Pierre Bezukhov’s Terrible March to Enlightenment
The price of Petya’s death purchases Pierre’s new life. For it is here, on the long march out of Moscow, that Pierre attains the wisdom he has so achingly sought after. Had it not been for Petya, Dolokhov and Denisov’s liberation action Pierre would never be able to share the insights he gleans from this terrible experience.
It is indeed a terrible experience, a trail of misery. The road is lined on both sides with dead horses from the portion of the party that has gone before. Day by day the transport slowly peels away due either to capture, abandonment or death. Two thirds of Pierre’s prisoner compatriots expire along the way. Those who attempt to escape are shot. Those who are too sick and broken to move are shot. Pierre’s sickly peasant friend and teacher Platon Karataev is on the verge of joining this group.
Amidst all this misery and suffering, however, Pierre finds the wisdom he has been looking for. The passage where Tolstoy shares Pierre’s enlightenment is worth quoting in full because it so closely resembles the stoic insights we’ve been reflecting upon this year:
While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned not with his intellect but with his whole being, by life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity. And now during these last three weeks of the march he had learned still another new, consolatory truth — that nothing in this world is terrible. He had learned that as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and lack freedom. He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together; that the person in a bed of roses with one crumpled petal suffered as keenly as he now, sleeping on the bare damp earth with one side growing chilled while the other was warming; and that when he had put on tight dancing shoes he had suffered just as he did now when he walked with bare feet that were covered with sores — his footgear having long since fallen to pieces. He discovered that when he had married his wife — of his own free will as it had seemed to him — he had been no more free than now when they locked him up at night in a stable. Of all that he himself subsequently termed his sufferings, but which at the time he scarcely felt, the worst was the state of his bare, raw, and scab-covered feet. (The horseflesh was appetizing and nourishing, the saltpeter flavor of the gunpowder they used instead of salt was even pleasant; there was no great cold, it was always warm walking in the daytime, and at night there were the campfires; the lice that devoured him warmed his body.) The one thing that was at first hard to bear was his feet.
After the second day’s march Pierre, having examined his feet by the campfire, thought it would be impossible to walk on them; but when everybody got up he went along, limping, and, when he had warmed up, walked without feeling the pain, though at night his feet were more terrible to look at than before. However, he did not look at them now, but thought of other things.
Only now did Pierre realize the full strength of life in man and the saving power he has of transferring his attention from one thing to another, which is like the safety valve of a boiler that allows superfluous steam to blow off when the pressure exceeds a certain limit.
He did not see and did not hear how they shot the prisoners who lagged behind, though more than a hundred perished in that way. He did not think of Karataev who grew weaker every day and evidently would soon have to share that fate. Still less did Pierre think about himself. The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.
Here are at least two stoic lessons. First, nothing that happens is truly terrible, only we think it is terrible. Secondly, and most importantly, is the central stoic insight that tranquility is innate and essential, even in a world as broken and terrible as ours, and that tranquility can be discovered by abandoning all attachment to the slippery transient and focusing on the inner spirit.
Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the faculty of choice, unless that faculty itself wishes to be one. Lameness is an impediment to one’s leg, but not to the faculty of choice. And say the same to yourself with regard to everything that befalls you; for you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.