Le Bien Public

“Since the world began and men have killed one another no one has ever committed such a crime against his fellow man without comforting himself with this same idea. This idea is le bien public, the hypothetical welfare of other people.”

War and Peace, Book 11, Chapter 25

To secure his own escape from Moscow with the French about to invade, Tolstoy writes that the Governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, encouraged a mob that had gathered to attack and kill a prisoner that he turned over to them.  With the mob focused on the convict, Rostopchin left the city in a carriage that had been awaiting him in the back of the house.

What he has done, bothers the Count in this story.  The count then comforts himself with the idea that it was necessary for the good of the public.  As representative of the Tsar, he felt it was his duty to safeguard his own life.  It was his duty to his country, for the public good, to do as he had done.  He could not admit to himself that it was simply to save his own skin.  He had to have a more noble reason, le bien public.

I love how Tolstoy continues to expose the contradiction between what is thought reprehensible on a personal level, but becomes noble or good when done in the name of the collective.



Prince Andrew Bolkonsky on War

In War and Peace, Book 10, Chapter 27, Tolstoy puts the following words into the mouth of Prince Andrew Bolkonsky:

“But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.”

This really gets to the heart of the contradiction of morality for individuals and that state.  What is done in the name of the state, would be considered evil if done in the name of an individual, in the name of an ego. When it comes to the state, to the collective, it seems to me that almost no one follows the Christian ethic of turn the other cheek, love thy enemy.  Instead, military members are venerated for doing what, otherwise, would be considered immoral.