so filled with injustice, then, it is incumbent upon us to act with justice within our subjective reality.
Let there be freedom from perturbations with respect to the things that come from the external cause; and let there be justice in the things done by virtue of the internal cause.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations