When he related anything it was generally some old and evidently precious memory of his “Christian” life, as he called his peasant existence. The proverbs, of which his talk was full, were . . . those folk sayings which taken without a context seem so insignificant, but when used appositely suddenly acquire a significance of profound wisdom.
This description of the personality and behavior of the remarkable peasant Platon Karataev, from Book Twelve, Chapter 3, demonstrates how Tolstoy and Pierre both find Platon’s ordinary and uneducated “insignificance” highly significant. Platon is exceptional in being so common, in the best sense of the word—part of the common or shared native traditions of Russia. Many members of the cultural elite of Tolstoy’s day would have viewed Platon’s liberal use of Russian proverbs as a sign of low-class status and illiteracy. Tolstoy, however, gives Platon’s colloquial expression a mighty stamp of approval in referring to its “profound wisdom.” This comment reveals much about the view of wisdom Tolstoy offers in War and Peace. Wisdom is not to be found in high culture or foreign culture—Andrew and Pierre both return from trips to Europe without having become noticeably wiser—but rather from the experience of what is right under our noses. Tolstoy implies that sometimes the wisdom of a very common proverb can go completely overlooked until the right speaker uses the proverb appropriately and suddenly imbues it with deep meaning.
This passage also reveals another important idea in the novel, the suggestion that truth and meaning lie in human beings and in the full experience of human life, rather than in detached ideas or images or doctrines. The narrator does not give us any examples of mind-boggling ideas Platon has put forth, but instead refers to “some old and evidently precious memory” that the peasant narrates. It is not clear that the memory is at all precious in and of itself, but only that it is “evidently” precious to Platon himself. This distinction is key. Tolstoy implies that it does not really matter what a memory is, but only that someone attaches a personal meaning to it in his own particular way. That meaning then infuses the person with such a glow of wisdom that anyone who hears him cannot help but be affected by it—as we see in the fact that Platon profoundly affects Pierre. The truth that strikes Pierre is not a single idea he can carry away with him, but rather the fuller experience of knowing and interacting with Platon and appreciating the meaning he is able to convey.