The Ants of Moscow
Day 17 of A Year of War and Peace
In one of the great Platonic dialogues, Phaedo, Socrates likens Greek civilization around the Aegean Sea to that of a pond populated with ants and frogs. Later, Aristotle, one of Plato’s students, proved how apt this analogy really was in his development of the behavioral taxonomy of animals wherein he ranked social insects like ants, who cooperate to produce and share food, just below humans in terms of the relative sophistication of their political and social evolution. It is this social development that empowers societies to flourish*.
It’s almost certainly a bit of a stretch to bring philosophical heavyweights like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle into a conversation about a fictional dinner party in Moscow in 1805 but this chapter is rife with examples of such social cooperation.
Start with Natasha and Sonya. The gathered guests demand that Natasha and Nikolai, both good singers, sing a song together. But Natasha, seeing that Sonya is notably absent from the festivities, goes off in search of her. She finds Sonya crying on a chest in the passage. Sonya is upset because she understands that she cannot have what she wants. (Clearly, she hasn’t read yesterday’s meditation.) What she wants is to be married to Nikolai. She suspects this union is frowned upon by the family she loves — the Rostovs have taken her in and raised her as their own — because they seek to marry Nikolai off to someone more wealthy like Julie Karagina. This knowledge pains Sonya. But Natasha, acting as a kind of social ameliorate, calms Sonya down and invites her back to the party.
Back at the party things are in full swing. Nikolai is singing. Natasha dances with Pierre. Count Rostov turns out to be a regular Michael Jackson on the dance floor, plagued though he is by the stiffness of his dancing partner, Marya Dmitrievna. It’s a great scene. We see here the utility of our social nature. Outside the doors, in the near future, war is coming. Inside, among friends and family, social cooperation and joy rule the night.
Though we may only account for ourselves, our social nature is important too. In fact, if we look close enough we find ourselves in others:
But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
*For a deeper discussion of this topic please see: Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015