War and Peace: an ethical interpretation

The moral backbone of Tolstoy’s War & Peace seems to be a distinction, or maybe a continuum. Simple, authentic virtue is at one end, and complexity, affectation, and vice are on the other:

simplicity/authenticity/virtue ‹——› complexity/affectation/vice

Peasants, especially Karataev, who "had no attachments, friendship, or love …; but he loved and lived lovingly with everything that life brought his way, especially other people–not any specific other people, but those who were there before his eyes" (973). Aristocrats, especially salon-goers like Kuragin and Anna Pavlovna Scherer; also rakes and seducers
Russian culture (e.g., Natasha’s peasant dance) French civilization (a ball)
Russian intellectual humility: "A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it is possible to know anything fully" (639). "… the sweeter it was for [Marya] to think that the wish to understand everything was pride, that it was impossible to understand everything …" (659). German philosophy and theory; English competence
The country, the regiments, Moscow, the Church The court, the general staff, St. Petersburg, the Masons and philosophers
A military commander as fatalist, merely trying to prevent complicated efforts that might make things worse (Katusov) A military commander as genius, employing grand strategy (Napoleon)
The Russians at Borodino (saving the fatherland) The Russians at Austerlitz (trying to achieve glory)
The "national war" of Russian partisans against the French invaders (1033) A traditional war of armies on battlefields
Peaceful idleness. "Biblical tradition says that absence of work–idleness–was the condition of man’s first blessedness before the fall" (488). In "his ability … to sit motionless and think, doing nothing, Pierre semed something of a mysterious and supreme being" (1014) Pointless activity. "No one in the house ordered so many people around or gave them so much work as Natasha. She could not look at people indifferently. without sending them somewhere" (518). This period leads to her moral crisis.
Silence: "A continual restraint of speech" (1075) Speech, chatter
Fatalism: "this very absence of purpose gave him that full, joyful awareness of freedom which at that time constituted his happiness" (1103) Purposive action, striving
Limitations/deprivation. "A superfluity of life’s comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one’s needs, and … a greater freedom to choose one’s occupation the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position–precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult" (1013). "One had to wait and endure" (1015). Apparent freedom, choice. "All unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity" (1060).

At first, I read with great resistance, because this moral scheme seems wrong to me. If you have the choice, shouldn’t you be bilingual rather than monolingual, curious rather than ignorant, and ambitious for the good rather than fatalistic and passive?

But then I began to realize that the moral scheme is more complicated. Complexity and artifice are always bad in War and Peace, but they have several alternatives–as symbolized by the fates of the main characters:

  • Prince Andrei always has an instinct for the purely abstract, the completely simple; a love of absence. He senses his ideal when, badly wounded at Austerlitz, he stares at the empty blue vault of the sky. His end is perfect renunciation, an embrace of death as the negation of life.
  • Both Natasha and Marya find fulfillment by completely submerging themselves in family life and marriage–an ideal that strikes me as patriarchal.
  • Nikolai Rostov becomes a good landowner, putting the peasants’ welfare ahead of his own and managing his farm well. He finds fulfillment in work, when previously (488) he was only good when idle.
  • Pierre loses his pretensions and his “great man theory” of history. By the end, he would no longer want to assassinate Napoleon to achieve fame. His hero is the fatalistic peasant Karataev. But Pierre continues to care about politics and to love a particular wife and family.

If Pierre is the moral heart of the novel, I can find a spirit here to endorse.

(All quotations from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage, 2007)