On Proverbs and Purpose
If it’s true that proverbs are the wisdom of nations and ages collected into a small compass, as Lord M. of Richardson’s Clarissa would have it, then the true north of the Bolkonsky home is that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Indeed, between old Prince Bolkonsky’s meticulous dedication to purposeful routine and his daughter’s devotional Christianity, the devil doesn’t stand a chance in Bald Hills.
Bald Hills, the estate of the Bolkonsky family, is located about 100 miles outside of Moscow and that’s just how the old prince, Prince Andrei’s father, likes it.
During my first reading of War and Peace the Bolkonskys were my favorite characters. I loved the hard-nosed pragmatism and stern living of the father and son. I also enjoyed the soft, forgiving spiritualism of the daughter. These contrasting characteristics — introduced here by the father’s insistence on studying geometry, dealing with certainties of nature, and his daughter’s interest in a book called A Key to the Mysteries of Nature — will continue to be developed throughout the novel and offer us much to think about along the way.
For today, however, it’s best to focus on the old Prince’s dedication to task-driven routine. This is what moves the chapter forward.
He’s a stickler. Just like Benjamin Franklin, every moment of his day is planned out and assigned a responsibility with an exactitude worthy of the finest of watchmakers. In today’s reading we focus on the portion of the day allotted to tutoring his daughter, Marya.
Right away we understand that Marya dreads this daily practice. She crosses herself as she enters the room, praying that it goes well. Pay attention parents: the shame and fear Princess Marya experiences during the course of her geometry lesson serves as a model of how not to instruct your children. Just look at her: she’s so frightened of her father’s reprimands that she cannot focus on the work and all learning is lost. Old Prince Bolkonsky is harsh. He’ll continue to be harsh with Marya throughout the novel. And, yet, she’ll return this harshness with dutiful adoration. This dynamic really challenges Wollstonecraft’s hypothesis that parental affection produces filial duty. But, then again, perhaps the old Prince’s oppressive parenting style is a species of affection.
The old Prince has his flaws. He is, in a word, a total asshole. But his dedication to daily repetition and purposeful scheduling is something to consider. As Tolstoy writes in this chapter, “regularity is a prime condition facilitating activity.” Habit, it turns out, can be a powerful tool of self-improvement. This is assuming, of course, that the habits we develop are virtuous. One virtuous habit is remaining mindful during the day of our roles in life and then directing all our actions towards playing those roles properly. Or, as Marcus says:
Let no act be done without purpose.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations