Mars on Earth
In Seneca’s play Phoenician Women the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, prepare to fight over the throne they had previously agreed to share. Jocasta, their mother and grandmother, attempts to mediate peace between the two. “Picture now the mishaps of war, the unsure vicissitudes of inconstant Mars,” she says to Polynices. “Though you draw with you the entire might of Greece, though your soldiers deploy their weapons far and wide, the fortunes of war always stand in doubt.”
The unsure vicissitudes of inconstant Mars are Tolstoy’s subject for today’s chapter. His thesis is that the Battle of Borodino serves as an instructive case in support of Jocasta’s sage admonition. “All historians agree,” he writes, “that the external activity of states and nations in their conflicts with one another is expressed in wars and that as a direct result of greater or less success in war the political strength of states and nations increases or decreases.”
Borodino was a decisive French victory. Observers, therefore, would assume an increase in French political strength following the battle. But that is not what happens. Kutuzov is right: the Battle of Borodino, rather than investing the French forces with additional power instead delivers them a mortal wound.
The fruits of French victory are spoiled by the vagaries of thwarted expectation. The French expect provision from the land but the Russians burn everything to the ground. They expect commerce to supply want but the peasants refuse to bring their goods to market. They expect standard warfare but the Russians go guerilla.
Mars is a fickle militant whose earthly generalship wreathes war and peace. His theater of operations stretches beyond the Battle of Borodino and into our own lives. His attack is always at the ready. While his capricious assaults are unforeseeable a defense against them exists. A record of those who have weathered his ambuscades and battled his onslaughts remains to us. The repository of this wisdom is the liberal arts, the storehouse of policy. Those who study the liberal arts arm themselves with the wisdom of ages and fortify themselves in strong armor against the whims of Mars and his friend Fortuna. You know that already, though. That’s why you’re here.
Lace ’em up.
And so I would lead you to the sure refuge of all who fly from Fortune — to liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will eradicate your sadness. Even if you had never been conversant with them it would be useful to apply yourself to them now. […] These studies are the surest safeguards, the only deliverance, from the power of fortune.
Seneca, Consolation of Helvia