The Search for Meaning and Happiness in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

One of my projects during quarantine was reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a hefty novel, my translation running around 1,200 pages.  I read it relatively fast because I didn’t want to keep forgetting the numerous characters and multiple nicknames for each character.  I must have referred to the character list at the beginning of the book at least thirty times! 

When Tolstoy wasn’t trying to take a piss out of Napoleon, he was having his characters figure out what makes life meaningful and how one should live in a good way.  Throughout the novel, they search for happiness in mysticism, beautiful women, do-gooding, and the glory of war, but until they experience the feeling of the infinite, they remain unhappy. 

Every now and then, Tolstoy would insert scenes where a character would understand something greater about life, as wounded Prince Andrei reflects:

He was only glad that people had stopped over him and only wished that those people would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed so beautiful to him, because now he understood it so differently.”

Leo Tolstoy

The following are wise insights from Tolstoy’s famous novel that I find surprisingly relevant in my quest to find meaning in my life today.

Unhappiness Comes Not From Lack

At one point, Pierre, the richest and the most gluttonous of all the protagonists, declares:” I hate my life.” No amount of wine, food and sensory pleasure could ever seem to satisfy him.

This old truth, that money cannot buy happiness, rings as true now as ever.  This is the lesson we are told over and over, through great literature and through all of the wisdom traditions of the world, yet in a society where we are constantly bombarded with the pressure to have the biggest and the best, to compete with each other, and  base our self-worth on our net-worth, we seem doomed to continue to learn this lesson the hard way. 

Pierre comes to a profound realization after being a prisoner of war:

Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity; but now, in these last three weeks of the march, he had learned a new and more comforting truth–he had learned that there is nothing frightening in the world. He had learned that, as there is no situation in which he can be perfectly unhappy and unfree.  He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that those limits are very close; that the man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up; that when he used to put on his tight ballroom shoes, he suffered just as much as now, when he walked quite barefoot (his shoes had long since worn out) and his feet were covered in sores…

Leo Tolstoy

Pierre realizes how his suffering as a free man living in the lap of luxury and the suffering of his experience as a prisoner living in squalor are not that different.  It’s all mental: “only now did Pierre understand the full force of human vitality and the saving power of the shifting of attention that has been put in man.”  This reminds me of the wisdom of the Buddha and the concept that suffering is caused by desire, aversion, and attachment. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you have, if you desire pleasurable things and try to avoid unpleasant things, you suffer. 

All This is Me

It took near-death experiences of war to wake Tolstoy’s characters up to the beauty and fleetingness of life.  In these following passages, Tolstoy attempts to describe those mystical moments we have all experienced at some point in our lives when we realize we’re part of something greater than ourselves:  

There was nothing over him now except the sky–the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it.  “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running, “ thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting…How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I have finally come to know it.  Yes!  Everything is empty, everything is deception, except this infinite sky.  There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God!…”

One of my favorite passages comes from Pierre’s sudden realization in prison:

Ha, ha, ha,” laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: “the soldier wouldn’t let me go.  They caught me, they locked me up.  They’re holding me prisoner.  Who me? Me? Me–my immortal soul! Ha, ha, ha!—-Ha, ha, ha!” he laughed with tears brimming his eyes…The full moon stood high in the bright sky. Forests and fields, invisible earlier beyond the territory of the camp, now opened out in the distance.  And further beyond these forests and fields could be seen in the bright, wavering, endless distance calling one to itself.  Pierre looked into the sky, into the depths of the retreating, twinkling stars.  “All of this is mine, and all this is in me, and all this is me!” thought Pierre.  “And all this they’ve caught and put into a shed and boarded up! “ He smiled and went to his comrades to lie down and sleep. 

It’s this awakening and recognition of the infinite that changes these characters forever.   They feel connected to the big picture of life.  They notice the vastness, the loftiness and the majesty of their place here on earth.  They see that life is love and that they are part of something big and wonderful and unfathomable.  Everything else seems silly and trivial and absurd.  Prince Andrei, when looking upon a former nemesis, could no longer restrain himself.

“He wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself and over their and his own errors.  Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies–yes, that is the love which God preached on earth…and which I didn’t understand; that’s why I was sorry about life, that’s what’s still left for me, if I was to live.  But now it’s too late.  I know it!”

Love is Life

In the end, the characters that survived the war went on to live in a more contented and happy way.  The interesting thing was that nothing in their life had really changed from the time before the war. They were still rich, in the same social circles, but after their touch with the divine, life became simple.  It was as if they had slowed down a little, not due to old age, but in the sense that they didn’t need to figure it all out anymore.  They didn’t need to find the secret of God, or build a reputable career, or show off their beautiful wife. They were content to live each day as it came and truly savor the love they had found in their wives and family life. 

Pierre now felt unexpectedly that he had a center of gravity which he had not had formerly….he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Leo Tolstoy

I think getting in touch with this center within ourselves, the part of us that stays tuned to the infinite, is the secret Tolstoy reveals to us about a contented life.  He reminds us to be always mindful of our life today, right now and proclaims that “Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.  Everything is connected only by that.”

My big takeaway from this novel was that meaning in life comes from love, and you find love when you recognize the wonder of existence and your connection to the infinite.

Anchoring Practices:

  1. Go to a place that inspires awe and wonder in you, a place where you feel small and insignificant, and let all of your daily worries melt away into the vastness of existence.
  2. Try to bring more love to your interactions with others today.  Remember that we are all alive right now at the same time, trying to figure life out together. These are our people.

If you want more wise insights and a damn good storyline, read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

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Featured image by unknown artist from Old Book Illustrations