Let Me See Who You Are
It took Seneca one hundred and twenty seven letters to lay out stoic philosophy for his friend Lucilius. It takes Tolstoy about two pages today. Perhaps that’s a gross oversimplification but, frankly, not by too much. We have, after all, in the action of the Russian army, two of the central tenets of stoic ethics: living according to nature and withholding assent to impressions. By adhering to these two concepts the Russian army turns the tide of the war in their favor.
Twice in today’s chapter Tolstoy refers to the movement of the Russian army as following a “natural” course towards the Kaluga road. The Kaluga road is the natural place for the Russian army to be because that is where the supplies are. Tolstoy emphasizes that this is where the Russian army would have ended up even absent commands from leadership. This is in keeping with the stoic conception of the cosmic nature as a rationally organized and well-ordered system wherein all events are fated to occur as if by providential will.
The most decisive resolution of the Russian army, according to Tolstoy, was its decision to withhold attack until just the right moment. We read in earlier chapters that the French assault at Borodino and their subsequent occupation of Moscow provoked a desire for immediate martial response from most Russians. Kutuzov, however, counseled patience.
Kutúzov’s merit lay, not in any strategic maneuver of genius, as it is called, but in the fact that he alone understood the significance of what had happened. He alone then understood the meaning of the French army’s inactivity, he alone continued to assert that the battle of Borodinó had been a victory, he alone — who as commander in chief might have been expected to be eager to attack — employed his whole strength to restrain the Russian army from useless engagements.
Here we have the stoic idea that we should withhold our assent to impressions, particularly if they are negative impressions. This restraint allows us to think rationally about what has happened to us and avoid reacting irrationally within the heat of the moment.
Remember, then, the Russian army along the Kaluga road and Kutuzov, their patron saint of restraint.
Don’t let the force of the impression when first it hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’
Epictetus, The Discourses