The Alexander Option
So much for cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The French in this novel are completely badass. They’re like a bunch of Rambos drawing first blood from everyone they encounter. Just look at what they’ve done to our Russian friends, including our beloved Prince Andrei. And, yet, despite all this carnage, here after the Treaty of Tilsit, Emperor Alexander accepts Napoleon’s peace offering.
Nikolai Rostov doesn’t understand. He thinks back to the horror of the soldier’s hospital and asks how it’s possible to offer such forgiveness. This question haunts him. He cannot find an answer so, like men of all ages, once rational thought is spent on a subject, he seeks the solution at the bottom of a few bottles of wine.
What he finds there is something similar to what we’ve often discussed in our reading of the novel: the role of duty in life. “We are not diplomatic officials,” he exclaims, “we are soldiers. If we are ordered to die, we must die. If we’re punished, it means that we deserve it. It’s not for us to judge.” Naturally, though Rostov doesn’t get into it here, there are limits to a soldier’s duty, but I think he is onto something. With that said, I don’t think he goes far enough in his thinking. There is a deeper lesson to be gleaned from the peacemaking in this chapter.
We’re all a bunch of petite Napoleons, lording about in various degrees of viciousness over our domains. Arthur Schopenhauer, no great friend of religion, once wrote that the only metaphysical truth of the Old Testament was the story of the Fall. In that much he agrees with Clarissa Harlowe when she cries, “Vile corruptible rogue, whether in poor or in rich, is human nature!”
We are those vile corruptible rogues. We are Pierre shooting Dolokhov. We are the old Prince Bolkonsky insulting his own daughter. We are Prince Andrei coldly dismissing his wife. We are Nikolai Rostov gambling away his money. We are Helene betraying her husband.
Unless we’re to give in totally to despair and anger at this fallen state of things our only option is pity and forgiveness towards friends and enemies alike.
Call it the Alexander option.
That you may not be angry with individuals, you must forgive mankind at large, you must grant indulgence to the human race.
Seneca, On Anger II