The Natural Sauce
Deprivation can be a great teacher. Consider Candide who learned the poverty of Leibnizian optimism only after being deprived of the material comforts enjoyed at the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh. It took that poor Westphalian bastard the want suffered under military conscription, the horrors experienced during the destruction of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, exposure to interspecies sapien-simian sex, and the uglifying effects of age to finally learn that in this worst of all possible worlds the only practical wisdom is that we must cultivate our garden.
Parallels between Candide and Pierre Bezukhov abound. Pierre, too, enjoyed an early life of luxury. Tolstoy’s biographer, A.N. Wilson, describes nineteenth century Russian aristocratic life as among the most privileged of the high lives available to mankind. “How very high that was,” Wilson writes, “by the contemporary standards of other European countries, is revealed to any modern visitor to the armoury of the Kremlin in Moscow, or to the Winter Palace in Leningrad where, in addition to the stupendous opulence of the coaches and costumes and uniforms and furniture, the sheer size and scale of it all are overwhelming. The Russian Court, in all its imperial glory, was much the grandest thing in Europe, and far outshone the muted luxuries of Windsor or even — a phrase one does not write lightly — the Habsburg splendour of Schonbrunn.”
This is Pierre’s natural environment. What has this privileged life taught him? Not much. So far we’ve seen much striving for self-knowledge and improvement but not much progress towards those ends. Today, however, having temporarily distanced himself from his privileged life during the Battle of Borodino, he finally takes some difficult steps forward.
All around him today he sees the opposite of his normal life. Whereas before there was the food and drink of balls and clubs now there is only the famishment of war. The only company he keeps are anxiety and loneliness. And it’s here, when a group of Russian soldiers invites him to eat simple mash with them, that Pierre learns the value of abstinence and plain living. It’s subtle, but it’s there: He truly savors, probably for the first time in his life, the food he eats. The mash is “more delicious than any food he had ever tasted.”
Pierre is too exhausted and bewildered to meditate on his experience. To readers of the novel, however, it is clear that this is the start of Pierre’s gradual development from a confused boy to a self-fulfilled man. As we’ll see, his suffering and material deprivation is just getting started. He’ll have plenty to learn from in the upcoming chapters.
Finally, it’s curious to note that the lessons of deprivation seem to be working subconsciously on Pierre. When he returns to Mozhaisk he absentmindedly, though perhaps symbolically, passes his inn. It’s as if he’s moving beyond, however unconsciously, the material comforts of his privileged life towards something much larger and fulfilling.
Appetite and thirst are the natural ‘sauce’ of life, and the secret to making even coarse bread and plain water seem delicious.
Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness