The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching


     In section seven of this essay the reader will find these lines from a private letter of Belinsky’s: "Even if I were able to arrive at the highest degree on the ladder of culture I should not cease to demand of you account for all the victims of the conditions of life and of history, for all the victims of chance, superstition, the inquisition of Philip II, etc.; else I would throw myself head first down the ladder. I do not wish to have happiness for nothing, so long as I am not set at rest about each of those who are my brothers in blood. Disharmony, it is said, is a condition of harmony; it may be that this is very beneficial and amusing for melomaniacs, but not at all for those who are compelled by their fate to incarnate the idea of disharmony." I quote these lines not at all in order to draw upon an authority for the confirmation of my own ideas. Quite the contrary: I realize very well that the authority of the critic Belinsky is not for but against me. To find support for myself in him I had to have recourse to his private correspondence, not his literary works.

     But even this may seem strange, especially since this passage from Belinsky’s letter has often been quoted in Russian literature by writers of the most varied tendencies. What secret, then, lies in these words, that they are equally used by men of opposite outlooks? Is their content perhaps so general and so indeterminate that it is open to the most manifold interpretations? To my mind, no. I doubt that in all of Belinsky’s writings one could find any passage where he succeeded in expressing himself with more clarity and precision. Nevertheless, despite the clear meaning of the simple and not at all obscure words, different interpretations of this letter have been possible. No one who has quoted it has observed that the ideas it expresses stand in sharpest contradiction to everything that Belinsky said in his critical works. This letter has been interpreted in the same sense as his passionate literary preaching and his letter to Gogol. In it, as in everything that came from Belinsky’s pen, people wished to see only the great idealist raising his powerful voice in defense of humanitarianism, of mankind, of the good. He rejects all philosophy, he rejects Hegel, because they expect him to content himself with the perfection of one Peter as compensation for the destruction of hundreds of Ivans!

     In this rejecting attitude people saw only the unique expression of a just and humane soul. That is why they overlooked, indeed, did not even once notice, the paradoxical, plainly and shockingly absurd form in which Belinsky clothed his thoughts. In fact, what compensation should Hegel be able to give Belinsky for every victim of history, for every victim of Philip II? Philip II burned hosts of heretics at the stake; but what kind of absurdity is it to demand accounting for it today? These victims were burned long ago; no restoration is possible; the matter is forever ended. No Hegel can do anything here; to demand accounting for these creatures tortured to death and prematurely perished, to become angry because of them, to appeal to the whole world—is obviously too late. It remains only either to turn one's back on these sad stories or, if one wishes absolutely that all the essential elements of which the life of man consists be forced into a theory constructed ad hoc, to invent something of the nature of universal harmony, i.e., a mutual responsibility of mankind, and to credit Ivan with Peter's assets, or generally to forego making any balance sheet of the life of individual persons and, once for all denoting the single person as individuum, to proclaim that the supreme end lies in some general principle to which individuals must be sacrificed.

     Indeed, it is here that pathos must end and philosophy begin—the genuine, all-embracing philosophy which clearly and distinctly explains why Philip II and world history have tortured and still torture men. And if there still remain some problems, they would be such as touch on the questions of the theory of knowledge, time and space, the principle of causality, and similar things. But these are questions which, as is known, possess no urgency. As long as no true explanations have been found for them, it is possible to be content with hypotheses. Like philosophy in general, these questions have arisen, if we are to believe Aristotle, dia to thaumadzein, out of wonder. Now the thirst for knowledge arising out of "wonder" does not have to be unconditionally satisfied through "truth"; on the contrary, it does not really need it at all. If truth were suddenly to be found, it would be a most disagreeable surprise. At least so Lessing declared (and he knew what he was saying) when he asked God to keep truth for himself but to leave men the gift of seeking and erring. But it appears that Belinsky, though he remained the eternal disciple of European teachers, thought and spoke in a different way when he was alone with himself or in conversations with his friends. The mere search and struggle did not suffice for him; he demanded the complete and full truth and protested passionately against the tradition of his masters.

     This was a dangerous protest. It endangered above all Belinsky’s very idealism. For in what do the nature and the psychological foundation of idealism consist? Clearly in the belief that doubt, problems, and inquiry are only a question of time. In itself everything is decided and perfectly luminous. One has only to find time and grow intellectually to make completely clear to himself what others already knew long ago. That is why every young culture that develops in the neighborhood of an already ripened civilization is always the best soil for idealism. Even in families, the younger members are usually idealists who take their "convictions" on trust and faith from the older ones who know more, have more experience, are more skillful and perfect. To the child every word of a grownup seems full of mysterious significance. The more incomprehensible and inaccessible this word is, the more the young mind is led to recognize in it the power and superiority of the grownup. Young Russia has long stood in just this relationship to the West. Every word that came from there seemed to be holy. This explains the idealistic direction of our literature in general and Belinsky’s direction in particular. The older West was undoubtedly cleverer, richer, more beautiful than we, and we believed that all this was based on its knowledge, its experience. We believed that it possessed a "word," a key for the solution of all questions. And we sought this word in Western science, which we had already long worshiped before we took it over. What a terrible disappointment it must be for such an idealist when, at a closer and more thorough examination of his sacred object, he discovers that it contains not the "truth" but only the "search for the truth."

     This disappointment is the meaning that lies behind the lines quoted from Belinsky’s letter. It explains the strange, unfulfillable demands that Belinsky directed to Hegel. If Hegel had read this letter, he would have called Belinsky a wild man. To ask of philosophy that it give account of every victim of history! Is this a concern of philosophy? And finally, can one, may one, should one appear with such demands generally? To be sure, Hegel declared that what is real is rational. But how can Hegel be held responsible for the fact that Belinsky interprets these words in the sense that the "triumph of truth" on earth is guaranteed? They are not meant so. Hegel was himself an idealist. The Germans, just like the Russians, had their West and learned also to believe in ideas. Only they were more thorough, more reliable in their belief—this is a matter of character and national peculiarity—, wherefore they approached their sacred object on bended knee without demanding anything of it. "What is real is rational" means for Hegel only that science ought to rule over everything and that therefore life must at any cost be represented as if it thoroughly conformed to the demands of reason. Even if this does not prove at all true, the idealist is not troubled by it; the main thing is that this truth be continually taught from the pulpit and in books. The German idealists understood their teachers excellently. In the arts, in the sciences (even in the social and historical sciences), reality was worked up in such a way that it always rendered testimony to the glory of human reason, which in Germany to this day is proud of its a priori. In this remarkable country idealism triumphed and still triumphs ever again.

     But Belinsky suddenly appears and demands of the whole world account for every victim of history! For every one: think of it! He is not willing to give up for all the harmonies of the world one person, not one single ordinary, average, simple person of all the millions that are considered by the historians and philosophers as the cannon-fodder of progress. This attitude of Belinsky’s is neither humanitarianism nor idealism, but something else. The German historians and philosophers are also human; once the matter of progress is set in order, they also are glad to concern themselves with the victims of history; but this is all, according to their view, that is to be demanded and can be demanded of humanitarianism. One can perhaps still require promises for the future; science, as is known, promises that the future will ask for no more victims, that some day that senseless forward movement of history by which the success of a single man must be purchased through hecatombs of others will cease. But this is all that science has as consolation for the victims. For the future, unconditional happiness is promised to all men. Belinsky knows this very well. He tells it, and very convincingly, in his many journalistic articles; but when he is alone with himself, he is angry at his own "pathos." He is unwilling to sacrifice present, living creatures for those who will come after hundreds or thousands of years; indeed, he even recalls the men who were tortured in the distant past and demands accounting for them. That this is not simple humanitarianism is, I hope, quite clear. Humanitarianism ought to calm and assuage, ought to reconcile men through active deeds in behalf of their neighbors. In short, humanitarianism gives answers, but Belinsky asks and asks in such a way that his questions can confuse even a firmly convinced idealist.

     But one who believes that it is necessary to ask thus must be almost certain of not being able to find any answer, or he must be prepared to obtain the answer from realms that idealism dreads more than the most fearful deserts. The customary formula of idealism can here receive a reverse meaning. "What is real is rational" must under certain circumstances be interpreted as meaning that this reality is not to be decked out and dressed up to the point that it finally corresponds to the laws of reason. Rather reason must derive its laws a posteriori from reality and not insist on its a priori as until now. What conclusion is to be drawn from this? Perhaps the following: if no humanitarianism is to be found in this reality or, in other words, if no accounting can be demanded for the victims of Philip II, then nothing will remain for reason other than to renounce its high-minded principle and find a new law. And finally, if reality is rational and therefore one cannot renounce or deny it but is compelled rather to accept and revere it, does one not then arrive at quietism, that terrible condition that up until now has frightened back the boldest people before many similar theories?

     All this the "raving Vissarion" does not tell his readers. All this is guarded as a strictest secret in the laboratory of the writer's soul. In his writings, however, his frenzy is quickly transformed into a bold, living, and luminous faith, into faith in the future, a better future that science will one day bring with it. Doubts are left at home and there forgotten at the card table. The public does not need to know of them. It also does not need to know that the master writes his articles at a stroke, almost in a condition of drunkenness. In general, it is not necessary that the public know too much. It needs ideals, and whoever wishes to serve it must furnish it with ideals at any cost. An old story! The writer is like a wounded tigress that rushes to her young in her lair. The arrow is in her back, but she must nurse with her milk the helpless creatures who know nothing of her mortal wound. Belinsky also carries such a wound; testimony to it are his frenzy, his letter which we have quoted, his search for oblivion in card-playing. Nevertheless, this wounded man stands at his post unrelieved to the end of his life and carries out his service.

     Russia had serfdom not only in the civic state but also in the hearts of men; Russia had many other things of this kind. Russia needed a publicist, a fighter. Belinsky had no time to leave his post, was not permitted to think of the arrow in his wound. And he himself was always ready to fight against those who did not come actively to his aid.

     Considering this, I have also said that the authority of the publicist Belinsky is not for but against me. But everything has its time. Perhaps at the present moment Belinsky’s tactic would be just as inappropriate as it was justified and necessary in his time. Perhaps silence concerning that about which be was silent would not now be a heroic deed but a crime. Though we still do not know to this day whether the tree of knowledge is also the tree of life, for us there is no longer any choice. We have tasted the fruits of knowledge and must, whether we wish it or not, lift the veil of the mystery that Belinsky held so carefully hidden and speak openly of that about which he spoke only with his most intimate friends.


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