After becoming a Mason, Pierre sets out for his estate in Kiev with big plans for the peasants there. He informs his stewards that he intends to liberate the peasants immediately. Hospitals, almshouses, and schools must be established. The head steward points out that Pierre’s estate is in rough shape financially. Perennially in debt, Pierre doesn’t have a mind for business. His goal of serf liberation and the head steward’s goal of debt repayment are in conflict.
Exploring characters’ lives on the home front, the focus turns to Pierre’s efforts to integrate his new beliefs into his daily life. Serfs were considered to be attached to the land they worked and could be “sold” with the land; they had few rights and were often subject to mistreatment. Pierre’s goal of freeing and providing for his serfs is ahead of his time; emancipation wasn’t decreed in Russia until 1861.
Townspeople begin to seek out acquaintance with Pierre, their new rich neighbor. At the same time, Pierre’s weakness for women persists. Instead of starting a new life, he finds himself drawn into the same lifestyle of soirées and balls, just in a different setting. He knows he’s falling short of the Masonic requirement of living a moral life; he reassures himself that he excels at other virtues, like reforming humanity.
Pierre learns that simply removing himself from a tempting environment and announcing philanthropic intentions doesn’t make him moral. A moral life seems to demand more than sincerity. For the time being, though, Pierre remains convinced that he can skip over self-improvement in his well-meant efforts to improve others.
In the spring of 1807, Pierre decides to return to Petersburg. On the way, he plans to stop at his various estates to see how his reforms are progressing. The head steward, who understands Pierre well, orders feasts to be held at each stop. The journey cheers Pierre—his peasants seem grateful for his benefactions. What Pierre doesn’t know is that these are fictions. In one village, for example, wealthy peasants claim they’re building a chapel in his honor, but the construction began long ago, and most of the peasants are still impoverished. Pierre happily writes to the Mason grand master about how easy it is to accomplish good.
Tellingly, the parade of “progress” on Pierre’s estates amounts to little more than a sham. Thoroughgoing reforms take money and effort, not just well-meaning resolutions, but Pierre is naïve and thinks his ideals are enough to make things happen. He believes he’s done good, but not only did his steward accomplish what little was done; the evidence of “progress” is fake. Pierre remains detached from reality in this respect.
Rejuvenated from the country, Pierre decides to visit Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, whom he hasn’t seen for two years. He finds him at Bogucharovo, a flat, rather ugly estate. The manor is situated behind a pond in the middle of a wood. Pierre finds Andrei living not in the manor’s big stone house, but in a small, tidy cottage smelling freshly of pine. He’s shocked by his friend’s aged appearance; Andrei’s expression is dull and remote and doesn’t match his warm words of greeting. As the friends haltingly get into conversation, Pierre longs to show he’s improved himself and express his new Masonic beliefs, but expressing joy in front of Andrei feels wrong somehow.
Like Pierre, Prince Andrei is trying to figure out how to put his altered beliefs into practice. Unlike Pierre’s serf communities, Andrei’s estate has little pretense. Andrei distances himself from wealth and can’t muster enthusiasm for much of anything. While Pierre feels happier than Andrei, Andrei’s detachment seems to be a more truthful reflection of reality than Pierre’s.
Eventually, their conversation drifts to Pierre’s marriage. When Pierre says it would’ve been wrong to kill Dolokhov in the duel, Prince Andrei says it wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong—people have always been mistaken in their judgment about right and wrong. Finally becoming animated, he argues that the only two “evils” he acknowledges are remorse and illness; the only good in life is avoiding these things. Pierre vehemently disagrees. He used to think like Andrei does, living only for himself, but now he believes that life’s happiness consists in living for others.
Pierre and Andrei form a pointed contrast. While Pierre aspires to follow a strict ethical code, Prince Andrei’s disillusionment has gone so far that he embraces a kind of nihilism—rejecting most distinctions between right and wrong and striving for little more than avoiding discomfort. This mindset is repugnant to Pierre, who’s fresh from his efforts on the serfs’ behalf (as superficial as they were).
Prince Andrei says that Pierre will get along well with Princess Marya. He also says that his experience has been the opposite of Pierre’s—he once lived for glory and others’ betterment, but this completely ruined his own life. He’s only found peace since he began to live for himself instead. Andrei then argues that Pierre’s reforming efforts actually deprive his peasants of “animal happiness”—in other words, the only real happiness. Physical labor is as necessary for them, he contends, as mental labor is for himself and Pierre.
Prince Andrei rejects the whole basis of Pierre’s moral transformation. Pursuing higher ideals has only disappointed him and brought grief. He even contests the idea that making peasants’ lives easier actually does them any good, offering a class-based argument that serfs aren’t suited for anything but labor.
Pierre finds this view appalling, but Andrei maintains that he didn’t choose to be alive, so the best he can do is live the best he can without bothering anybody. The local people wanted to elect him their marshal, but he believes he lacks the “good-natured and bustling banality” necessary for the post. And the only reason he serves in the military is to temper his father’s more extreme ideas. Pierre tells Andrei he will never agree with his views.
Andrei’s own brush with death, followed by his wife’s death, seems to have sapped his will to engage with life. He believes his cynicism makes him useless to others; in fact, service to others, in his view, seems to demand a kind of ignorance of reality. (Ironically, this description fits Pierre.)
That evening, Prince Andrei and Pierre drive to Bald Hills. Pierre is downcast—he keeps wanting to enlighten Prince Andrei with Masonic ideas, yet he’s afraid that Andrei will discredit them. Finally, he can’t help himself, and he explains Masonry, describing it as Christianity without any religious ritual or nationalistic trappings. He assures Andrei that if he joins the brotherhood, he, too, will once more feel connected to others. To his relief, Andrei does not laugh.
Pierre thinks of life’s meaning mostly in terms of ideas. Interestingly, this contrasts with the way Masonry was presented to Pierre at first—that is, as a way of life first and foremost. Pierre still hasn’t learned how to put his ideas into practice, but ideas are all he has to offer his struggling friend.
As they cross a river by ferry, however, Prince Andrei asks how it can be true that the Masons alone know the nature of truth—aren’t they just people, too? Pierre explains that truth is discovered by seeing oneself as a step in the interconnected structure of the universe. Andrei says this is Herder’s teaching, and it doesn’t persuade him. Life and death are the only things he finds convincing—specifically, he believes in a future life because there must be a reason for suffering and dying.
Prince Andrei refers to German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose writings on immortality were of interest to Tolstoy. Andrei isn’t impressed with these philosophical ideas; thinking of his wife Lise’s death, he believes there must be some future accounting for people’s sufferings on earth. He isn’t interested in the abstract principles that energize Pierre.
Even after they’ve reached the opposite shore and the servants have taken the carriage off, the two men continue to stand on the ferry, talking. Pierre argues that if there’s a future life, then there is also truth and virtue, and a person finds happiness by striving for these, looking toward eternity. In response, Prince Andrei only says, “If only it were so!” But when he looks into the sky, he remembers the sight of the “eternal sky” at Austerlitz, and something stirs in his soul. From that time forward, Prince Andrei becomes aware of a new, inner life.
Andrei’s and Pierre’s conversation on the ferry suggests that they’re both on a spiritual journey, although it appears as if their circumstances are standing still. Though Andrei continues to resist the idea of striving for truth, Pierre prompts him to remember his moment of contemplating eternity, and this sets him on a different trajectory.
As Pierre and Prince Andrei arrive at Bald Hills, Prince Andrei points out four people, including a bent old woman and a man with long hair, fleeing from the carriage. He says they’re Princess Marya’s “people of God,” whom, in defiance of Prince Nikolai, Marya welcomes. After settling into their rooms, Prince Andrei and Pierre go to Marya’s room, where she’s sitting with a young man in a monk’s robe and an elderly woman with a childlike face. Princess Marya blushes at their arrival and helplessly rebukes Prince Andrei when he makes joking remarks in French about the “people of God.” Pierre peers at the guests curiously.
In Russian Orthodox spirituality, people sometimes embarked on extended or even lifelong pilgrimages, wandering from one holy site to the next and living off charity as they traveled. Princess Marya finds spiritual benefit in offering hospitality to the pilgrims, though she’s also self-conscious about the fact that her bother doesn’t take them seriously—even Marya feels pulled between spiritual and earthly matters at times.
Prince Andrei asks the wanderers about their travels, and the old woman, Pelageyushka, starts talking about a miracle-working icon she saw in Kolyazin—holy oil dripped down the cheek of the Mother of God. Pierre protests that such phenomena are tricks played on the people. When Prince Andrei continues to joke, the horrified old woman gets up to leave, but Pierre asks forgiveness so meekly that she relents. Marya is grateful, and for the rest of the visit, both she and Prince Nikolai get along well with Pierre. However, Marya worries that inactive rural life is bad for her brother.
Religious icons, especially those with miracles attributed to them, play a significant role in Russian Orthodox spirituality. Though Pierre makes a characteristically tactless outburst about the supposedly faked miracles, he still takes the old pilgrim seriously, whereas Andrei seems uncomfortable with the whole topic and tries to distance himself from it.