State the Simple Truth of It
Seeking to prevent a radical uprising like the Decembrist movement or the European revolutions of 1848, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the arrest and imprisonment of men associated with the Petrashevsky Circle. The Petrashevsky Circle was a literary group whose crime was to have read things they should not have read and to have had thoughts they should not have thought. Among their crimethinking ranks was a twenty-seven-year-old writer named Fyodor Dostoevsky. After months of official deliberation it was finally decided that the proper punishment for Dostoevsky and his compatriots was first to submit them to a mock execution and then to Siberian exile. After all, the authorities must have reasoned, how else will old Fyodor collect the expertise in existential torment requisite to produce the violent tragedy of Demons so we can then argue about who better captures — him or Tolstoy — this sad vale of tears that is the human experience? And so the guns were brought out, the convicts lined up and, at the last second, imperial grace distributed upon the future of Russian letters like so many pages of Ру́сский ве́стник.
It’s difficult to imagine the acute psychological damage rendered by a mock execution. One could read all five volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky to get an idea of how it affected his life. Or, since we’re already here, we could just read today’s short chapter where Pierre Bezukhov endures a similar ordeal.
It’s not pretty. Pierre watches in horror as his fellow prisoners are executed by firing squad. He loses the power of thinking and understanding. He goes temporarily blind and deaf. The prisoner just before Pierre attempts to flee but is brought back, howling, to meet his fate. Then, just before Pierre’s turn, the French halt the execution. Pierre was meant only to witness the executions, not fall victim to them.
Pierre’s experience reminds one of King Lear’s exclamation, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." Judging from Pierre and Dostoevsky’s experience with death we cry as we exeunt the stage too.
Though these days there is probably only like a twenty percent chance that Tsar Nicholas I will sentence you to death it’s still certain that you will die. Unless those fucking transhumanists get their way.
Given this, we should work on finding alternative approaches to thinking about death. One goal of A Year of War and Peace is to discover, by means of thinking about Tolstoy’s characters, how best to achieve a tranquil life. One method we’ve used, taken from the stoics, is to live life according to nature. Death, like a disappointing Mets season, is only natural. To greet death, then, as Pierre and his prisoner predecessor do in today’s chapter, is unnatural and disturbs the tranquil life. But while death is duty-bound to disturb life itself it need not disturb the tranquil life. Perhaps a better understanding of what death really is will help us deal with it more calmly than Pierre does today.
And who better to explain what death really is than a dead guy?
What do you mean by ‘die’? Do not talk of the matter in a tragic strain, but state the simple truth of it: “It is now time for the material from which you were composed to be restored again to whence it came.’ And what is so terrible about that? Is any part of the universe going to be lost? Will anything new or unreasonable be coming to pass?
Epictetus, The Discourses