Lives Hastening, Turning in a Speeding Whirlwind

Day 311 of A Year of War and Peace

he inequities and caprices of human existence are favorite topics of A Year of War and Peace. We once considered, for example, Arthur Schopenhauer’s thought that if we are to judge whether pleasure truly outweighs the pain in life, as so many misguided souls would have it, then all we need to do is “compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.” Seneca the Younger, not to be outdone by a lowly germanic barbarian, composed an entire fabula crepidata on the subject of the tempestuous whims of fortune wherein a wronged man obtains revenge on his brother by first slaughtering his brother’s children and then serving their sautéed remains to him at a banquet. This, of course, is the tale of Thyestes. His story is that of a man who once sat high upon a throne with the entire world under his thumb only to see himself reduced to a guest’s table with his sons on his fork.

Hard is the Thyestestrian fate of the French army in these recent chapters. They once marched as conquerors. Now they flee as the vanquished. Their flight is confused and hasty and greeted, it seems, on all sides by the predations of aggrieved Russian forces. One general, Ney, sees his corps diminished by ninety percent. Those who do not escape the Russians are left to either surrender or die. Harsh.

Remember, then, Thyestes and the French and their fortunes made and unmade.


Rising day sees a man in pride: retreating day sees him brought low. No one should trust too much in success, no one despair of misfortune improving. Clotho mixes the two, forbidding Fortune to rest, and spins each destiny around. No one has enjoyed such favouring gods that he could promise himself the morrow. God keeps our lives hastening, turning in a speeding whirlwind.

Seneca, Thyestes

This is the three hundred and eleventh installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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