The Unfailing Antidote (Solving for X)

Day 296 of A Year of War and Peace

olstoy has a problem. One can picture him in his study, surrounded by history books and treatise of military science, pondering the question of how the Russians, inferior of force and weaker of experience, came to repel and defeat Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the world’s preeminent war machine. By all accounts the Russians, like nearly all of Europe before it, should have fallen before the march of the mighty French offensive. But they didn’t. Instead it was the French who retreated, cowering with their baguettes back to Paris.

In his reading on the subject of war Tolstoy learns that the strength of an army is the product of its mass and some unknown variable, x. Contemporary historians and military theorists, Tolstoy notes, believe they have solved this martial equation by substituting in the genius or foolery of military commanders for x. This is the Great Man theory of history Tolstoy argues against in War and Peace. The Great Man theory, for Tolstoy, gets it completely wrong. According to him x is equal to the “spirit of the army.” The spirit of the army is hard to define but Tolstoy describes it as being “the greater or lesser desire to fight and to face danger.”

The world is war. Mere existence marshals its unflinching forces against us. Time rallies an ever-present and all-consuming wasting attack. Desire commands infecting spirits of disappointment. Attachment unleashes an ineffable melancholy tracking our fondness for the transitory. What, then, is our x, the spirit upon which we can shore up our defenses in this struggle?

Our bulwark is wisdom and virtue. See how these, manifesting themselves as love and forgiveness, in Prince Andrei’s case, offered that man calm waters in which to disembark from this life. Pierre, Natasha, Marya and Nikolai remain with us. We wait to see if they, too, can solve for x.


Fix your gaze upon wisdom in all things, for it is an unfailing antidote.

Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh

This is the two hundred and ninety sixth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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