Life is Ball
We open the final book of War and Peace the same as we did the first: to find ourselves at one of Anna Pavlovna’s soirées. It’s curious to note just how little seems to have changed. Most of the same people are there. There’s plenty of food and drink. Gossip reigns. Further, a topic of conversation remains the trouble with Napoleon, although the talk is more heightened and nationalistic given recent developments. Aside from the more patriotic flavor of the party, however, it’s tough to distinguish between the two soirées. This is striking. The nation, after all, is under attack from Europe’s preeminent military power and, yet, we’re told that “there were the same receptions and balls, the same French theatre, the same Court interests and service interests and intrigues as usual.”
This is a powerful response to adversity. It’s not that the people of Petersburg are totally indifferent to the dangers of a French occupation but, rather, they are indifferent to those parts of the occupation they have no control over.
So, for instance, we see that the two Empresses do all they can to address the French invasion. The Dowager Empress Marya, concerned about her educational and charitable institutions, orders them to be packed up and removed to Kazan. Empress Elisabeth, wishing to set an example of fortitude, declares that she will be the last person to quit Petersburg.
The aristocracy is similarly indifferent to the French invasion. Anna Pavlovna, obviously, still hosts her soirées. Prince Vasili still attends them. Party talk, just as it was before, is of gossip and news. The main topic of conversation is Helene’s illness. It doesn’t look good for her. Aside from that Prince Vasili reads an patriotic letter from the Lordship Bishop. Things seem fairly normal.
This reaction to what fate has handed our characters is commendable. In the face of a seemingly inevitable French onslaught they refuse to break down and panic. They choose to remain calm and carry on. Having been dealt a bad hand, they nevertheless play it to the best of their abilities. That’s worth emulating.
This is just what you will see those doing who play at ball skillfully. No one cares about the ball as being good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. […] Socrates knew how to play at ball. How? By using pleasantry in the court where he was tried. “Tell me,” he says, “Anytus, how do you say that I do not believe in God. The Daemons, who are they, think you? Are they not sons of Gods or compounded of gods and men?” When Anytus admitted this, Socrates said, “Who then, think you, can believe that there are mules (half asses), but not asses.” And this he said as if he were playing at ball. And what was the ball in this case? Life, chains, banishment, a draught of poison, separation from wife and leaving children orphans. These were the things which he was playing; but still he did play and threw the ball skillfully. So we should do: we must employ all the care of the players, but show the same indifference about the ball. For we ought by all means to apply our art to some external material, not as valuing the material, but, whatever it may be, showing our art in it.
Epictetus, The Discourses