The Wisdom of Choruses
Back with the Bolkonskys things aren’t going so well. Of all of them the old Prince seems to be doing the best, even though he remains his old cantankerous self. The emperor has made him one of eight commanders-in-chief charged with supervising enrollment for the war against Napoleon. This charge has invigorated the old Prince, breathing new life into his battled soul. Just in time too because apparently he has aged rather quickly and poorly during the period where he mistakenly believed his son had been killed in the war.
Maybe, though, as the Chorus of Oedipus at Colonus would counsel, it would have been better for Prince Andrei if he had been killed. That way, at least, he would avoid all these future and present sufferings. Indeed, there can be no doubt after reading this chapter that he is suffering greatly. His father recognizes Andrei’s pain. To do what he can for his son he has given him an estate of his own, Bogucharovo, some twenty-five miles south of Bald Hills. Perhaps the solitude of life away from his childhood home will offer Prince Andrei some relief.
Three things in particular contribute to Prince Andrei’s suffering and anxiety in this chapter. The first is his absence from the war effort. It’s true that he himself resolved not to go back to the war. To avoid service he took a post under his father. We’re told, however, that he secretly regrets this decision.
Secondly, his son is running a terribly high fever. This leads Prince Andrei to smash some wine glasses on the floor of the nursery, to raise his voice with Marya, and to generally behave like a madman. It’s understandable though: his own brush with death and the passing of his wife during childbirth has made him all too familiar with the capricious and wanton decisions of the grim reaper.
Finally, he takes great insult from one of his father’s letters to him. In this letter his father orders him to travel to Korchevo as quickly as possible and deliver a message for him. He also informs his son that Bennigsen has obtained a victory over Napoleon at Eylau. He writes, “When mischief-makers don’t meddle even a German beats Buonaparte.” Prince Andrei takes this comment as a personal insult because he participated in a losing battle against Napoleon.
In short: Prince Andrei is hurting.
Andrei, at least in part, brings this anxiety and suffering upon himself. As the Chorus of Oedipus at Colonus reminds us, the painful blows of existence are never far from us. “What hardship is not near?” they cry. “Murders, civil strife, quarrels, battles, and resentment! And the next place, at the end, belongs to much-dispraised old age, powerless, unsociable, friendless, where all evils of evils are our neighbours.”
Sophocles recognized this terrible truth way back in the fifth century BC. Nothing much has changed since then. I mean, we have pizza delivery now so things are marginally better but not by much. To live in a world like this — pizza or no pizza — it’s important to recall what we’ve reflected on often during these readings (here, here, here, here, and here): there are things under our control and things not under our control.
It’s best to struggle with only those things under our control, treating what is not under our control as the inevitable manifestation of a nature’s will. What power, after all, do we have over that?
If, then, things outside the sphere of choice are neither good nor bad, and all things within the sphere of choice are in our own power, and can neither be taken away from us, nor given to us, unless we please, what room is there left for anxiety?
Epictetus, The Discourses