Saturday, July 10, 2010

War and Peace and Suffering

"The wondrous love of God toward man is recognized when man is in misfortunes that are destroying his hope. Here God manifests His power for man's salvation. For man never recognizes the power of God in tranquility and freedom." -- St. Isaac the Syrian
I have almost finished War and Peace--300 pages to go is almost finished.  When asked to summarize the novel, my first response was that it is about a few aristocratic families in Russia between 1805 and 1812.  Then I thought a moment.  That’s not really what it's about.  Tolstoy’s point, in my opinion, if I were to put as fine a point on it as possible, is that it’s all God’s fault (although I cannot give you a specific quote to support this summary).
To understand what I think Tolstoy would mean by this, you have to not think like a Calvinist (or like a German, Tolstoy’s preferred foil throughout the novel).  For a Calvinist--and most Roman Catholics and Protestants generally—"fault” refers to direct (responsible) cause.  That is, to say that something is God’s fault is to say that whatever happened is not someone or something else’s fault:  “God caused it to happen, and nothing else could have happened because God caused it to happen the way it happened.” But for Tolstoy, nothing is clearly this or that, yes or no, fault or faultless.
For Tolstoy, God made the world a certain way and gave human beings a certain power of self determination.  Thus things happen because of the half-conscious choices of human beings; not so much in the sense that individual choices produce individual consequences (although that also happens, but specific lines of cause and effect are very tricky--perhaps impossible--to trace).  In War and Peace, Tolstoy makes the case that thousands upon thousands of human choices create consequences that are out of the control of any individual.  The arch-example of this is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Napoleon did not invade Russia because he chose to do so.  That the invasion took place at all, the way it did, when it did, and with the results it had, is because of the choices of thousands of people, each person being influenced by the choices of thousands of others.  And because God created human beings thus dependent upon the actions of one another, we can say it is God’s fault.  It is God’s fault in the sense that my broken toe is God’s fault: sure, I dropped the rock, but God created gravity.
Moreover, throughout the novel God’s involvement in the affairs of mankind is more intimately and mystically intertwined with human causes than even the word “fault” implies.  God somehow is at work in the hearts and minds of the characters. Through the painful sufferings they endure, God opens for them the potential to transcend their selfish preoccupations and see themselves and others as God sees them. One of the many heart-wrenching examples is Prince Andrei, who returns to the army in search of Anatole Kuragin, the blackguard who seduced his fiancee.  Unable to find Anatole, the Prince eventually finds himself in charge of a regiment that must stand its ground during a French cannon and mortar bombardment.  Throughout the day the Prince watches a third of his dead and wounded men being carried from the field, awaiting  the command to attack.  Finally a mortar lands near the Prince--and then a bright flash and a loud roar.
Prince Andrei awakes from another pain-induced faint now after surgery in a battlefield medical tent. He notices the man in the stretcher next to him weeping in child-like broken sobs at the sight of his mud and blood caked boot containing his amputated leg.  The Prince realizes that this weeping man is none other than Anatole Kuragin.  But laying on that stretcher listening to him weep, Andrei “remembered everything, and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart”:    
Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors.  “Compassion [Prince Andrei says to himself], love for our bothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies--yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Mary taught me, and which I didn’t understand…."
For Tolstoy all of the suffering that human beings inflict on themselves and on each other may not be meaningless.  Rather, suffering may often be a means to sanity, to clear sight, to understanding that everything is God’s fault, is my fault, is our fault. Suffering may help us see; and then again, it may not.  Some, like Napoleon, delude themselves to be convinced that whatever happens around them is the result of their personal power, their choices, their wisdom, their greatness. Others, like the German General Pfeul, are deluded by a well-constructed theory, convinced that all consequences are mere matters of scientific fact, of laws that they themselves understand (much better than anyone else) and by which they interpret everything--for whatever cannot fit into their theory, in their mind, does not exist.
The sun rises on the just and the unjust.  God’s revelation is always evident, but the delusion of control, of independence, of power is too strong.  Sometimes pain can open our eyes.  Sometimes it can’t.  Certainly, as St. Isaac says, very few recognize God’s mercy in tranquility and freedom.

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