Monkey See, Monkey Do
Individual behavior is often determined at the group level. This is part of Tolstoy’s argument in terms of his theory of history. In the first few chapters of Part Three, Book Three he argues in the abstract for a historical determinism: An unseen force moves the French invasion forward just the same as it does the Russian retreat from Moscow. In today’s chapter Tolstoy provides a concrete example of this group dynamic with Helene’s decision to continue on her quest to divorce Pierre and marry the magnate or the young prince or, — hey, why not? — both the magnate and the young prince.
As readers have noted, Helene might not be as stupid as Tolstoy says she is. Helene has, after all, expertly played upon the prejudices and beliefs of people in order to get her way. She’s done this throughout the novel. She has manipulated many of the individual characters: Pierre, her father, Natasha, Bilibin. Today, however, her mark is much larger. Her mark is society itself.
Helene understands that divorce will only be allowed if it receives the imprimatur of society at large. Lucky for her, then, Russian society is perfectly willing to go along with her mischievous little plan.
A rumor immediately spread in Petersburg, not that Helene wanted to be divorced from her husband (had such a report spread many would have opposed so illegal an intention) but simply that the unfortunate and interesting Helene was in doubt which of the two men she should marry. The question was no longer whether this was possible, but only which was the better match and how the matter would be regarded at court. There were, it is true, some rigid individuals unable to rise to the height of such a question, who saw in the project a desecration of the sacrament of marriage, but there were not many such and they remained silent, while the majority were interested in Helene’s good fortune and in the question which match would be the more advantageous. Whether it was right or wrong to remarry while one had a husband living they did not discuss, for that question had evidently been settled by people “wiser than you or me,” as they said, and to doubt the correctness of that decision would be to risk exposing one’s stupidity and incapacity to live in society.
Group dynamics like this can yield both positive and negative results. On the positive side think of the brilliance of a sports team when the entire organization works well together. On the negative side we have Abu Ghraib where otherwise decent individuals, swayed by an evil groupthink, tortured and murdered people, even snapping happy thumbs-up pictures of themselves while doing so.
The lesson of today’s chapter is that if the individual is to preserve her virtue she must remain vigilant against the potentially corrupting nature of larger society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wasn’t right about much but perhaps it’s best to keep in mind his words about conformity: “I may not be better than other people, but at least I am different.”
The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous , rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it?
Seneca, Letter VII On Crowds