The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche
Philosophy and Preaching
Wehe allen Liebenden, die nicht noch eine Höhe haben, welche über ihrem Mitleiden ist!
Woe unto all loving ones who have not an elevation which is above their pity!
- NIETZSCHE, Also sprach Zarathusra (Teil II, "Von den Mitleidigen")
In his book What Is Art? Tolstoy - not, indeed, for the first time, but with all the passion of a man freshly entering the struggle - attacks contemporary society. The book is entitled What Is Art?, but it requires no special perspicacity to perceive that it is not art that is discussed here and that art is of little concern to the author. According to Tolstoy's own statement, he had conceived the plan of this work fifteen years previously but had not been able to finish it because his ideas on this subject were still not completely clear. This statement does not completely correspond to the facts, for fifteen years before Count Tolstoy had published an article under the title "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census of Moscow," in which the fundamental themes of What Is Art? were already expressed. The storm that shook Tolstoy's soul and that tore him away from the Russian intelligentsia and carried him to a new shore, where he learned to speak a language that is bizarre and strange to us, is something that arose long ago. What Is Art? is only the conclusion of a long sermon begun many years before. I say "sermon" because all of Tolstoy's works in recent years, even his literary works, have only one goal - to make the conception of the world that he has forged obligatory for all.
This tendency is already strongly manifested in Anna Karenina. As a motto for this novel Tolstoy took the Biblical verse "Vengeance is mine, and I will recompense, saith the Lord." We are accustomed to understand these words in the sense that the final, decisive judgment over men cannot be pronounced by men and that the success or failure of our earthly life proves neither our innocence nor our guilt. But in Anna Karenina we feel a completely different understanding of the Biblical text. Already in this novel Tolstoy does not restrict himself to describing human life but also undertakes to judge it - and to judge not as a calm and impartial judge who knows neither pity nor anger, but as a man deeply and passionately interested in the outcome of the trial. Every line of this magnificent work is directed against an invisible but definite enemy and defends an equally invisible and definite ally. And the stronger the enemy is, the more cutting and refined is the weapon with which Tolstoy strikes him, the more clever, complex, and inconspicuous is the mine-work with which he attacks him. Oblonsky is easily disposed of by some ironic remarks and by the comic situations in which the author constantly involves his characters. Karenin, of course, is a more serious case, but even against him the battle is not too difficult. But it is different with Vronsky and Koznyshov. These are men of greater caliber. Even if they do not have enough initiative to succeed in creating anything new, they at least have enough energy to further the things they wish and to promote those persons with whom an inner relationship binds them. They support a certain social order; they are the pillars whose solidity guarantees the solidity of the entire structure. And it is upon these representatives of society that Tolstoy throws himself with all the power of his tremendous genius. Not only their activity but their entire being is reduced to nothing. They struggle, they strive, they get excited, but everything is as fruitless and purposeless as the running around of a squirrel in a cage. They serve a senseless idol whose name is Delusion. Listen to how Tolstoy characterizes Vronsky’s moral convictions: "Vronsky’s life was especially happy because it was based on a finished code of rules, and this provided him with sure guiding-principles for what he should do and not do. This code prescribed that one must absolutely pay his gambling debts to a card-sharper but that there is no need to pay one's tailor, that one must not lie to men but that it is permissible to lie to women, that one must not deceive people but may deceive a husband, that one must not pardon insults but is permitted himself to give insults." it is clear that, according to the author, the sources of Vronsky’s moral principles are nothing but empty social prejudices.
The same is true as far as Koznyshov is concerned. His enthusiasm is nothing but following a fashion. His mental work is only shallow brain activity which becomes all the less important as it expresses itself with greater consistency and completeness. The sum of his life is: a completely worthless book, witty conversations in the salons, and participation in the activity of various private and public institutions which are of no use to anyone. Vronsky and Koznyshov are the only figures of importance among the representatives of modem Russian intellectual society, which Tolstoy calls to judgment. With them are associated only another few secondary figures, but of such slight significance that they are incapable of saying anything to the reader.
The most important person, however, among the accused, for whose sake the Biblical verse was obviously set at the beginning of the work, is Anna. It is her whom vengeance awaits, her whom Tolstoy wishes to punish. She has sinned and must accept the punishment.
In all Russian literature, perhaps even in all world literature, there is not to be found another novelist who has shown such a complete lack of pity and such cold-bloodedness in leading his heroine toward the terrible death that awaits her. And it is not enough to call him pitiless and cold-blooded; it was joyously, triumphantly that Tolstoy sacrificed Anna. Her shameful and sorrowful end is for him a sign - and a sign that fills him with hope. After having led Anna to death, he brings Levin to faith in God, and then ends his novel. Had Anna been able to survive her shame, had she retained a consciousness of her human rights, had she died not broken and bowed down but maintaining her innocence and pride, the point of support which permitted Tolstoy to preserve his spiritual equilibrium would have been taken away from him. He found himself before the alternative: Anna or himself, her destruction or his own salvation. And he sacrificed Anna - Anna who had left her lawful husband and gone to Vronsky. Tolstoy knows perfectly well what kind of a husband Karenin is for Anna; he has described better than anyone the terrible situation of this woman - well-endowed, intelligent, delicate, full of life - whom the bonds of marriage had chained to an automaton. But Tolstoy had to regard these bonds as holy and obligatory, for in the very existence of the universally obligatory lay for him the proof of a higher harmony. To the defense of this obligatory he rises with all the power of his literary genius. Anna, having disregarded the "rule," must die a horrible death.
The characters of Anna Karenina are divided into two categories. Some follow the rule or rules and go with Levin toward the good and toward salvation. The others follow their own inclinations, break the rules, and suffer, according to the audacity and deliberateness of their actions, more or less severe punishment. Of one to whom much has been given, much will be demanded. Anna is the one who had received most, and the shame that awaits her is boundless. The others, at least for the time being, suffer less. Had Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, led each of his characters to the end of their lives, it may be assumed that each of them would have been punished in proportion to his infractions of the "rules."
In Anna Karenina the number of rules that Tolstoy regards as obligatory is still relatively quite small. At the time that he conceived this novel, the author gave the "good" only relative power over human life. Even more: he still refuses to think that the service of the good must be the exclusive and conscious goal of our life. In Anna Karenina, as in War and Peace, Tolstoy disavows the possibility of exchanging life for the good; indeed, he believes that such an exchange would be against nature, that it would be false and affected, and that, in the final analysis, it must lead even the best of men to a reaction.
In War and Peace Tolstoy pronounced a harsh judgment over Sonia, the virtuous and warm-hearted young woman with such a deep devotion to the Rostov family. In the epilogue, in which the young families of Nikolay Rostov and Pierre Bezukhov appear on the scene, the life of Pierre and Natasha, of Nikolay and Marya, whom we have seen growing under our eyes, appears rich and full of meaning. Each of them has found the place and task suitable to him, and they continue peacefully the work of their fathers. Their existence seems necessary and credible. In comparison, Sonia alone seems strange, a creature of chance whose presence is embarrassing to all the others as she sits sadly before the samovar, half governess, half beneficiary of the house. Behind Sonia’s back Natasha, her friend from childhood, and Princess Marya (who, though so often before moved by ideas of virtue, had later taken Nikolay away from Sonia) discuss her life and seek through a quotation from the gospel to construct a justification for Sonia’s melancholy lot. Here is their conversation:
I do not think that it is necessary to say that these emphasized words "a barren blossom," and the expression "she lacks egoism" and that is why "everything has already been taken away from her," do not represent only the opinion of Natasha and of Princess Marya who, while understanding quite differently the passage of the gospel, nevertheless agrees with Natasha about Sonia. It is obvious to everyone that the opinion of the two happy women who have not succeeded in the struggle for virtue is also that of the author of War and Peace. Sonia is "a barren blossom." She is charged with lack of egoism, and her boundless devotion and self-sacrifice are entirely ignored. These qualities are not considered valuable by Tolstoy. It is not worthwhile to stake one's life on them. He who possesses only these qualities is not really a man; he only has the appearance of a man. Natasha, who married Pierre several months after the death of Prince Andrey, and Princess Marya, whose "fortune had played a not inconsiderable role in Nicolay’s choice of a bride," are both right, since at the decisive moment they knew how to wrest happiness from life. Sonia, however, is wrong. She is "a barren blossom." Rightly to live means to live like Natasha and Princess Marya. It is permitted, it is even necessary, to ‘strive "to be good," to read the Bible, to be moved at the stories of pilgrims and mendicants. But this is only the poetry of life, not life itself. The healthy instinct must show man the right way. One who allows himself to be so far tempted by the doctrine of duty and virtue that he lets life pass him by and will not, at the right moment, defend his rights is "a barren blossom." Such is the conclusion that Tolstoy drew from his experience at the time that he wrote War and Peace. In this work, where the author draws up the balance of his forty years of life, pure virtue, exclusive devotion to duty, submission to fate, incapacity to stand up for oneself, are directly regarded as blameworthy. He pronounces judgment over Sonia as later over Anna Karenina; the former he condemns for not having dared to violate the rules, the latter for daring to do so.
- - "You know," said Natasha, "you have read the gospel much, and in the gospel there is a passage that precisely fits Sonia."
- "Which?" asked Princess Marya, astonished.
- "You remember: ‘For to him who already has, will be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’ Sonia is one who has not. Why? I do not know. Perhaps she lacks egoism - I do not know. But it will be taken away from her, everything has already been taken away from her. How many times she has made me feel terribly sorry for her; I had once wished so much that she would marry Nikolay, but I always had a kind of presentiment that this would not happen. She is a barren blossom (Tolstoy's italics) such as one finds among strawberry plants."
Even in Anna Karenina Tolstoy's antipathy toward those who feel themselves consecrated to the service of the "good" manifests itself in full measure. How pitiful Varienka appears to us with her poor and her sick, living without complaint with Madame Stahl! And with what disgust Kitty recalls her attempts at the service of the "good" and her meeting with Varienka abroad. She prefers that her husband be an unbeliever - she who believes that his lack of faith will deprive him of happiness in the future life-rather than see him as she herself had been when she was abroad. Finally the real hero of the novel, the author's alter ego (even his name is derived from Tolstoy's: Lev - Levin) declares openly and directly that the conscious service of the good is a useless lie. Here is what the author tells us of him:
And because he had broken with his past, because he had renounced the thought of serving the good, all of Russia, the entire village, he always knew, under all circumstances, what he must do and not do, what is important and what is unimportant. His family must live as his grandfather and his father had lived. The estate must be run in the best possible way, and therefore the workers must be paid as little as possible. One must concern oneself with the affairs of his brother and sister and of all the peasants who come to him for advice, but must not pardon a worker who returns to his house during harvest time because his father has died, even though one must sympathize with him. Levin was tormented that he did not know for what or how he should live. Nevertheless, he firmly followed his own definite way in life and finally convinced himself that, even though he was not seeking the good but his own happiness, his life - despite this, or much more precisely, because of this - not only was not void of meaning, as it had been formerly, but had the indubitable sense of the good.
- Formerly (this had begun already in his childhood and had continued up to ripe manhood) when he had tried to do something for the good of all, for mankind, for Russia, for the entire village, he had noticed that the thought of it was pleasant to him. The act itself, however, did not have much sense and led to nothing. Since his marriage, however, since he had restricted himself more and more to his personal life, even though he no longer experienced any joy in the thought of his activity, he was sure that what he did was necessary. He saw how much better his activity succeeded than before and how much it grew out of itself. And now, almost against his will, he sunk himself more and more into the earth, like a plow, and he could no longer leave it without lifting the clod.