Equivocating on Promises: Pierre from Tolstoy’s War & Peace
In this excellent little character study, Tolstoy describes the inner monologue of the chacter Pierre from War & Peace, who is able to justify and convince himself that a promise made to avoid the hedonistic charms of gambling and partying was in fact, rendered useless by an earlier promise. The excerpt is an excellent example of the kind of reasoning we often use to justify sinful behavior.
“On the way Pierre remembered that Anatole Kurágin was expecting the usual set for cards that evening, after which there was generally a drinking bout, finishing with visits of a kind Pierre was very fond of. “I should like to go to Kurágin’s,” thought he. But he immediately recalled his promise to Prince Andrew not to go there. Then, as happens to people of weak character, he desired so passionately once more to enjoy that dissipation he was so accustomed to that he decided to go.
The thought immediately occurred to him that his promise to Prince Andrew was of no account, because before he gave it he had already promised Prince Anatole to come to his gathering; “besides,” thought he, “all such ‘words of honor’ are conventional things with no definite meaning, especially if one considers that by tomorrow one may be dead, or something so extraordinary may happen to one that honor and dishonor will be all the same!” Pierre often indulged in reflections of this sort, nullifying all his decisions and intentions. He went to Kurágin’s.”
How We Rationalize By Søren Kierkegaard
In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes a “moment” familiar to all of us. It is the “little tiny transition from having understood to doing.” Here’s what he says about it:
…if a person does not do what is right the very second he knows it is the right thing to do—then, for a start, the knowledge comes off the boil. Next comes the question of what the will thinks of the knowledge. The will is dialectical and has underneath it the whole of man’s lower nature. If it doesn’t like the knowledge, it doesn’t immediately follow that the will goes and does the opposite of what was grasped in knowing — such strong contrasts are presumably rare; but then the will lets some time pass; there is an interim called “We’ll look into it tomorrow.”
During all this knowing becomes more and more obscured, and the lower nature more and more victorious…. And then when the knowing has become duly obscured, the will and the knowing can better understand one another. Eventually they are in entire agreement, since knowing has now deserted to the side of the will and allows it to be known that what the will wants is quite right.
Not Going to Church
As was the normal routine on a Sunday morning, a wife got ready for church. She got up, had breakfast, showered, got dressed, put on makeup and was ready to go. It was just as she was ready to leave that she noticed her husband was still in his robe and pajamas. She asks him what’s going on, “I’m not going to church” he says. “What do you mean, you’re not going to church?” Give me one good reason why you’re not going to church?“
The husband responds, “I’ll give you three good reasons why I’m not going to church. Reason number one, the church feels cold. Reason number two, no one likes me. And reason number three, I just don’t like it there. Is that good enough?” he concluded quite proudly.
“Well, what if I give you three reasons why you should go to church.” the wife answered. “Reason number one, the church is actually quite warm and friendly. Reason number two, there’s a few people there who like you. And reason number three, you’re the pastor sweetheart, so you better get dressed and get to church.”
Original Source Unknown, Stuart Strachan Jr.
Rationalizing: Making Life Possible in a Morally Challenging World
We rationalize to make life with ourselves possible in a morally challenging world. Often the motivation for rationalization, though, is quite different. In recent decades, psychologists have argued convincing that, more often than we think, we are guided not by reasons but by affect, emotion, and gut instinct.
Interestingly, though, we tend to resist this explanation of our own beliefs and decisions. We prefer to think of ourselves as having conscious reasons for what we believe and what we do. In one fascinating study, subjects were asked which of four garments they preferred.
The garments were spread out from left to right. A noticeably disproportionate percentage 40 percent — said that they preferred the rightmost garment. This confirmed what researchers had suspected: people tend to have an unconscious preference for things on their right.
When asked why they chose the item they did, though, subjects quickly and confidently reported reasons. Some talked about the quality of the material, while others talked about the color — despite the fact that the four garments were made of the same material and were identical in color.
Remember Aesop’s Fox? Having spied some ripening grapes on a lofty branch, he tried with all his might to jump and take them. Once it dawned on him that he would not—could not—succeed, sulked away, saying, I’m sure they’re sour anyway. What about the reaction of the schoolboy whose fame owing a cut finger suddenly waned when Tom Sawyer showed up with a new “talent,” having just endured the trial of having his pulled?
But all trials bring their compensations. As Tom wended to school after breakfast, he was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way-He gathered quite a following of lads interested in the exhibition; and one that had cut his finger and had been a centre of fascination and homage up to this time, now found himself suddenly without an adherent, and shorn of his glory.
His heart was heavy, and he said with a disdain which he did not feel that it wasn’t anything to spit like Tom Sawyer, but another boy said, “Sour grapes!” and he wandered away a dismantled hero.
Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I told me so: Self Deception and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2009. Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1992)
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Belief. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!