In the mid-Atlantic region of North America, nestled into the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, there exists a commercial-trading people known as New Yorkers. This polyglot, multiethnic assemblage of individuals cooperate by means of manufactures, services, creative industries, real estate, insurance, healthcare and financial markets to produce a gross municipal product in excess of $1.3 trillion per annum. By world-historical standards the New Yorkers are among the wealthiest people to have ever lived. Despite such riches, however, New Yorkers suffer $14 billion worth of productivity losses per year due to mental health issues. In addition, the mental health counselors employment market is one of the thickest in the nation. Clearly, New Yorkers are in need of a little help. Perhaps a share of those in need, those with the mildest of cases of worry or depression, for instance, would do well to look at Pierre Bezukhov in today’s chapter.
Pierre Bezukhov is also a rich man with his share of problems. These problems, well-documented here at A Year of War and Peace, precede his capture and imprisonment by the French. But it’s during his capture and imprisonment by the French where Pierre finally learns how to live in an imperfect world. We see a bit of this development today.
Fortune has traded in Pierre’s palatial estates and aristocratic soirees for a simple shed and the company of common prisoners of war. He is dressed in dirty old rags. His hair is crawling with lice. His food probably is too. Yet we sense a certain serenity in him today. We’ve not seen him quite like this before. “Every time he looked at his bare feet a smile of animated self-satisfaction flitted across his face,” Tolstoy writes of Pierre. “The sight of them reminded him of all he had experienced and learned during these weeks, and this recollection was pleasant to him.”
Pierre has no doubt learned his lessons at the bare feet of Platon Karataev, a Russian peasant whose poverty stands in stark contrast to Pierre’s own privilege. Platon’s good cheer proves that not wealth but something else provides sustained happiness in the life of men. Perhaps if we pasted Platon’s visage on a Times Square advertisement it could serve as a reminder to those peevish New Yorkers that they should all chill out a bit sometimes.
The notion of testing the steadfastness of your soul is so engaging that I shall give you a prescription from the precepts of our great teachers. Set aside a number of days during which you will be content with plain and scanty food and with coarse and crude dress, and say to yourself, “Is that what frightened me?”
Seneca, Letter on Holidays