The timeline shifts to two years earlier, in 1808, when Pierre accidentally becomes head of the Petersburg Masons. He organizes events, recruits members, and donates lots of alms to a poorhouse. Meanwhile, he continues dining and drinking liberally and partaking of “bachelor” amusements, though he believes it’s wrong.
Not too long before Prince Andrei shifts to a more active life, Pierre, too, struggles with how best to incorporate his private beliefs into public life. As before, he discovers that just because his ideals have theoretically changed, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to put them into practice.
The longer he participates in Masonry, though, the more Pierre feels that its ground is giving way beneath him. He knows most of his brother Masons in everyday life, and he can’t help viewing them as the social strivers he’s always known. Their failures to live up to their moral vows sow doubts in Pierre’s mind. Increasingly, he realizes that although some Masons are devoted to its spiritual path, the majority just observe the external rituals and value the social connections the brotherhood provides. Frustrated, he travels abroad to be initiated into the highest Masonic mysteries
In his peers, Pierre sees the same contradiction between professed beliefs and outward life that he’s struggling with personally. In that way, Masonry is just a mirror of regular aristocratic society. Though he’s disillusioned, he addresses the dissonance by looking deeper for meaning instead of trying a different path.
Pierre returns from his travels in the summer of 1809. The lodge convenes a special session to hear what he’s learned. In his speech, Pierre argues that it’s not enough for Masons to observe lodge rituals; it’s time for them to become active for the good of society. To do this, they must dedicate themselves to virtue. This means forming “a universal, sovereign form of government” that rules over all other governments without disrupting civil bonds. Pierre’s speech gets conflicting responses. While some support him, the majority accuse him of supporting Illuminism. When the grand master tells him that his ideas will not be accepted, he abruptly goes home.
Pierre basically argues that it’s time for Masons to put their mystical beliefs to active use, even if that means experimenting with controversial political ideas. Illuminism refers to the Illuminati sect, which was founded in Bavaria, Germany, in 1776. The Illuminati had many ideas in common with the Masons, but they also had political goals that aligned with republicanism. Such ideas wouldn’t be broadly welcomed in imperial Russia, and they prove to be a step beyond his brothers’ tolerance.
After his speech, Pierre becomes depressed. He languishes at home until he receives a letter from his wife, saying she misses him and wants to devote herself to him anew. Around this time, a brother Mason he dislikes tells Pierre he’s being unjust to his wife in contradiction of Masonic vows. His mother-in-law (Prince Vassily’s wife) also wants to see him. Pierre realizes they’re all conspiring against him, and he feels so hopeless about his life that he doesn’t resist.
Pierre feels that the various avenues he’s pursued are all coming to nothing. The Masons no longer want him, and his unwanted marriage looms up in his life again. As he tends to do, Pierre reacts to external pressure by lapsing into a passive attitude once again.
In November, Pierre goes to visit Iosif Alexeevich, who’s been ill. After Pierre gives his account of the rift at the lodge and his studies abroad, Iosif Alexeevich condemns Pierre’s ideas for societal improvement. Individual self-purification, he reminds Pierre, is the primary Masonic goal, without which it’s illegitimate for a Mason to pursue either mystical or societal goals. Pierre must cultivate the chief virtue of the love of death, and this is only possible by meeting adversity. Bazdeev gives Pierre a journal in which to chronicle his self-improvement.
Pierre’s old Masonic mentor explains that Pierre’s ideas are off track because he’s getting ahead of himself—he can’t work for sweeping social improvements if he hasn’t yet mastered the spiritual basics. Pierre’s advanced studies and social proposals, in other words, are ways of avoiding necessary self-purification.
A few days later, Pierre reunites with his wife Hélène. He decides to forgive her for virtue’s sake, though he tells her that he has nothing for which to forgive her. He only asks her to forgive him for any offenses and to forget their past. From now on, their marriage will have a spiritual goal. Pierre feels renewed and happy.
Pierre again lets himself be swept along by others’ opinions, though he justifies this to himself on the grounds that he can start his marriage over on a spiritual basis—ignoring his and Hélène’s incompatibility, which hasn’t changed.
Hélène is part of a Petersburg social circle which supports the Napoleonic alliance. Present at the emperors’ Erfurt meeting, Hélène made many French connections and even attracted Napoleon’s attention at the theater. Pierre is surprised to discover that society men like Bilibin strive for Hélène’s approval, that people read books before her soirées in order to impress her, and that officials confide diplomatic secrets in her. In her salon, everyone seems to find deep meaning in her most banal sayings.
In keeping with Petersburg’s more European atmosphere, the fashionable social set leans French in its culture and sympathies. Like the rest of the Kuragin family, however, Hélène is only interested in climbing socially. With his sincere and transparent personality, Pierre is baffled that other people take Hélène seriously.
Pierre serves Hélène’s interests well. Because he’s eccentric and spiritually occupied, he’s genuinely indifferent to what happens in his wife’s salon and serves as a useful contrast to her. Boris Drubetskoy is one of Hélène’s most frequent guests. Hélène treats him like a child, and Boris acts meekly deferential toward Pierre. Though disturbed by all this, Pierre tries not to think about it. He tells himself that a “bluestocking” doesn’t get tangled up in passionate affairs.
Though Pierre says he wants to reestablish their marriage with more spiritual grounding, he immediately starts ignoring their old problems instead of confronting them. The term “bluestocking” was developed in the 18th century to refer to a literary woman. Even though Pierre knows better, he goes along with the pretense that his wife is above her old behaviors, like carrying on affairs right in front of him.
Meanwhile, Pierre develops spiritually. Thanks to the journaling, he observes that he hates Boris deep down, even as he serves as rhetor for Boris’s reception into the Masons. He believes Boris is only joining the Masons in order to gain power and connections. He also has sexual dreams which remind him that he’s neglecting his wife. He prays for God’s help in overcoming his “depravity” and developing virtue.
Though Pierre begins to pay closer attention to his spiritual purification instead of trying to change the world around him, it’s tough going—he recognizes layers of wrongdoing in himself, including resentment of those who don’t value spiritual things.