You May Die In Your Bed
We are now at the Rostov’s dinner table. The men’s side of the table vigorously discuss the declaration of war. The colonel, a German, demands fealty to the Russian Emperor and a swift victory against the French. Shinshin feels differently, asking why Russians should leave Russia to fight someone else’s war? Because of alliances, the colonel animatedly responds. How familiar is this debate? Seriously, it’s eerily similar to the type of international relations stories you might read about in today’s papers.
Nikolai, as a new hussar who will soon experience the war himself, is asked how he feels. He’s firmly in the colonel’s camp. Of course, he’s embarrassed by his response not so much because of its content but, rather, because of its emotional delivery which even he identifies as too charged for the social setting. We’ve talked about Nikolai’s emotional problems before. This isn’t the last we’ll see of them.
Before moving on I’d just like to note that in an essay about how and why to read War and Peace I wrote that one reason to read the novel is that it showcases grand panoramic range and expertly observed microscopic detail. We see that in this chapter. The topic of the men’s conversation is expansive: war, political obligations, the sweep of history. And, yet, Tolstoy manages to integrate the small detail of Sonya blushing as her rival Julie Karagina compliments Nikolai on his speech.
Getting back to the story now, the impassioned excitement from the men’s side of the table draws the attention of Marya Dmitrievna. She asks why it is the men are so agitated? Count Rostov explains that they’re talking about the war and that his son is to take part in the war effort. Marya Dmitrievna, in a response that will be the subject of our meditation today, tells him that is still no reason to behave so heated at a dinner party.
Natasha, always the lively one, closes out the chapter with a childish demand to know the dessert that shall be served. This outburst, however measured it may be to provoke the adults at the table, supports Wilkie Collins’s demand for the reform of children given that nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.
“I have four sons in the army but still I don’t fret. It is all in God’s hands. You may die in your bed or God may spare you in a battle.”
These are the words Marya Dmitrievna uses to reply to all the fuss coming from the men’s side of the table in today’s reading. Some may interpret them as unforgivably fatalist. But to me they contain the seeds to a life philosophy that, if planted and attended to, can yield the enduring fruit of mental tranquility. As we read along it will be worth asking ourselves if the characters of the novel heed the following meditation. More often than not the characters who do will find themselves at peace whereas the ones who do not will be agitated.
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. The things that are within our power are by nature free, and immune to hindrance and obstruction, while those that are not within our power are weak, slavish, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, then, that if you regard that which is by nature slavish as being free, and that which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings; but if you regard only that which is your own as being your own, and that which isn’t your own as not being your own (as is indeed the case), no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.”
Epictetus, The Handbook
[M]ake the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.
And how is that?
As god pleases.
Epictetus, The Discourses