La Crème De La Véritable Bonne Société
Speech is the great paradox of mankind. It is at once the tool that elevates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, yet, a sizable portion of its use among our species only serves to confirm that we are probably the most lowly, poor and brutish of the planet’s creatures. One need only listen to talk radio or visit an unmediated internet comments section to see that boll weevil larva might make a better dinner companion than your average speech-possessing great ape. It’s sad to say but when Dante, in Canto XXVI of his Inferno, has Ulysses tell his men that human souls were not made to live like brutes or beasts but, rather, to pursue virtue and knowledge (“Considerate la vostra semenza;/ fatti non foste a viver come bruti,/ ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”) he may have been too optimistic an appraiser of human nature. Hitting closer to the mark perhaps is Robert Lovelace, a man destined for Dante’s second circle of hell if there ever was one, who writes, “What spiteful wretches, are poor mortals! — So rejoiced to sting one another! to see each other stung!”
Pierre Bezukhov is the target of Russian society’s spite and stings in today’s reading. When Pierre first came into his inheritance, remember, his stock in society skyrocketed. He was, after all, a single man in possession of a good fortune and, therefore, in a truth universally acknowledged, in need of a wife. After his marriage, however, things went south fairly quickly for poor Pierre. Now, we’re told, he has sunk greatly in the eyes of society. His wife and father-in-law speak poorly of him. And Anna Pavlovna, still hosting her important soirees, also speaks poorly of him.
She has a great many positive things, however, to say about Boris Drubetskoy. In fact, at the particular soiree in today’s chapter Boris assumes the role of the “novelty” guest Anna Pavlovna likes so much to trot out and display to her society friends. Now, Boris isn’t a bad person. Not at all. His social conniving and strictly studied behavior does, however, strike the reader as at least a little inauthentic. Pierre, on the other hand, while bumbling and incompetent, at least displays an earnest yearning to improve his soul rather than merely his place in society. And, yet, Boris is the one who collects the praise and admiration of his compatriots whereas Pierre remains enwrapped in a cacophony of calumnies.
It is an unfortunate defect in human nature that fault-finding, gossip and backbiting take up so large a portion of our speech. The effects of this can be harmful not only to the target of the talk but also to the speaker. Perhaps this is why Marcus Aurelius considered one of the greatest lessons he learned in life to be to avoid such talk.
From my governor I learned . . . not to meddle in other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations