Thinking Makes It So
Cognition, just ask the thoughtful and melancholic young Prince of Denmark, is a curse to be contained. Sure, thought has produced Euclid’s Elements, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity — or really any number of other great works an insecure young writer would use as examples to advertise his intelligence. On the other hand, contemplation delivers also the emotional wreckage of depression, sadness, and Alex Jones soliloquies. Moreover, often the very same stimuli yield wildly different understandings between people for, as the good Prince says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Take the Bezukhovs in today’s chapter for example. We know that Pierre has decided to take Helene back and that he’s on a spiritual journey of self-improvement. Part of that process is Pierre allowing his wife the space and time to engage socially with the Petersburg Court set. And socially engage Helene does.
We’re told that Petersburg society has divided into distinct circles. The largest is the so-called French circle. The French circle is part of the Napoleonic alliance and counts many French and French sympathetic people among its party. Helene quickly becomes the toast of this group. She hosts a regular salon at the Bezukhov estate where all the latest in politics, poetry, and philosophy are discussed. She loves it. And the French circle loves her.
Pierre, on the other hand, is not so happy. During these parties he is possessed by “a strange feeling of perplexity and fear.” He can’t understand why everyone thinks Helene is so smart when he, through close contact, understands perfectly that she is certainly very stupid. He’s afraid she’ll be found out and the Bezukhov name will be soiled. Further, Pierre distrusts Boris Drubetskoy who proves to be a close companion of Helene at these parties. Pierre just can’t shake the memory of how Helene betrayed him earlier in the novel with Dolokhov. He suffers again just thinking about what she could be up to with Boris.
So we see that thought alone is capable of provoking strong emotions. Here Helene and Pierre are witness to the very same events. Helene thinks they are wonderful, intellectual, and engaging affairs. Pierre’s understanding of them, however, makes him so uncomfortable that by the chapter’s end he can barely move.
If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations