26 May 2010

War & Peace 1: Princess Marya Bolkonsky on Spiritual Reading


Our target date for the completion of Volume 1 of Tolstoy’s War & Peace has now come and gone (see this post), and I hope that other readers besides myself are also making some headway in this weighty tome. Although I have a matter of greater pertinence to the central themes of Tolstoy’s magnum opus to post on later, I wanted to go ahead and excerpt a brief passage that struck me early on. Princess Marya Nikolaevna Bolkonsky has received a copy of Karl von Eckartshausen’s ‘occult treatise’ (in the translators’ words), A Key to the Mysteries of Nature, from her friend Julie Karagin, with the recommendation, ‘Read the mystical book I am sending you and that is causing a furor here [in St Petersburg society]. Though there are things in this book that are hard to grasp with weak human understanding, it is an admirable book, the reading of which calms and elevates the soul.’ [1] The more sensible Princess Marya replies:

A thousand thanks, dear friend, for the work you have sent me, and which is causing such a furor there. However, since you tell me that amidst several good things there are others that weak human understanding cannot grasp, it would seem to me rather useless to occupy myself with unintelligible reading matter; which by that very fact cannot be of any fruit. I have never been able to understand the passion certain persons have for muddling their wits by fastening upon mystical books, which only awaken doubts in their minds, excite their imagination, and give them an exaggerated character totally contrary to Christian simplicity. Let us read the Apostles and Gospel. Let us not seek to penetrate what they contain of the mysterious, for how should we dare aspire, miserable sinners that we are, to initiate ourselves into the terrible and sacred secrets of Providence, so long as we wear this fleshly husk, which raises an impenetrable veil between us and the eternal? Let us limit ourselves, then, to studying the sublim principles that our divine Savior has left us for our conduct here below; let us seek to conform ourselves to them and to follow them, let us persuade ourselves that the less flight we give to our weak human spirit, the more pleasing it is to God, who rejects all science that does not come from him; that the less we seek to delve into what he has been pleased to conceal from our knowledge, the sooner he will grant us the discovery of it through his divine spirit. [2]

The excitement over the book in St Petersburg society reminds me of the whole unfortunate Masonic spirit of that time as described by Fr Georges Florovsky in Ways of Russian Theology—that is, truly Masonic, rather than ‘Masonic’ by association or otherwise tenuous connection.

For its part, Princess Marya’s wise response calls to mind two things. First of all, St Barsanuphius of Gaza wrote to a brother who had asked (in Letter 547) whether it is okay for him to read works of dogmatic theology: ‘I would not like you to meditate on these because they raise the intellect upward; I would prefer you to meditate on the words of the Old Men because these humble the intellect downward.’ [3] Second, in his ‘Prologue’ to the Evergetinos, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain wrote:

The whole of the moral philosophy of the Gospels summons all men to itself. There are those who concern themselves in this or that way with certain other types of philosophy; and of these persons, some spend all of their days studying, say, mathematics or physics, while others concentrate on metaphysics and more general subjects. Yet they entirely neglect moral philosophy, even though it is both the paramount and most necessary of all types of philosophy. These men study the harmony and order of the heavens, and earth, and all other matters. But because they do not know, as they ought, that the investigation of ourselves is distinctly superior to that of alien matters and, moreover, because they do not know tha tknowledge on its own—that is, being bereft of practical application—has no substance and does not differ from fantasy, as the holy Maximos notes, precious few of these men address the question of how to bring themselves into harmony with the beauty of moral life, or how to learn true virtues through experience. Now, I ask you: What is the good of materialistic philosophy, when the soul has a philosophy of its own, yet is crudely beset by passions? I, for one, see no good. Surely we must apply ourselves to moral philosophy, or risk being found wanting in relation to our higher aspect.

Such as these former things much concern the majority of people. The God-fearing Fathers, however, determined that their most holy system was superior, sensing with the more percipient eyes of the mind how truly beneficial is this moral type of philosophy and how readily they might advance to the other kinds of philosophy if they should first become facile in the system in question. [4]

Of course these Saints are speaking of books and areas of study which are not necessarily false or harmful per se, and yet they still warn the faithful about preoccupation with them. Although I am not familiar with the work of this Karl von Eckartshausen, I am rather dubious of its consistency with Orthodox Christianity!

I look forward to seeing posts from other bloggers who may have joined in the War effort. I am not following blogs as closely these days as I once did, and would enjoy receiving an e-mail or a comment notifying me in case of any new posts. I will gladly link to them in order to facilitate further discussion.


[1] Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 2008), p. 93.

[2] Ibid., pp. 94-5.

[3] Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, Vol. 2, tr. Fr John Chryssavgis, Vol. 114 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: The Catholic U of America, 2007), p. 132.

[4] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘Prologue’, The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Book I, ed. & tr. Archbishop Chrysostomos, Hieromonk Patapios, et al. (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008), pp. xxxii-xxxiii.

5 comments:

Matthew said...

In Bolshakoff’s Russian Mysticism, there is an all too brief section about non-Christian mysticism including masonry. I meant to look it up when I read that letter to Princess Marya. It was kind of a sad section. When you consider the depth and beauty of traditional Christian spiritual life and writings, it’s hard to understand the appeal of the flaky and silly spiritualist mysisticism of post-enlightenment Europe.

By the way, I’m making headway, but slowly. I’m not quite finished with Volume 1, but I’ve started writing about it on my blog.

aaronandbrighid said...

I know exactly what you mean about understanding the appeal of these things to Orthodox. Fr Florovsky's explanation however--that Russian clergy at the time were educated in Catholic & Protestant theology and knew very little about the depth and beauty of traditional Christian spiritual life and writings, so neither did educated Russian people--accounts for it to a great degree however. When Orthodox theology is identified with the dryest, deadest scholasticism, spiritualist 'mysticism', occultism, and pietism can be very exciting indeed.

SubDn. Lucas said...

There is this wonderful tension beginning between City and Country. City being the place of confusion and beguilement, and Country being the place of understanding and revelation. Here, Marya--sequestered in the Country--'gets it'. The Petersburg folk--decidedly City--miss the mark entirely.

I'm jumping the gun here (I've read into v. 2), but this trope will continue with Andrei, & Pierre (& arguably the Rostovs?) as well, as the 2nd vol. develops.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I'm enjoying the discussion and blog entries. I have a few also that are accessible in the category at the top of each post, Tolstoy's War and Peace:
http://en.wordpress.com/tag/tolstoys-war-and-peace/

Like Matthew, I'm about half way through volume 1. I'll try to catch up shortly.

The Secretary said...

We should join forces. We are doing a group reading of WAR AND PEACE this summer. The group blog is here; our Twitter feed is here. We'd love for you to participate.