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Thinking Makes it So: Platon Karataev and Epictetus

“After the second day’s march Pierre, having examined his feet by the campfire, thought it would be impossible to walk on them; but when everybody got up he went along, limping, and, when he had warmed up, walked without feeling the pain, though at night his feet were more terrible to look at than before. However, he did not look at them now, but thought of other things.” I love this whole passage, but this sentence in particular. This sentence about the sorry state of Pierre’s feet. He “thought of other things.”

I love this testament to the power of the human mind, the power of thoughts and hopes and imagination. I’ve always said that a person should be able to sit in traffic and not wish the time away, because of the wealth of thoughts in their own head. I fully recognize the difference between the boredom of traffic and the terror of war. I hope never to be tested the way Pierre was. And there are times we shouldn’t rest in contentment: in the face of injustice or cruelty or any situation that deprives another of the opportunity to be content. But our imaginations and all of the worlds we create in our minds are things that we take with us everywhere we go, something that is uniquely ours and can’t be taken away from us, something that makes us free despite the privations of our physical state.

Pierre Bezukhov is a flawed, thoughtful, questing character. Throughout the novel his world and everything he believes is constantly falling apart around him, only to be rebuilt again. “He had long sought in different ways that tranquility of mind, that inner harmony which had so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of town life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning–and all these quests and experiments had failed him. And now without thinking about it he had found that peace and inner harmony only through the horror of death, through privation, and through what he recognized in Karataev…Those dreadful moments he had lived through at the executions had as it were forever washed away from his imagination and memory the agitating thoughts and feelings that had formerly seemed so important.”

After he’s witnessed acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence he rebuilds his world again, but on more solid ground. “Sounds of crying and screaming came from somewhere in the distance outside, and flames were visible through the cracks of the shed, but inside it was quiet and dark. For a long time Pierre did not sleep, but lay with eyes open in the darkness, listening to the regular snoring of Platon who lay beside him, and he felt that the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on new and unshakable foundations.”

For a long time Pierre did not sleep, but lay with eyes open in the darkness, listening to the regular snoring of Platon who lay beside him, and he felt that the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on new and unshakable foundations.

Platon Karataev, a peasant sent to war as a punishment for stealing wood, is not somebody Pierre would meet or form a friendship with in normal circumstances, and their backgrounds are entirely different. He’s a curiosity to Pierre at first, but eventually Pierre comes to look on him as almost a teacher–the answer to questions he’s been asking himself his whole privileged life. “…the chief charm of his talk lay in the fact that the commonest events–sometimes just such as Pierre had witnessed without taking notice of them–assumed in Karataev’s a character of solemn fitness…Karataev had no attachments, friendships, or love, as Pierre understood them, but loved and lived affectionately with everything life brought him in contact with, particularly with man–not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and Pierre who was his neighbor…”

He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together…Still less did Pierre think about himself. The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.”

To Pierre, Platon Karataev is “an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth,” and he helps Pierre to find the tranquility he has been seeking for years. “And now during these last three weeks of the march he had learned still another new, consolatory truth—that nothing in this world is terrible. He had learned that as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and lack freedom. He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together…Still less did Pierre think about himself. The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.”

Or as Camus wrote, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Or as Camus wrote, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And Myshkin, from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot says, “And I dreamed of all sorts of things, indeed. But afterwards I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” But Hamlet reminds us that though we can use our imaginations and the world of our minds to comfort ourselves during difficult times, sometimes the reverse can happen, and anxieties or bad dreams make the world seem worse even than it is. He describes Denmark as a prison, and when told by someone else that it doesn’t seem so to them, he says, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison…O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison…O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

– Hamlet

Where Pierre finds peace almost accidentally, without understanding, and Hamlet sadly can’t find peace despite understanding, Epictetus (50 – 135 AD) would teach us that we can learn to control whether or not our minds make our life a paradise or a prison. A stoic teacher, he lived four hundred years after the original stoics. (Four hundred years.) He said one should be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” He began life as a slave, his very name means “acquired.” He taught that we should seek eudaimonia, which is happiness or flourishing or contentment. And to achieve this, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

“Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all– ‘Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.”

Epictetus

Epictetus said that life comes at you in impressions, or phantasiai. And you don’t take these at face value, you question them, you talk to them. You say, “Stop, let me see what you are, and where you come from, just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.’” And you “Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all– ‘Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.” For instance, “When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, ‘None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.’”

To Epictetus, taking strength “from joyful comforting imaginings and memories” is an act of strength and will. You “In the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by [the] intensity [of your impression]: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one.”

“When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, ‘None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.’”

I like the idea of working to change what you can and understanding that you can’t change everything, and I like the idea of living in accord with nature, and with our nature, our name. “Further, we must remember who we are, and by what name we are called, and must try to direct our acts to fit each situation and its possibilities…Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

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