War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
As a panorama of Russian life during the Napoleonic era, War and Peace is often called the greatest novel of its type. “War and Peace is a moving record of historical progress, and the dual themes of this vast work—Age and Youth, War and Peace—are shown as simultaneous developments in history.” An even more profound theme that we see in Tolstoy’s great novel is the transformational effect of human suffering.
For example, Pierre Berzuhov, the son of a wealthy count, seeks the meaning of life in dissipation, heroism in war, and philanthropy. “Finally, he gains such an internal harmony through witnessing the horror of death on the battlefield and by learning to share the misery of the human race.” The latter, of course, is an expression of innate human compassion. Perhaps Berzuhov reduced his reactions and surrendered to the reality of his life long enough to let his True self emerge enabling him to “feel” the underlying Simple Reality. In any case he was transformed by his experience of pain and suffering.
Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a bored and cynical adventurer similar to Berzuhov, is searching for the meaning of life which he characterizes as “the natural” or the “essential.” “Andrey’s perception of the natural is closely related to his acceptance of death.” Like Berzuhov, Andrey’s life experiences involve surrender, in his case to death, which is the ultimate surrender. “Death becomes part of the natural rhythm, a cycle which promises spiritual rebirth.” In the case of both of these men they reach the “I don’t mind what’s happening” insight taught by J. Krishnamurti. The freedom resulting from this realization is profound and for them life-enhancing.
The “essences” or “feeling” that both men are able to connect with are simply their natural human states that will emerge in all of us when we pause in our false-self driven reactions. By responding in the NOW, each man had an experience that gives them a vague sense of well-being. “As Andrey seems fitted to perceive intimations of essences beyond the world, Pierre seems fitted to find his essences in the world.” Each man experiences a worldview shift as their old definition of reality is modified which is then followed by a shift in identity and the inevitable change in behavior. “When Natasha encounters Pierre after this experience, she rightly recognizes that he has been transformed. All that is superficial and nonessential is gone from him. Their marriage is a union of two vital human beings tempered by suffering.”
Neither Tolstoy nor his characters lived in P-A, but like most of us, they experienced those occasional insights that reveal what life could be like if we could only choose for ourselves a story more in harmony with our true natures.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.