Without Fear of Death
“And may not young men die as well as old?” Gremio asks in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In today’s chapter Tolstoy not only answers that question in the affirmative, he also provides some fairly gruesome supporting illustrations.
Prince Andrei, to a degree greater than even the citizens of Florida, is in a bad state. He’s been gravely injured by French shelling and has been removed to a field hospital where a cigar-smoking, bloodstained doctor attends to him against the background of screaming, groaning and dying fellow soldiers. You’ll recall that thirty-two days ago, while his regiment passed through Bald Hills, he saw some soldiers bathing in a dirty pond there and mused that they were merely cannon fodder. He was right. Little did he know, however, that he too would one day soon be among their ranks.
The medics place him on one of the three operating tables. He looks around. On one of the tables he sees a young Tartar. On the other he sees a man who looks strangely familiar. As Andrei undergoes his own surgery this man’s cries and frightened moans permeate the room. When the doctors attending to this man finally clear away it is revealed that the man is none other than Andrei’s rival, Anatole Kuragin.
Andrei has spent the last few months seething with hatred for this man. Anatole has essentially guided his every action ever since the Natasha incident. In fact, Prince Andrei only rejoined the military because of his spite for Anatole. And, yet, when Prince Andrei finally finds Anatole all that hate evaporates amidst the universal solvent of death. There is no hatred left for him. Instead Prince Andrei weeps like a child in pity and love for Anatole Kuragin. He thinks of his life and the lesson he never learned, the lesson his dear sister tried to teach him: “Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies.”
This is a lesson probably better learned late than never but one can’t resist the suspicion that Andrei isn’t at least a little upset that he didn’t learn it sooner. He’s a bit fearful to die having only learned this lesson so recently. If only he had applied the lesson of Marcus Aurelius to consider oneself dead and then live the rest of your life living well. Prince Andrei doesn’t want to die now. He wants to live while he has this understanding.
Across the room, Anatole isn’t faring any better. He’s raging against his own death. death. In so doing he completes his life as he lived it: unvirtuously and as a moral coward.
I drown without fear, without crying out, or accusing god, but as one who knows that what is born must likewise die. For I am not eternal, but a man; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour, I must come and, like an hour, must pass away.
Epictetus, The Discourses