After arguing with his wife, Pierre goes to Petersburg. As he waits at the posting station, lost in thought, he feels that the screw that holds his life together “turned in the same groove without catching hold[.]” He wonders about the nature of good and bad, love and hate. It seems that only death will resolve his questions, yet he fears dying.
Up to now, Pierre has had no steady sense of direction or moral center to his life; the duel and the collapse of his marriage have made this obvious. He has all-consuming questions about the meaning of life, yet he sees no viable path to resolving them.
Another traveler, waiting for horses, is brought into Pierre’s waiting room. The man is squat, wrinkled, and elderly with heavy brows over glittering eyes. The newcomer sits down and looks at Pierre with a penetrating expression. When the man closes his eyes and folds his hands, Pierre notices a large signet ring on one of his fingers; the ring is shaped like a skull. He keeps watching the man as he drinks tea and reads a book, feeling irresistibly drawn to him. At last, the other man speaks. He recognizes Pierre and has heard of his recent “misfortune.” He assures Pierre that he’s not just being nosy—he wants to help. When he smiles, the older man looks warm and fatherly.
There’s a symbolic significance to the fact that Pierre is on a journey when he encounters the mysterious man—he’s not just on a literal journey to a new life, but also a spiritual journey to a new understanding of life’s meaning. It’s also not accidental that the man gives Pierre a paternal feeling—there’s been a gap in Pierre’s life after Count Bezukhov’s death, something that’s left him feeling more directionless even though, ironically, it’s given him more options financially.
When Pierre asks, the man acknowledges that he belongs to the brotherhood of Freemasons. Pierre feels torn—he instinctively trusts the kindly man, yet he’s mocked Masons in the past. He tells the stranger that their ways of thinking are totally opposite. The man replies that, in fact, Pierre’s conventional way of thinking is a grievous error. For himself, he cannot claim to know the truth—it’s only over countless generations that truth is attained, “stone by stone,” building “a worthy dwelling place” for God. Pierre is amazed by the confidence of his words.
Tolstoy found a collection of Masonic texts in a Moscow museum, which he used as a basis for the descriptions of Masonic beliefs and ceremonies found in this section. The fraternal organization of Freemasonry dates to the Middle Ages. Freemasonry is hierarchical and heavily symbolic, its rituals drawing from the craft of stonemasonry. Its primary symbol is the Temple of Solomon in ancient Jerusalem. Freemasonry appeared in Russia in the 1700s, so it would have been established for multiple generations by this time.
Reluctantly, Pierre admits that he doesn’t believe in God. The Mason smiles like a wealthy man about to bestow a gift on a poor man. He says that Pierre doesn’t know God, and that’s why he is unhappy. He assures Pierre that God exists—in fact, he’s here, in both of them. If that weren’t true, how could they even be sitting here speaking of God? While it’s true that God is hard to understand, that just goes to show God’s greatness.
Freemasonry’s spiritual beliefs are broadly deistic and, as the old man suggests, don’t align with a single religious system. The Mason refers to “God” as a benevolent Supreme Being who makes and dwells within creation, incapable of being grasped by any single human being.
Pierre is transfixed by the stranger’s words. He’s not sure if he believes the content of the Mason’s speech or simply believes in the strength of the man’s conviction compared to his own total lack of conviction—but he wants to believe and feels that he does. The old man goes on to say that a person can’t understand God through reason, but through life. To do this, a man must purify himself, guided by the divine light of conscience, in order to attain a higher science. Seeming to know everything about Pierre’s past, the man points out that, far from purifying himself and helping others, Pierre has lived a life of idle depravity. Pierre agrees and asks the man for help. Before continuing on his journey, the man writes down a note for a man in Petersburg, Count Willarski. He encourages Pierre to spend time in solitude and self-reflection.
Pierre is easily swayed by others’ feelings, and the Mason’s appeal is no exception. He’s never held spiritual beliefs, so the man’s certainty about spiritual realities is as attractive as the specifics of what he’s saying. The man also suggests that spiritual truth is gained by improving oneself morally—a message that appeals to Pierre in his demoralized state. Freemasonry seems to offer Pierre a ready-made path to free himself from his aimless, self-indulgent existence.
After the man goes, Pierre looks at the postmaster’s register and learns that his name was Osip Alexeevich Bazdeev, a well-known Mason and Martinist. Pierre paces the station, thinking over his past debauched life and joyfully anticipating a reformed, virtuous life in the future. It seems to him that, now that he recognizes the goodness of virtue, it will be easy to change his life. He imagines that Masonry is simply a brotherhood united to support one another on such a path.
Tolstoy based Bazdeev’s character on a Moscow Mason named Pozdeev, who died in 1811. “Martinists” were followers of the teachings of a French spiritual writer named Martines de Pasqually, whose ideas were closely related to those of Freemasonry.
When Pierre arrives in Petersburg, he spends his time reading Thomas à Kempis. The book shows him the idea of becoming perfect and spreading brotherly love among people, as Osip Alexeevich had said. The week after his arrival, the young Polish Count Willarski comes to visit him. He enters the room with the same solemn look Pierre had seen when Dolokhov’s second approached him before the duel. He looks strikingly different from the cheerful society man Pierre had vaguely known before.
Thomas à Kempis was a German-Dutch monk whose book The Imitation of Christ was one of the late medieval period’s most popular religious writings. Count Willarski gives Pierre a sense that he’s facing life and death choices, as in the duel with Dolokhov. Like the duel, Freemasonry lets Pierre step outside the constraints of aristocratic society and encounter deeper realities.
Count Willarski asks Pierre if he wishes to join the Freemasons under his sponsorship. He also asks Pierre if he’s renounced his former convictions and now believes in God. Reflectively, Pierre says that he does believe in God. Then they get into Willarski’s carriage and drive to the Freemasons’ lodge. Willarski explains that Pierre will be tested, and all he has to do is tell the truth. Willarski blindfolds Pierre, kisses him, and leads him forward by the hand. He wishes Pierre courage and tells him to take off the blindfold when he hears knocking at the door.
Freemasonry involves an elaborate, secretive initiation ritual in which an initiate learns the signs and allegories of the brotherhood. This initiation gives Pierre an opportunity to find a place in life and a direction, as both society and marriage have failed to give him.
Pierre waits for about five minutes, going through a series of emotions: fear, curiosity, and most of all, joy about the new life that’s beginning. When he hears the knock at the door, he removes the blindfold and finds himself in a room that’s almost completely dark. He sees a lamp burning inside a human skull, an open Bible, and a coffin filled with bones. Then a short man wearing a long apron enters the room. Pierre recognizes the rhetor (the man who prepares seekers to join the Masons)—an acquaintance named Smolyaninov.
Pierre feels hopeful that Freemasonry is what he’s been looking for. In a way, this secret society parallels public society, giving Pierre another context for fitting in with the men he crosses paths with socially. In that respect, it doesn’t matter what the strange, morbid symbols signify or what Pierre believes; more than anything else, the system offers Pierre a kind of rebirth.
When prompted to state his purpose, Pierre feels unable to speak at first, but finally he says that he wants renewal and hopes that the Masons can guide him. He speaks haltingly because he’s not used to discussing abstract subjects in Russian. Then the rhetor explains the ancient mysteries handed down by Freemasonry, which require personal purification. Masonry’s other goal is that members become moral exemplars for humanity as a whole. Pierre feels especially drawn to the latter goal, hoping to help others who are as morally depraved as he used to be.
Pierre’s struggle to speak abstract Russian is another example of his constant struggle to fit into his society (though it isn’t uncommon among aristocrats raised speaking French). Notably, as soon as he hears Freemasonry’s goals, he skips over the moral improvement part, wanting to jump right to helping other people. This shows Pierre’s generous heart, as well as his idealistic impatience to arrive at life’s meaning.
Half an hour later, the rhetor returns and tells Pierre the seven virtues which Masons are expected to cultivate. These correspond to the seven steps of Solomon’s temple: discretion, obedience, morality, love of humanity, courage, generosity, and love of death. The latter virtue means that the individual should meditate on death until he no longer fears it. Pierre thinks over the virtues and especially feels drawn to obedience—after all his struggling to understand life, the idea of submitting to someone else seems freeing. When the rhetor returns this time, Pierre tells him that he’s ready for everything.
Pierre’s attraction to the virtue of obedience is telling. Surrendering to others seems to relieve Pierre of the responsibility of figuring out how to live his life. Pierre disregards the emphasis on love of death, but in time, it’s this fearlessness of mortality that will end up playing a bigger role in Pierre’s development.
The rhetor explains that Masonic induction communicates its teachings not just verbally, but through symbolic hieroglyphs. He asks Pierre to hand over his valuables as a sign of generosity. Then he tells Pierre to undress as a sign of obedience. Once that’s done, he asks Pierre to tell him his main predilection—the one that’s given him the most difficulty on the path of virtue. After much thought, Pierre says his main vice is “women.” After this, the rhetor blindfolds him once more and tells him that, from now on, he must seek blessedness not from the outside world, but within.
The induction ceremony symbolically strips away the things Pierre can hide behind—money and clothes (that is, his social standing)—before requiring him to admit his deepest moral struggle. When Pierre cites “women” as his biggest problem, he’s thinking mainly of Hélène—how he let himself marry her because of social pressure and sexual attraction, even while knowing that he didn’t respect her character and that they weren’t compatible.
After being led through a maze of hallways, Pierre hears allegories about the dangerous labors of life’s journey and about the architect of the world. After multiple blindfoldings, Pierre’s eyes are uncovered to reveal a dozen men seated around a table; he recognizes some of them from Petersburg society. He’s given several symbolic objects, like an apron (for blamelessness), a trowel (the work of purification), and several pairs of gloves (one of which must be given to the woman Pierre honors most).
The esoteric Masonic symbolism seems to make relatively little impression on Pierre, but at the conclusion, he’s welcomed into an elite company—a crowd in which he feels ill at ease in everyday life. In these surroundings, he can feel not just tolerated, but recognized as worthy. That’s something Pierre has always struggled to achieve in the outside world.
Pierre is finally allowed to sit down at the table, and the grand master reads the rules. Pierre is so overwhelmed he cannot understand them, but he remembers the last one—that Masons may only make distinctions between virtue and vice. Otherwise, they must never violate the equality between members. They must be quick to help, encourage, and forgive one another. Then the grand master embraces Pierre, and Pierre’s eyes fill with tears of joy. On the way home from the meeting, he feels as if he has returned from a faraway journey and completely changed his way of life.
Pierre’s grasp of Masonic teachings is uneven. What sticks with him more than arbitrary rules is the ethic of equality, something that promises a sense of brotherhood and invests his life with new meaning. So far, Pierre’s practice of Freemasonry has been limited to personal study and symbolic rituals; yet, idealistic as ever, he imagines his life has already been transformed.