On his way to St. Petersburg, Pierre spends the night at a posting station so he can change horses. He is very disturbed over his separation from Hélène and tries to intellectualize the things that have recently happened to him. A strange old man with a death’s-head signet ring also arrives at the posting station. The man intrigues Pierre, but also makes him slightly uncomfortable.
The man with the ring is Osip Alexeevich Bazdeev, a noted Freemason. The Freemasons made up a secret society based around both helping others and celebrating the brotherhood of man. In the early nineteenth century, they also had a political and religious element that was very controversial in some countries. Pierre and Bazdeev have a conversation of great importance to the young man. Although Pierre does not believe in God, Bazdeev inspires him to consider joining the Masons by appealing to Pierre's desire for a higher purpose, and by reinforcing Pierre's shame over his amoral lifestyle in Moscow.
Pierre arrives in St. Petersburg and tells nobody. However, soon after his arrival, a Polish count named Willarski comes to his house with an invitation to join the Masons. Pierre agrees and accompanies the Count to the Mason clubhouse, where one of Pierre’s acquaintances, Smolyaninov, explains to him the tenets of Freemasonry and asks whether they align with Pierre’s views. These tenets involve: keeping the Mason secrets; helping members find wisdom through sharpening their reason and faith; attempting to "oppose the evil that reigns in this world" (357); accepting and loving death; and showing generosity and good morals. These virtues mostly align with Pierre's worldview; although Pierre admits he is an atheist, this doesn’t seem to bother Smolyaninov. As a final part of the induction ritual, Pierre undresses, donates the valuables he has on him to the Masons, and tells Smolyaninov his greatest vice (women). He is accepted into the society.
Pierre is initiated into the Masons through a bizarre and mysterious ritual. Although he sincerely admires many of the Masons’ values, he quickly forgets much of what they say to him about their organization.
Pierre hears that the empress is taking Hélène’s side in his marriage debacle, and that it would be safer for him to leave St. Petersburg. As he is preparing to do this, Prince Vassily visits him and asks him to take Hélène back. Pierre refuses, and departs for his southern estates in what is now the Ukraine.
Anna Pavlovna Scherer holds another salon. Petersburg society has turned against Pierre because of his duel with Dolokhov and his treatment of Hélène. At the salon, the guests discuss politics, and hate Napoleon as much as ever. Boris Drubetskoy, who has elevated himself through networking and hard work, attends the salon, where Hélène is completely charmed by him. She invites him to visit her the following day.
Still at the salon, Prince Ippolit makes a politically incorrect joke about the Austrians and everyone laughs.
During the following weeks, Boris Drubetskoy visits Hélène often.
The battlefront moves closer to the Russian borders. The emperor appoints the elder Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky as a militia commander. Prince Nikolai grants Andrei his own estate, Bogucharovo. Andrei no longer has any interest in the military, but instead enjoys taking care of his sick son despite a lack of training in how to care for an infant. Prince Nikolai sends Andrei a nagging letter, urging him to raise the militia at his estate for the support of the Russian cause. Andrei refuses, unwilling to leave until his child has recovered. He also receives a letter from Bilibin, the contents of which are detailed in the next chapter.
Bilibin’s letter includes complaints about how the Austrian and Russian leadership have conducted the past few battles. Although Andrei is excited by the detailed account, he sees his son recovering and reminds himself that his true commitment is to parenting.
Pierre decides to liberate his peasants and to build institutions like schools and churches for them. His steward tells him this is a bad idea because his estates are in financial trouble as it is, and Pierre, lacking any business acumen or strong willpower, is unable to convince the steward otherwise. In order to keep their master happy, the steward and the managers make a show of helping the peasants, but do nothing to actually decrease their workload.
Pierre visits Prince Andrei at the latter’s estate. They have a heated argument about the nature of good and evil, initiated by Pierre’s discussion of emancipating his peasants. Pierre believes that a good man must actively try to improve society, while Prince Andrei is agnostic about what makes a good man and believes people should follow their own predilections.
On their way to Bald Hills to visit Andrei's family, Pierre and Andrei continue their debate in more civil terms. Although Andrei still disagrees with Pierre’s views, he finds the discussion invigorating to his inner life. He still experiences flashes of longing for war’s excitement and glory.
When Pierre and Andrei arrive at Bald Hills, Princess Marya is hosting the people of God, a group of itinerant religious beggars. The two men gently mock and question two of the beggars, which greatly embarrasses Marya.
The elder Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky arrives. He and Pierre have a friendly argument about war – Prince Nikolai believes that men will always have urges to fight, while the pacifist Pierre thinks that humanity will eventually transcend the need for war. Pierre gets along well with the entire Bolkonsky household.
Nikolai Rostov is relieved to leave society and to return to the Pavlogradsky regiment’s ordered routine. They are in Poland awaiting the start of the next campaign. He feels deeply guilty about his gambling losses, and tries his best to pay his family back. He also cares for a Polish refugee family. Despite his botched proposal to Natasha, Denisov is an even closer friend to Nikolai than he was before. The regiment is impoverished and the men live in vile conditions, surviving on wild plants.
The regiment continues to starve. In desperation, Denisov seizes a food convoy intended for another regiment, and is court-martialed for robbery. However, before he can go to trial, he is wounded in a reconnaissance mission and excuses himself to go to the hospital.
It is June 1807, and Russia calls a truce with the French. Rostov visits Denisov in the hospital and is horrified by the conditions there. Typhus has laid waste to the understaffed facility and it is full of dead and dying soldiers.
At the hospital, Denisov is roommates with Tushin, who has recently lost his arm. Tushin and Nikolai urge Denisov to beg the sovereign’s forgiveness for the robbery, which he is reluctant to do because he doesn’t believe that he committed a crime. However, he eventually relents and gives Nikolai a letter to deliver to the tsar.
Napoleon and Tsar Alexander meet in Tilsit (in Prussia) to negotiate a peace treaty. Boris Drubetskoy comes along.
Nikolai also arrives in Tilsit to deliver Denisov’s petition. When he visits his old friend, he is put off by Boris’s chumminess with his French-raised roommate and by his initially cool reception – Nikolai seems to have arrived at a bad time. Boris agrees to help with the petition, but warns Nikolai that it is unlikely to be successful.
Nikolai impulsively decides to personally deliver Denisov’s petition to the tsar. He is nearly turned away, but manages to get it to Alexander through an old acquaintance. Alexander rejects the petition, but Nikolai is so awed by the sovereign that he does not seem to notice.
Nikolai joins Alexander’s entourage as the tsar arrives to meet Napoleon. As a gesture of peace, Napoleon gives the French Legion of Honor to an especially brave Russian officer, Lazarev. Alexander seems uncomfortable with this recognition because it requires him to reciprocate by giving a Russian honor to a French officer. Nikolai has trouble reconciling the carnage he saw at the hospital with the Russians’ new respect and deference for the French. However, he eventually decides that “if it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him––it means it has to be so” (416).
Pierre’s conversion to Freemasonry provides a pretext for some of the novel’s explicit abstract, philosophical musings. Later in the novel, Tolstoy will break the fourth wall for extended meditations on abstract topics, including historiography at the beginning of Volume III and freedom and determinism (among other topics) in the long epilogue.
Although these later discussions are longer and more clearly separate from the novel’s plot, the length and intellectual depth of Pierre and Andrei’s discussion blurs the distinction between fiction and essay. Indeed, Pierre’s ideas about the brotherhood of man and peasant emancipation resemble some of Tolstoy’s own beliefs, so there’s some substance to the idea that the exchange is something of a Socratic dialogue.
However, though the work takes a turn into more philosophical territory, this is not a break in character for Pierre, who has so far been a spiritual and philosophical soul. He has always faced the conflict between the material and spiritual world, thus far usually choosing to eschew the latter in favor of more animal impulses, like his antics with Anatole or his marriage to Hélène despite lacking passion for her. What distinguishes Pierre here is merely that he is growing up, willing to commit more towards his longing for spiritual happiness over material fulfillment. Pierre is often described as a cipher for Tolstoy himself, and certainly Tolstoy's famed attitude towards his own peasants (and Tolstoy's ambivalence towards his own wealth) support this interpretation. Autobiography is not the point, but rather these connections help to enforce the idea that Pierre is the moral center of the novel. His questions about spirituality - and by default, whether a spirituality needs to be preached to mankind in general or is meant for each individual - help to contextualize the struggles of the other characters in the novel. Pierre continues to struggle with these questions. Consider that he joins the Masons as a somewhat desperate attempt to find meaning in his life, even though he does not subscribe to one of its fundamental beliefs, its Christianity. Likewise, his orders to improve the lives of his peasants fail because he does not have the focus on the material world to make them happen. He is growing, but hardly can be seen as a bastion of perfection.
In many of these ways, Andrei serves as a foil to Pierre, and will continue to do so. He confronts the same conflict: he yearns for the glory of battle, but has realized its moral depravity. Where Pierre attempts to find meaning by turning to the world around him, Andrei wishes to cut himself off, to live within his own private world, unconcerned with the good of anyone else. Essentially, they are both spiritual wanderers, and each attempts to find the same goal (spiritual fulfillment) through different paths. Tracing their attempts provides perhaps the most dominant philosophical and emotional center of the expansive work. In the end, these two emphasize as much as any other character Tolstoy's interest in psychological contradictions and complications. Most of his characters transcend allegory or caricature, but these two in particular are full of difficult elements that are impossible to rectify unless we accept them as full, real human beings.
Tolstoy was very frank about the violence and terror of battle in Volume I. In Volume II, he explores the psychological and physical consequences of war using the same gritty, medical realism. The most potent examples of are the starving soldiers in Denisov’s regiment, so desperate that they knowingly eat poisonous roots, and the revolting, typhus-ridden hospital. Likewise, Denisov's crime is not viewed as a crime because his mind has been so ruined by starvation. To say "war changes people" is a cliche except that it's full of difficult, painful truths, some of which Tolstoy explores here.
However, the repercussions of war are not limited to physical suffering. Through Andrei Bolkonsky’s new disillusionment with war, Tolstoy demonstrates how violence and, in Andrei’s case, a near-death experience can crush a man’s dreams. For Andrei, this change is not entirely negative – his personality softens considerably, and although he is more retiring than before, he is also more considerate and dedicates himself to his child rather than his own glory.
This section highlights contrast. There are stark differences between Andrei’s new personality and his old one; between the awkward, uncertain Pierre and Bazdeev’s confident composure; and between the horror of the hospital and the Pavlogradsky camp in Poland and the opulent ceremonies in Tilsit. The vast scope of the novel allows Tolstoy to portray vastly different characters, from the dregs of the battlefield to the highest reaches of Petersburg society, all the way to the rulers of Russia and France. The contrasts in the story demonstrate the potential for characters (and society) to change over the course of the novel, and the potential for any and every man, from the highest to lowest, to impact history.