Day 82 of A Year of War and Peace
Few things in world literature seem to provoke the great metaphysical questions of existence quite like shooting a man. To take just one example we have the absurd story of Meursault. That poor bastard, in what may very well be the most persuasive argument in favor of practicing proper sun protection — aside from, you know, the risks of developing skin cancer — shoots a man to death on an Algerian beach while suffering from what appears to be the delirium of sun stroke. Before the shooting nothing moves Meursault’s self-awareness. Not even the death of his mother, watching a comedy movie, or vigorous sex with a French girl named Marie. It’s only after the shooting that Meursault engages in any deep thinking about the world. His conclusion, reached after a particularly animated exchange with a prison chaplain, is that one can be happy only after accepting, “the gentle indifference of the world.”
Pierre Bezukhov is halfway there.
He’s already shot a guy and now he’s alone at a post-station contemplating life. He’s asking himself what is good? What is bad? Who should we love? What should we hate? What do we live for? He can’t answer these questions:
There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking,’ But dying was also dreadful.
Pierre is on the verge of leaping into Meursault’s infinite abyss of absurdity and meaninglessness when a stranger takes a seat next to him at the post-station. The stranger is an old man. He settles himself into his seat and starts to read what appears to be a devotional book of some sort. Pierre can’t take his eyes off the man. The stranger notices this, closes his book, and fixes his stare upon Pierre in return.
Part of Pierre’s charm is his constant, mercurial yearning. We’ve seen since the beginning of the novel that he’s a curious and inquisitive fellow. These questions he asks himself today are important. Probably the most important questions we can ask ourselves. It’s the seeking of the answers to these questions that guide him, albeit elusively, through the remainder of the novel.
It’s a pity it took the shooting of a man and a failed marriage to get him to the point where he starts asking himself these questions and wanting to find the answers so he can live a virtuous life. Imagine all the time he lost by not asking sooner.
So let’s not be like Meursault and Pierre and wait until we’ve shot someone to start thinking philosophically. Much better, as a group of hardcore New York philosophers once suggested, to start today.
We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but also that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether the understanding will still continue sufficient for the comprehension of things and retain the power of contemplation that strives to acquire the knowledge of the divine and the human. For if he shall begin to fall into dotage, perspiration and nutrition and imagination and appetite and whatever else there is of the kind will not fail; but the power of making use of ourselves, and filling up the measure of our duty, and clearly separating all appearances, and considering whether a man should now depart from life, and whatever else of the kind absolutely requires a disciplined reason, all this is already extinguished. We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations