Nature Likewise by the Power of Reason
In the middle of the last century BC, as revolutionary populist fires suffocated the Roman Republic, a senator named Cicero wrote a letter to his son articulating the qualities of republican propriety so that their virtues might be preserved even among the ashen victory of nascent empire. Published posthumously under the imperial shadow of Augustus, De Officiis begins with a discussion about what is honorable. “Nature likewise by the power of reason,” Cicero writes, “associates man with man in the common bonds of speech and life; she implants in him above all, I may say, a strangely tender love for his offspring. She also prompts men to meet, in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things that minister to his comforts and wants — and not for himself alone, but for his wife and children and the others whom he holds dear and for whom he ought to provide; and this responsibility also stimulates his courage and makes it stronger for the active duties of life.”
Though written in the rude era before gender pronoun sensitivity Cicero’s words are equally applicable to women and we see their veracity confirmed in the conduct of Princess Marya. Who, in fact, displays more courage and strength of active duty than Marya throughout the novel so far?
Today, for instance, she braves the perilous journey from Voronezh to Yaroslavl. In addition, she amicably greets a scornful Sonya and keeps the peace with that jealous young woman. Finally, Marya’s runion with Natasha is one of sisterly friendship and love rather than rancor and rebuke. All this is done, Tolstoy writes, because Princess Marya considers it her duty as a sister and family member to do so.
Duties, if properly understood and executed in good faith, as Marya’s story shows us, empower the individual to flourish in peaceful co-existence with the larger society.
Every one ought to hold fast, not his faults, but his peculiarities, so as to retain more easily the becomingness (propriety) which is the subject of our inquiry. We ought, indeed, to act in such a way as shall be in no respect repugnant to our common human nature; yet, holding this sacred, let us follow our individual nature, so that, if there are other pursuits in themselves more important and excellent, we yet may measure our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature. For it is of no avail to resist nature, or to pursue anything which we cannot reach.
Cicero, De Officiis