I have read War and Peace more times than it would be decent to say, most recently in the new translation by a husband and wife team that is distinctive largely because of its inclusion of French in the body of the text. It is marred by occasional infelicities such as using “mug” for face. No matter, any translation is a delight and on this recent reread I found myself taken particularly by the denouement when all the main characters are happily married and raising families.
The beautiful Helene, Pierre’s porcelain doll first wife, drifted to St. Petersburg after their definitive if informal separation and there she has affairs with two rivals simultaneously, further complicated by the fact that she remains married to Pierre. Tolstoy has her take instructions in Catholicism from a dubious Jesuit, with an eye to eligibility for a papal annulment. She plays one rival lover against the other by telling A that B has agreed to marry her, and vice versa. All this ends in the muted message that Helene has become pregnant and, with the help of an Italian physician, is seeking a remedy for what is winkingly referred to as her “angina pectoris.” She dies from the abortive medicine prescribed. This satisfying moral solution of her amorality does not sound strange in the novel.
That Helene represents all that Tolstoy loathes in what he rightly or wrongly considers the westernizing decline of Russian society, is underscored by the portrait of the marriages of the former Princess Maria – Prince André’s sister – and Count Nikolai, back from the wars and devoting himself to farming. This marriage is not devoid of edginess, the husband and wife do not really understand one another, but on one thing they are agreed. The purpose of marriage is children - the bonum prolis. And so it is with Natasha and Pierre. These two marriages were made possible by (1) the death of Helene and (2) the death of Prince André, whose ill-fated engagement to Natasha posed an impediment to the union of Nikolai and Maria. The couples are presented as surrounded by their progeny, with the wives anxious to get their husbands to focus on them. These chapters, sandwiched between Tolstoy’s endlessly self-indulgent excursions into the philosophy of history, are the most rewarding in the novel. They represent the return to normalcy after the depredations of war.
Aristotle’s remark that man is by nature a social animal is not often paired with another of his: man is even more naturally a marrying animal. The union of man and woman with the aim of reproduction creates the most fundamental society of all, the family. Any further society presupposes the family and is parasitic on it. The mark of any society is concern for the common good, and where better than in the family do I learn that I have goods that are not simply mine but ours? Parents and children, each with their private goods, must give precedence to the shared or common good of the family if it, and they, are to flourish.
To say that marrying and founding a family is natural to the human person, does not mean that it just comes about. The natural impulse must be humanized, consciously directed and ever preserved from the dangers that menace it. The greatest enemy of the family has arisen from the Enlightenment nonsense that freedom characterizes us, that we have no links or aims that are not freely chosen, that the natural instincts have no claim on the practical direction of our lives. For centuries there has been an assault on the fundamental unit of society with the result that political society is in chaos. It has become controversial to say that the family consists of a husband and wife and their children. The divorce of sexual activity from its manifest aim has created a chaos that is all around us. Replacement rates, in the touching phrase, are no longer met by western societies. Irregular unions, contraception, and abortion represent a vast suicidal movement toward extinction.
Hence the pleasure in finding simple moral truths recognized in what may be the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy became a fruitcake as he grew older, his own marriage was more war than peace, and he fled to the local railway station where he died, refusing his wife admittance. He also wanted to reinvent Christianity. Well, no one is perfect. Nor is any marriage perfect. But without the common recognition of the ideal that each union seeks to embody we are left with swarms of autonomous individuals all of whose goods are mine and none ours.
When the common good of the family is forgotten the common good of political society is doomed. Isolated individuals, who group only for the furthering of their private goods, do not make a society. The common good is not the aggregate of private goods.
None of this is religious. It is natural morality. But natural morality, like religion, can be lost or at least obscured. We have entered a time when the family is regarded as an anomaly. God help us.
Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.
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