Out of the blue, the old man tells Pierre that he knows all about him, including the duel and his wife’s possible affair.
What? How? It’s never really explained. This is as good a time as any to throw an awesome literary term your way. A term in Latin, no less. Ready? Sitting down? Pencils out? It’s deus ex machina. Store that one away for a grade bump.
Oh, and you probably also want to know what it means, right? Well, it literally translates as “the god outside the machine,” which means a powerful force that is working outside the created system.
In a story, a deus ex machina moment is when the author disrupts the world of the novel (or movie, or any other narrative) to fix something that isn’t working itself out. Usually this is used to rescue the main character from an evil that he obviously couldn’t actually overcome without some random chance – like Dorothy melting the Wicked Witch with water or Sam and Frodo being rescued from Mount Doom by just-in-the-nick-of-time magical eagles.
Or here, when Pierre’s soul is about to be mysteriously put on the right path by this somehow all-knowing guy who appears out of nowhere in the middle of nowhere to give Pierre the key to enter the Masons. (Oh sorry, spoiler alert.)
OK, where were we? Oh, right, the old man and Pierre.
Pierre sees by the man’s death’s-head ring that he is a Freemason, and they start talking about that. One thing leads to another and Pierre confesses that he is an atheist. His new pal reacts with two arguments about the existence of God: 1) the idea that no person could ever understand God’s plan and that God’s nature is mysterious; and 2) combining the ideas of “intelligent design” and a clockmaker deity.
OK, some more background would probably be good here, right? All the things the old man says are standard arguments about the existence of God that are still used today. So, you know, it’s probably good to be aware of them.
The first thing is the standard explanation for the existence of evil. The question goes, if God is good and omnipotent, why do bad things happen? And since they happen, doesn’t that mean that God is either bad or not all-powerful? The answer tends to be “it’s impossible to know God’s will/plan because the human brain can’t understand it.”
The second argument has to do with two different ways of conceiving of God. He could be an interventionist, constantly involving himself in people’s lives and making stuff happen every day (so, for example, when people pray to God for a snow day, they’re assuming God is minutely involved in their daily lives). Or he could be an intelligent clockmaker who set up a really complicated universe a long time ago and then just sat back and let the thing run itself.
In the novel, the old man goes with this clockmaker image, called “theism.” This was popular in the just-coming-out-of-the-Age-of-Reason 1800s, since it meshed better with all the new scientific discoveries.
Phew. This chapter is just chock-full of knowledge, isn’t it?
Anyway, then the old man goes on to talk about the soul and the conscience as empty containers that need to be really clean and pure before the liquid of truth can poured into them. Translation? You gotta be a good person. And stop with the drinking and the not-giving-to-charity and the wanting-to-have-sex-with-women.
As soon as the old guy says this stuff, we get the fastest conversion in history. Pierre does a total 180 and realizes that he does actually believe in God, and also that he wants to change his life and join the Freemasons.
The old man gives Pierre an introduction letter to Count Willarski and then leaves. Pierre then finds out that this old guy was Bazdeev, a famous Mason.