The Individual Mind of the Political Body
Seeds of political reform sprout from the individual. The mind of the body politic, particularly in a democracy, is the dispersed and decentralized network of the citizenry. Even non-democratic state subjects play a role in determining the course of their nations. Though politics has been a major theme in War and Peace, from the very first chapter in fact, A Year of War and Peace has focused primarily on how the individual responds, or should respond, to the world at large. Today we turn with our characters to the larger issue of political participation.
Pierre has returned from a trip to Petersburg where he met with a secret society to discuss Russian political affairs. Nikolai, Denisov and little Nikolenka are all eager to hear what he has to say. Pierre’s assessment of the situation isn’t pretty. The major political actors, namely the Emperor, are negligent in their political duties. Institutions are deteriorating. “Everything is going to ruin!” he exclaims. “Robbery in the law-courts, in the army nothing but flogging, drilling and Military Settlements; the people are tortured, enlightenment is suppressed.” When Nikolai asks what is to be done Pierre replies, “Everybody sees that things are going so badly that they cannot be allowed to go on so and that it is the duty of all decent men to counteract it as far as they can.”
The duty of all decent men.
This is the crux of the role of the individual in political participation. The individual has a duty to contribute to the body politic. The first step of which is to develop her personal capacities. This is achieved largely through the practice of philosophy. Our characters have worked on this very thing throughout the novel. Nikolai, admittedly, abandons himself to his emotions once again and rages at Pierre today. Being charitable we can say that Nikolai will remember himself in the days to come. He’s a Rostov, after all, and must be forgiven. But it is to Pierre we must look to see the importance of developing personal capacities in terms of politics.
Recall Pierre’s early politics. The man literally defended assassination as a legitimate political act. He also considered Napoleon to be the great man of Europe. Now he’s much more moderate in his political impulses. This is due to his personal growth throughout the course of the novel. His politics change because he himself has changed. Gone is his incendiary revolutionism. Welcome is a politics based on the stoic principles of restraint, kindness, mindfulness and cosmopolitanism. With these values political participation is a requirement of daily living.
Stoics say: ‘We shall engage in affairs to the very end of life, we shall never cease to work for the common good, to help each and all, to give aid even to our enemies when our hand is feeble with age. We are those who grant no exemption from service by reason of years.’
Seneca, De Otio