Stoic So Hard
Today Pierre stoics. He stoics so hard. We’ve been weaving stoic meditations into our reading for nearly ten months now. Perhaps one reason it’s been so easy is that the stoics were influential in Tolstoy’s own life and work. We know this because he said so. Evidence appears in a list the great author drew up in response to a Petersburg publisher’s request for comment on the books Russian writers considered the most influential. Among the books most influential to Tolstoy, enormously so according to his list, is the work of Epictetus.
We see that influence today.
The goal of stoic philosophy according to Epictetus is to achieve eudaimonia in one’s life. Eudaimonia he describes variously as “happiness,” “flourishing,” and “tranquility of mind.” Pierre achieves a measure of such tranquility of mind today. He does so by means of stoic philosophy whether he knows it or not. To begin with, we learn that Pierre has given up worrying about the things he has no control over. As he thinks back on Napoleon, politics, the war, his wife’s adventures in adultery, he is almost embarassed to admit how important these matters once seemed. “It was plain to him,” writes Tolstoy, “that all these things were no business of his, and that he was not called on to judge concerning them and therefore could not do so.” This is straight out of the stoic dichotomy of control and theory of indifferents.
Finally, it is important to note that Pierre learns these lessons in philosophy not through books or intellectual discussion but, rather, through experience. His awakening is born of the privations of imprisonment, not the opulence of his library. Epictetus once wrote that the philosopher must prepare himself with practical “hard winter training.” Well, it’s approaching winter time in Russia and Pierre is a prisoner of war, suffering all the privations to be expected therein, and he’ll soon be on a forced march west to boot. Though Pierre cannot be further from the old riches of his former life it is in this new penury that he finds prosperity.
Nor is this true only in respect to money or food. Every want that springs, not from any need, but from vice is of a like character; however much you gather for it will serve, not to end, but to advance desire. He, therefore, who keeps himself within the bounds of nature will not feel poverty; but he who exceeds the bounds of nature will be pursued by poverty even though he has unbounded wealth.
Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helviam