Prepare to Meet Everything
Marcel Proust once wrote that to know a thing does not always enable us to prevent it. This is a lesson Kutuzov learns today as it becomes known to him that there is no preventing Napoleon’s march into Moscow.
Kutuzov greets this news with initial disbelief. He’s slowly persuaded, however, after he takes counsel from a group of generals on the subject. As the generals discuss the issue Kutuzov grows more gloomy and preoccupied. He begins to worry. He worries about the fate of Russia as well as the fate of his command of the Russian army, a position he cherishes dearly.
No individual is immune from the ensnaring web of fate. Life is going to life. Perhaps, however, Proust is only half right. Knowing a thing does not always allow us to prevent it, sure. But knowing a thing does allow us to prepare for it. Clarissa Harlowe, a favorite of A Year of War and Peace, writes eloquently on the subject as she corresponds with her friend about how best to guard against the evil advances of the rake Robert Lovelace. Clarissa knows that Lovelace is up to something. She doesn’t know what exactly. She decides that her best defense is an anticipatory offense. “In a word,” she writes, “though hopeful of the best, I will always be fearful of the worst, in every thing that admits of doubt. For it is better, in such a situation as mine, to apprehend without cause, than to subject myself to surprise for want of aforethought.”
This is wisdom we all, Kutuzov included, can draw from. To keep Napoleon from your house, keep him always at your door.
Let the mind be prepared to meet everything; let it know that it has reached the heights round which the thunder plays. Let it know that it has arrived where “Grief and avenging Care have set their couch,/ And pallid sickness dwells, and drear Old Age.” With such messmates must you spend your days. Avoid them you cannot, but despise them you can. And you will despise them, if you often take thought and anticipate the future. Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen. And since all the more serious when they are unfamiliar, continual reflection will give you the power, no matter what the evil may be, not to play the unschooled boy.
Seneca, Letter 107