The type of person Schopenhauer describes as being entertained, even in solitude, by their own intellectual fancies is the type of person who, joyfully pupilaged, makes the entire planet a classroom and every person a professor. Of all the characters in War and Peace I see Pierre as most closely approaching this personality type. We’ve seen this since his introduction way back at Anna Pavlovna’s party when he was so eager to display all the things he had learned during his foreign education. We saw it yesterday. We see it today as he listens rapturously to the stranger he met in yesterday’s reading.
Today the stranger introduces himself to Pierre by telling him that he knows who Pierre is and what Pierre has been suffering as of late. Instantly, Pierre is attracted to this man and engages him in conversation. It turns out the stranger is a Freemason. When the stranger starts to speak of God Pierre lets it be known that he believes there is no God. The stranger assures Pierre that he feels this way only because he doesn’t truly know God.
The stranger then discourses on the subject of knowledge, wisdom, and God. Pierre listens without interrupting and “believing with his whole soul what the stranger said. Whether he accepted the wise reasoning contained in the mason’s words, or believed as a child believes in the speaker’s tone of conviction and earnestness or the tremor of the speaker’s voice — which sometimes almost broke — or those brilliant aged eyes grown old in this conviction, or the calm firmness and certainty of his vocation, which radiated from his whole being (and which struck Pierre especially by contrast with his own dejection and hopelessness) — at any rate Pierre longed with his whole soul to believe and he did believe, and felt a joyful sense of comfort, regeneration and return to life.”
By the end of the chapter Pierre is hooked. He asks for the stranger’s help. The stranger replies that first he must help himself and should do so by engaging in some solitary self-examination. After that he should contact a man named Count Willarski.
And with that, the stranger, known as Iosif Alexeevich Bazdeev, takes his leave of Pierre, wishing him well.
It’s easy to dismiss the stranger’s talk as so much claptrap. Tolstoy even felt that way. In fact, after spending a whole day researching masonic literature in the Rumyantsev Museum he wrote to his wife, “I can’t describe to you why the reading induced in me a depression I have not been able to get rid of all day. What is distressing is that all those Masons were fools.”
The point of this chapter, and others like it, to me anyway, isn’t its masonic message but, rather, the wisdom of remaining open to learning new things.
An opened mind is a learning mind.
As long as he lives a man should learn how to live.
Seneca, Letter on The Sole Good