Reading for Tuesday 30/09 – 5.11

This whole Book 5 (or whatever it’s called in your particular version) is rather fascinating because it becomes much more spiritual and philosophical than anything that has gone before.  I actually think it’s somewhat amusing, because if somebody tried to run this past a publisher today, they’d probably want to trim all this stuff out.

But it’s chapters like these that just add to the beauty of the whole book.  However, that said, you have to keep your head screwed on to read chapters like this.  Because Tolstoy sets up two quite opposing points of view, neither of which is exactly correct (but both have elements of truth) and leaves you, the reader, to decide what you agree with.

So Pierre, for instance, believes in helping others and is trying to make that the point of his life.  Andrei, being the devil’s advocate, is saying that while it’s nice in principle, really, do the people you’re helping care that much?  Aren’t you really just doing it to keep yourself happy?  In which case, why not just be selfish anyway?

What I also find fascinating about this chapter is that these kind of discussions really only happen when you have close friendships.  Have a look at the trivial rubbish they talk about in the drawing rooms of Anna Scherer compared with this kind of conversation.  (Partly the reason Pierre never fit in – he couldn’t do rubbish small talk.)

It’s very much like that in today’s world.  We have to know people pretty well before we’ll talk with them about the deep meaning of life or any of these kinds of philosophical issues.

So, in a broader sense, beyond the philosophy in the chapter, we’re actually seeing a picture of friendship.  We saw a glimpse of it back at the beginning of the whole book, when Pierre and Andrei were having their discussion about marriage.  But now, after a couple of years of experience for the both of them, it is actually nice to see them together again as friends.


2 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 5.11 – A Philosophical Discussion

  1. I adn’t thought, until you pointed it out Matt, how much this chapter shows us about the friendship between Pierre and Andrei – and you’re absolutely right: wewould never have heard this discussion at one of Anna Pavlovna soirees. Mind you, it’s the sort of discussion I can imagine having taken place in some corner at some party, late at night, in my younger years, after very much too many wines and ports. I rememer those discussions so well, and thinking “Oh no – here I am, solving the meaning of life again … I’m going to have a really bad hangover in the morning!!”

    Anyway, it’s a great chapter here about morality and ethics – the sort of thing you can imagine being set as an essay topic in 1st year Philosophy, perhaps. These are the sorts of discussions that only ever seem to happen in Russian novels, and I’d certainly be interested to know if they also happen in Russian houses, and on Russian porches, as it does here between Pierre and Andrei.

    For me, I found that Andrei’s arguments follow on pretty logically from Tolstoy’s own remarks about Pierre’s supposed benevolence to the peasants in the previous chapter. He seems to be saying that the acts of goodness we think we are doing are often much more about meeting our own needs rather than the needs of the people we like to think of ourselves as helping. I’m not sure I quite agree with Andrei’s argument that basically there’s no lasting harm done if you whip a peasant – but I think his overall point that we often, in the name of charity and goodwill, try to impose our own notions of good and bad, of happiness and unhappiness, on others is a very compelling one, and certainly, in my view, a very apt description of the way morality is created in any society – the values of powerful people are imposed on the people who don’t have power, always under the guise of doing good, and of “looking after” them, but never with any real regard to how the world works from their point of view, from their shoes.

    I know Andrei’s remarks in this chapter are in one sense the height of snobbery – but, in another sense, they are almost the opposite. When he says that you can whip a peasant, and the wounds will heal but he will still have the same back, one way of reading that, perhaps, is that his back will still be there, presumably to get whipped again. And that’s very true – the Marxist in me will always remind me that any issue about how we treat each other as human beings is often much more a structural issue than a personal issue.

    Not sure if that’s what Tolstoy was getting at or not – but that’s the beauty of good writing: it allows us so many angles.

  2. Anton –

    a man who had looked after Prince Andrew in his boyhood, helped Pierre out of his carriage, said that the prince was at home, and showed him into a clean little anteroom.

    There is nothing else to add to my count of 486.

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