Les Décrets de la Divine Providence
“He who lives to see two or three generations,” Schopenhauer writes, “is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer’s booth at a fair and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession.” Imagine a Russian woman foredoomed by absurd longevity and cursed with clear understanding throughout it all. What a conjurer’s show she’d enjoy! Late in her life she’d watch Stalin’s utopian agricultural experiments in the Ukraine mutate into first famine and then a war on the peasantry. And just about that time the Nazis would show up with the intent of establishing a Lebensraum in the same region so, of course, they’d need to confiscate the produce of the land — whatever was left after comrade Stalin’s genius ideas anyway — and redistribute it to the good German volk.
Our imaginary friend might then compare these depredations to a time earlier in her life when another Western power, this time France, invaded Russia. There, too, many were slaughtered and suffered egregiously. What conclusion to draw after witness to such a life other than to find oneself in total agreement with Robert Browning who once poetried, “Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!/ Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.”
Emperor Alexander, himself to witness to the French invasion of Russia, is all too familiar with the many shapings of Providence. In fact, he speaks of the harsh vagaries of Providence twice in today’s chapter after he is given news of Moscow’s abandonment and burning. He tells the bearer of this bad news that Providence requires great sacrifice and that if the sacrifice entails suffering with the people he rules then so be it.
It’s an admirable response to hardship. He says he will exhaust all the means under his command to stop Napoleon’s aggressions but should that fail he’ll endure what Providence supplies him. What he doesn’t do is give up. Instead he’ll wrestle with fate to the best of his abilities. It’s almost as if Emperor Alexander is familiar with Epictetus’s teaching, and one of our previous meditations, that difficulties are like a wrestling partner whose assaults are a means for us to strengthen our own defenses.
That’s an lesson for everyone, emperors and hypothetical Russian ladies alike.
The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations