Tune It Down the Middle
Day 45 of A Year of War and Peace
The magnificently mustachioed American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote that “life is a roar of bargain and battle.” Who among us can dissent from this opinion? The characters in today’s reading, confronted with the very real Battle of Schöngrabern, certainly cannot. Indeed, whereas Holmes merely describes the human experience, in this chapter Tolstoy provides us three examples of how to live with and respond to it.
Panic and cowardice provide the first example. Maybe that’s to be expected. It is a tough situation the Russian troops find themselves in. We left off yesterday with Rostov retreating into the putative safety of the copse as the ravaging French onslaught mercilessly pursued him. I’d probably panic too in that situation. The only danger I’ve ever encountered, after all, is the thrill of crossing the street in Queens, New York. Though, to be fair, most of the drivers here consider traffic lights to be merely decorative. At any rate, the rest of Rostov’s infantry regiment, terrified at the predicament of being cut off by the French, also retreat in total panic.
Secondly, we have the rashness of Tushin. Tushin, you’ll recall, occupied the center of the front line, the portion of the Russian army closest to the French. He was supposed to retreat. But Tushin, going full cannonballs-to-the-wall, decides to stay put and fight it out. Consumed by a “feverish delirium or drunkenness” he peppers the French with grapeshot and cannon fire. Given his position, this is absolute madness.
Finally, providing the Aristotelian golden mean of courage between Tushin’s rashness and Rostov’s cowardice, we have Timokhin’s company. Timokhin’s company, we are told, stand alone in having maintained order. They rush out from the copse and repel the French troops. This, Tolstoy writes, is the turning point in the Battle of Schöngrabern. The French retreat and the Russians claim the day.
So how are we to keep our life in tune like the even courage of Timokhin while avoiding the loose cowardice of Rostov or the tight madness of Tushin? One answer to this question, at least as I see it, is to practice and cultivate philosophy. The ancient stoics achieved this in multiple ways. Some of them engaged in repetitive daily philosophical meditations. Others carried with them passages to reflect on throughout the course of the day. Today there are apps that support both of these approaches. The Buddhists, kind of like Aristotle, seek the Middle Way, striking a balance between asceticism on the one hand and gluttonous indulgence on the other. The goal, whatever method you choose, is to have practical philosophical precepts at hand that you can use as tools to live virtuously.
As physicians have always their instruments and knives ready for cases that suddenly require their skill, so do you have principles ready for the understanding of things divine and human, and for doing everything, even the smallest, with a recollection of the bond that unites the divine and human to each other. For neither can you do anything well that pertains to man without at the same time having a reference to things divine; nor the contrary.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations