The Social Contagion
Edmund Bertram understood that we don’t look in great cities for our best morality. He appreciated the idea that the public eye is the great enforcer of private virtue. To paraphrase, and probably bastardize, everybody’s favorite morally sentimental Scotsman, we want not so much to be loved but, rather, to be seen to be lovely. In the countryside or small town the public eye is opened wide, assuming a panopticonical vision capable of constraining the individual’s behavior within socially acceptable boundaries. Amid the many of the metropolis, however, that vision is dimmed. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, ever since he emerged from his country estate at Bogucharovo to join Petersburg society, has sensed this. He has not quite felt at home. By the end of today’s chapter it is clear to him that the city life isn’t really for him.
The breaking point for Prince Andrei is Speranksy’s party at the Tauride Gardens. Andrei has a horrible time there. He just can’t bring himself to partake in the revelry. He finds the guests, despite their constant joking and laughter, to be mirthless and tiresome. Their supercilious and backbiting ridicule of their social inferiors grates on his ears. Andrei is further turned off by their sycophantic nastiness. He notes the abrupt change in the guest’s behavior once Speransky retreats into a private room to read some urgent correspondence. In the immortal words of Mr. Holden Caulfield, these people are phonies.
Later that night back at home Prince Andrei reflects on his life in Petersburg. He notes that despite hours and hours of work he really hasn’t accomplished much. The Court has passed over his proposal for reform “simply because another, a very poor one, had already been submitted to the Emperor.” He compares this to all he managed to accomplish at his country estate when he was separated from the scheming crowds and conniving machinations of the city.
(TRIGGER WARNING: This essay is about to go full undergrad. If cheap, derivative insight offends you please skip over the remainder of this essay.)
Prince Andrei is probably right in his recognition of the ills of city life. But he’s almost certainly wrong in wanting to withdrawal from it all. He should adopt a Nietzschean joyful participation in the sufferings of the world rather than a Schopenhauerian resignation from it all. Here, then, Prince Andrei should be a bit more like social Natasha. The trick is for Andrei to embrace his social nature while avoiding the corruption of society. The best way to do that, as counselled by Pierre’s masonic brothers, is to cultivate friendships in society with other virtuous people rather than the type he mixed with today at Speranksy’s.
We adopt our habits from those with whom we associate, and as certain diseases of the body spread to others from contact, so the mind transmits its faults to those near-by.
Seneca, On Anger III