To Dine in Africa
Paconius Agrippinus was a man who thoroughly internalized the central stoic teaching that we should concern ourselves only with those things under our control. As an example, consider his relationship with the Roman emperors Tiberius and Nero. Tiberius put his father to death under charges of treason. Emperor Nero later brought the same charges against Agrippinus. When news of his trial was brought to Agrippinus he responded that he wished the trial good luck but he could not attend himself because it conflicted with his daily exercise and cold bath routine. One must have priorities. After taking his exercise and bath he was told that he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a life of exile. “Well then,” he responded, “let us go to Africa and dine.”
This sage response to adversity is to be admired. For those of us who have yet to attain such awesome heights of indifference, however, a more lowly example must suffice for instruction. A good place to start is with Natasha’s response to being told that Prince Andrei is among the wounded in her camp. Natasha, so far at least, isn’t exactly known for her stoic fortitude. But things are changing for her, as we’ll see.
Keep in mind that this particular narrative thread is only introduced today. There’ll be a gap, at least from Natasha’s point of view, between this introductory chapter and the remainder of her and Prince Andrei’s reunion story. The story is important, though, and today’s chapter serves as a nice introduction about how to approach adversity.
Sonya, against the wishes of Countess Rostov, informs Natasha that Prince Andrei is among the wounded in their camp. Previously we would have expected Natasha to explode into some wild, passionate outburst of emotion. Not today. Not even when she is told that she is prohibited from visiting her former fiancé. Instead, she takes a more reserved and thoughtful tack. As the rest of her family bewails the burning of Moscow, she remains quiet and meditative.
Her thoughts lead her to the conclusion that she must visit Prince Andrei. That is to say, that in order to understand what is troubling her she must first confront it and understand it. This is a wise choice, a stoic choice even. Note, however, that she’s not completely nonchalant, like Agrippinus, about the challenge of confronting her problems. She trembles and worries. These are natural, automatic emotions. What Natasha does not do, not this time anyway, is give free reign to these emotions. She doesn’t indulge them or allow them to torment her. Instead she goes to Prince Andrei and sees for herself what is going on. Confrontation is the first step one must take in the face of adversity.
If you’re going to dine in Africa you’ve got to know what’s on the menu.
Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing that is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its entirety, and tell yourself its proper name and the names of things of which it has been compounded and into which it will be resolved. For nothing so promotes elevation of mind as the ability to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations