Tolstoy, Hypocrisy, and Puritanism
This summer I’m reading Leo Tolstoy‘s War and Peace for the third time. It’s the greatest novel of history’s most patiently observant novelist, and every reading unearths further greatness. This time, I was struck by this passage exploring puritanism and hypocrisy.
Pierre no longer suffered from moments of despair, melancholy, and loathing
for life as he had done. But the same malady that had manifested itself in acute
attacks in former days was driven inwards and never now left him for an instant.
“What for? What’s the use? What is it is going on in the world?” he asked
himself in perplexity several times a day, instinctively beginning to sound the
hidden significance in the phenomena of life. But knowing by experience that
there was no answer to these questions, he made haste to try and turn away from
them, took up a book, or hurried off to the club, or to Apollon Nikolaevitch’s
to chat over the scandals of the town.
“Elena Vassilyevna, who has never cared for anything but her own body, and is
one of the stupidest women in the world,” Pierre thought, “is regarded by people
as the acme of wit and refinement, and is the object of their homage. Napoleon
Bonaparte was despised by every one while he was really great, and since he
became a pitiful buffoon the Emperor Francis seeks to offer him his daughter in
an illegal marriage. The Spaniards, through their Catholic Church, return thanks
to God for their victory over the French on the 14th of June, and the French,
through the same Catholic Church, return thanks to God for their victory over
the Spaniards on the same 14th of June. My masonic brothers swear in blood that
they are ready to sacrifice all for their neighbour, but they don’t give as much
as one rouble to the collections for the poor, and they intrigue between Astraea
and the manna-seekers, and are in a ferment about the authentic Scottish rug,
and an act, of which the man who wrote it did not know the meaning and no one
has any need. We all profess the Christian law of forgiveness of sins and love
for one’s neighbour–the law, in honour of which we have raised forty times forty
churches in Moscow–but yesterday we knouted to death a deserter; and the
minister of that same law of love and forgiveness, the priest, gave the soldier
the cross to kiss before his punishment.”
Such were Pierre’s reflections, and all this universal deception recognised
by all, used as he was to seeing it, was always astounding him, as though it
were something new. “I understand this deceit and tangle of cross-purposes,” he
thought, “but now am I to tell them all I understand? I have tried and always
found that they understood it as I did, at the bottom of their hearts, but were
only trying not to see it. So I suppose it must be so! But me–what refuge is
there for me?” thought Pierre.
He suffered from an unlucky faculty–common to many men, especially
Russians–the faculty of seeing and believing in the possibility of good and
truth, and at the same time seeing too clearly the evil and falsity of life to
be capable of taking a serious part in it. Every sphere of activity was in his
eyes connected with evil and deception. Whatever he tried to be, whatever he
took up, evil and falsity drove him back again and cut him off from every field
of energy. And meanwhile he had to live, he had to be occupied. It was too awful
to lie under the burden of those insoluble problems of life, and he abandoned
himself to the first distraction that offered, simply to forget them. He visited
every possible society, drank a great deal, went in for buying pictures,
building, and above all reading.
Truly, read the whole thing.