Chuck Palahniuk, channeling his inner Buddha, wrote in the novel Fight Club that “the things you own end up owning you.” Fair enough. Ownership, of course, can take many forms. We can own, and therefore be owned by, not just our material possessions, but also by ideas like our politics and our self-conception. The question becomes, then, do these things we own exercise magnanimous control over us, their property?
We’ll start with Nikolai Rostov. He’s back in town. He’s got money. He’s got new riding breeches. Stylish riding breeches, even. He’s even got some nice, new boots with pointed tips and silver spurs. Fantastic. These things he now owns have a very positive effect on him. He feels like a new man, a confident man.
But there are problems on the horizon, even if he can’t see them right now. To start with, all of these possessions are purchased with funds procured by the re-mortgaging of all the Rostov estates. In addition, we’re shown once again the silly profligacy of his father, the old Count Rostov. Today he’s financing, largely out of his own pocket, a dinner at the English Club in honor of Prince Bagration. Soon enough, however, all these bills will come due. One can’t just continue to spend money one does not have. Who does the old Count think he is, after all, the United States government? The happiness he purchases now must be paid for later. To quote Proust: “How often the prospect of future happiness is thus sacrificed to one’s impatient insistence upon an immediate gratification!”
Then there’s Pierre. We learn a little bit about him from Anna Mikhailovna. He owns a lot of things now, having inherited the great Bezukhov name and fortune. Part of his self-conception, at least as he saw it, was that a rich and important man needed a beautiful wife. Perhaps he should have gone in for a virtuous wife though because, as Anna Mikhailovna tells the Rostovs, his wife, Helene, has recently taken our old friend Dolokhov as a lover. Pierre is broken.
Finally, we come to the Moscow elites who lead the conversation at Rostov’s dinner party for Prince Bagration at the English Club. These are Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiot” class: The type whose ownership of well-credentialed education and bogus erudition empowers them to pontificate on matters they don’t fully understand and in which they have no skin-in-the-game. Worse, their social position is such that people actually listen to them. Their subject today is providing an explanation for the inexplicable Russian defeat at the hands of the French at Austerlitz. They blame the Austrians, the Poles, and Kutuzov. We know, of course, that this is completely false. Kutuzov counseled a more patient approach and advised against the attack on the French. But what does that matter? These men are educated. Well, we’ll see where listening to these geniuses takes the good people of Moscow.
We’re a property owning civilization. And that’s probably a good thing. But let’s be mindful to not let the things we own own us.
And being thus bound to a multiplicity of things we are burdened by them and dragged down.
Epictetus, The Discourses