The Monstrous Enormous Whole
Sometimes the individual heart beats for the collective. We see that in today’s chapter as a patriotic pride and nationalistic furor captures the assembled Russian and Austrian troops gathered together before their beloved Emperors.
What power these two men exercise over their subjects! Consider that just days before these troops, most of them anyway, fought a successful battle against Europe’s premiere military machine. Now, before imperial flesh dressed in martial fabric and mounted on horseback, they’ve been reduced to the muddle-headedness of teenage schoolgirls lost in the ecstatic raptures of Beatlemania. This is one of the most frightful chapters in the novel. It is so dreadful because this senseless intoxication is channeled into such a foul jingoistic endeavour: to convince one group of men to slaughter another group of men.
Rostov shares in the collective infection. “Oh, to die, to die for him!” his soul shouts to the Emperor, articulating the joint self-effacing passions of the gathered crowd. “Every general and every soldier,” Tolstoy writes, “was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.”
This very human inclination towards self-forgetfulness, particularly in the context of nationalistic delirium, can be a dangerous thing. Sure, there are benefits, particularly in matters of self-defense against invaders. But, more often that not, historically, this chauvinism has been the conduit by which demagogues unleash the foul poison of otherizing war and destruction.
It’s easy to lose ourselves in ethnic, linguistic, and nationalistic tribalism. Frankly, and tragically, this seems to be the default position of human psychology.
But there is an antidote to the evils born of the passions of today’s chapter: cosmopolitanism.
Life must proceed in the conviction that ‘I am not born for a single cranny; this whole universe is my fatherland.’
Seneca, Letter on Travel