Pierre Bezukhov and the Practical Practice
Galen, physician to Marcus Aurelius, believed that the best doctors must also be philosophers. “What reason,” Galen wrote, “remains why the doctor, who practises the Art in a manner worthy of Hippocrates, should not be a philosopher? For since, in order to discover the nature of the body, and the distinctions between diseases, and the indications for remedies, he must exercise his mind in rational thought, and since, so that he may persevere laboriously in the practice of these things, he must despise riches and exercise temperance, he must already possess all the parts of philosophy: the logical, the scientific, and the ethical.”
The philosopher, just as much as the physician, must keep a practice. To keep his practice the physician commits to frequent continuing medical education. The philosopher, likewise, must keep his practice current. One prescription Galen offered to achieve this goal was the regular, daily recitation of The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. The habitual repetition of philosophical precepts, Galen argued, keeps the mind contemplative and mindful of temperance, logic and ethics.
A contemplative and mindful intellect is exactly what Pierre Bezukhov needs today as he meets with Count Rostopchin and then returns home to some bad news.
First Pierre endures the sore rankles of Rostopchin who all but accuses him of being a traitor, in league with his fellow masons in liberal rebellion against the Russian imperium. When he returns home — keep in mind he’s had no proper rest since attending the horrifying Battle of Borodino — he suffers the nettlesome petitions of various Muscovites. Finally, as if all this wasn’t enough for one day, he reads the letter his wife wrote him informing him of their divorce.
It’s enough to make anyone go mad. But Pierre doesn’t lose his mind. Instead, he focuses it. Just like Galen would have prescribed, he recalls the philosophy of his dream. The outrages of his day ring in his mind but Pierre meets them with a repetition of what he has learned: Simplicity is submission to God. Suffering is necessary. The meaning of all. One must forget and understand.
Pierre could just as easily have given into his frustration. He could have raged against his misfortune and lost his mind in rabid anger. Instead, like Seneca’s admonition to treat the malady of anger as soon as it is discovered, Pierre strengthens his mind with a healthy dose of self-medication: He recites his guiding philosophy until he’s calm enough to sleep.
This mindful moment is one we can all learn from.
To let one’s mind go lax is, in effect, to lose it.
Musonius Rufus, Sayings