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


     After all, this means cannot even pretend to novelty. It has long been known that work, not only physical work but also every other kind, distracts us from thinking. It is equally certain that one can, through indignation, temporarily repress every kind of spiritual doubt. It is not only in our time and at Nietzsche that people are indignant; some decades ago men were indignant at Heine because of his "godlessness." Their reaction would have been understandable if they had attacked the poems of Heine’s youth, in which one could still see the levity of a man who did not know why religions really exist. But people, especially the Germans, were not willing to forgive Heine precisely for his later works, his Matratzengruft. It must be clear to everyone that unbelief cannot come from a "bad will" when it is a question of a paralytic, chained to his bed, with no hope of cure. For such a man faith is what he needs more than anything else in the world; the ordinary "temptations" that lead men to atheism do not exist for him. If there occurs in Heine up to the last moment of his life a movement toward and away from faith, if in him resignation is ever again displaced by protest, emotion by mockery, this is not for us an occasion for indignation - especially not when we firmly believe ourselves in possession of the truth. Quite the contrary. From the genuinely religious, higher point of view, the state of Heine’s mind is particularly instructive, and precisely when he utters his blasphemous sarcasms. His epilogue to Romanzero, which so violently angers the German historians of literature, is especially valuable to us because of its complete frankness, for this, when it is a question of God, is man's first and most pressing duty. Heine says: Wenn man nun einen Gott begehrt, der zu helfen vermag - und das ist doch die Hauptsache -, so muss man auch seine Persönlichkeit, seine Ausserweltlichkeit und seine heiligen Attribute, die Allgüte, die Allweisheit, die Allgerechtigkeit, u. s. w., annehmen. (If one desires a God who can come to one's aid, and this is of course the chief thing, one must also accept His personality, His existence outside the world, and His holy attributes - perfect goodness, perfect wisdom, perfect justice, etc.)

     From the standpoint so loudly represented by Tolstoy such words, even such thoughts, are not permissible. They contain precisely that about which one must be silent. But Heine speaks of it even on the eve of his death in verse and in prose. Reflecting on the life to come, he wrote:
Auf Wolken sitzend, Psalmen singend
War auch nicht lust mein Zeitvertreib.

(Sitting on clouds, singing psalms
Would not be exactly my pastime.)
And here again are some words that arose in the midst of the continuous torture of his sickness, when death was his only hope:
O Gott, verkurze meine Qual,
Damit man mich bald begrabe;
Du weisst ja, dass ich kein Talent
Zum Märtyrtume habe.
Ob deiner Inkonsequenz, o Gott,
Erlaube, dass ich staune,
Du schufest den frohlichsten Dichter, und raubst
Ihm jetzt seine gute Laune.
Der Schmerz verdumpft den heitern Sinn
Und macht mich melancholisch.
Nimmt nicht der traurige Spass em End’,
So werd’ ich am Ende katholisch.
Ich heule dir dann die Ohren voll,
Wie andre gute Christen -
O Miserere! Verloren geht
Der beste der Humoristen.

O God, shorten my suffering
That I may soon be buried.
You know well that I have no talent
For martyrdom.
At your inconsistency, 0 God,
Permit that I be astonished;
You created the gayest of poets,
And now rob him of his good humor.
Pain dulls the serene mood
And makes me melancholy.
If the sad joke does not come to an end,
I might end by becoming a Catholic.
I will then fill your ears with wailing
Like other good Christians -
O Miserere! Lost
Is the best of humorists.
     I quote these short fragments from Heine’s last period of creativity only to illustrate the character of the religious consciousness of our time. Tolstoy, as becomes a preacher, represents this consciousness as something absolute, which can be accepted or rejected according to one's wish. But, as we have seen from the confessions of Heine and Nietzsche, it has nothing to do with the will.

     Zarathustra says to his disciples: "You have not sought yourselves: here did you find me. So do all believers: therefore all belief is of so little account. Now do I bid you lose me and find yourselves, and only when you have all denied me, will I return to you." ["The Bestowing Virtue."] Denial is for Nietzsche the only, the unavoidable means of finding again the teacher and the doctrine. And this denial is the source of modern poetry, of modern art. It is here that The Divine Comedy, which Tolstoy did not believe it possible to include in the short list of permitted books, had its birth. When Dante reached the middle of his life he lost his way in a dark forest and sought to come out of it. He walked through the terrible gate whose inscription has made all who have read it in Dante's language shudder: Lasciate ogni speranza vol ch'entrate (Abandon all hope, you who enter here). One can say of Shakespeare the same thing as of Dante. his best creativity also (that of his second period) arose out of the need to reject the old doctrines in order to reconquer them again by his own powers. In the words of Zarathustra quoted above, a stage of development is formulated which has become for modern man unavoidable. It is no longer given us to find without having sought. More is demanded of us. We must renounce, as Tolstoy in his time renounced. We must understand all the horror of the situation of which Nietzsche speaks with the words of a madman, which is hidden behind Heine’s humor, which Dante experienced after having passed through that door, which gave birth to the tragedies of Shakespeare and to the novels and preaching of Tolstoy. In earlier, distant times only a very few knew of such fateful enigmas of life; the others received their faith free of charge. Our times are different in this respect. The religious consciousness is also obtained in different ways. Where formerly preaching, threats, moral authority sufficed, more is now demanded. Not of all, obviously; the majority, even among "educated" men, still accepts the existence of religion with a kind of dull astonishment. And therefore art, whose task it is to satisfy the higher demands of the human spirit, can also not be accessible to all. Some enjoy the "poisoned conscience" or "The Robber Murderer Tschurkin" and find their satisfaction in works of this kind, while others turn to Dante, to Goethe, to Shakespeare, to the Greek tragedies, seeking in these the solution of the questions that torment them. Tolstoy says that "the art of the upper classes has separated itself from the entire people's art and thus two kinds of art have come into existence, popular art and cultivated art." That is not so. This is a purely external division, based upon highly unimportant signs. There are many works in the realm of cultivated art that would be accessible to any peasant, if only the language and the environment where the action takes place were not strange to him, while Macbeth, King Lear, Prometheus are boring to many educated people who only go to presentations of classical plays because of their supposed educational value or something else of the sort. In reality, one who admires the "poisoned conscience" and finds Shakespeare boring would act more wisely if he followed his taste. His time has still not come, and he should be allowed to enjoy what pleases him. Tolstoy himself, in "The Death of Ivan Ilych," that work which so mysteriously broke through the ostensible harmony of his religious sentiments, has told us that even at the time when he had completely worked out his plan to save mankind through work and subjection to rules, doubts shook his soul no less than they did the souls of Heine and of Nietzsche, and that "our" problems were at that time also his.

     Here is how he portrays the last moments of Ivan Ilych: "He understood that he was lost, that there was no return, that the end, the final end had come... Those three whole days, during which he had no consciousness of time, he writhed in that black sack into which the invisible, insurmountable force had pushed him. He struggled like a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot be saved and that each moment, despite all his struggles, he is coming closer and closer to what so terrified him. He felt that his torture came from the fact that he was sunk in a black hole but, even more, that he could not pass through this hole." These words contain the fundamental theme of the story. Listen to them carefully. What expressions did Tolstoy choose? "Lost," "the end," "the final end," "the black sack," etc. Do they not recall the mood of Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse?

     It is true that we find in Tolstoy at the end of the story a kind of answer to the question. Ivan Ilych was prevented from getting through the hole by his conviction that his life had been good. This justification of his own life held him back and did not let him escape. It was this more than anything else that tormented him. But the entire first half of the story explains to us why Ivan Ilych's life had not been good. He had taken too good care of himself, he had observed too much the amenities of conventional life, he had attached too much importance to common goods, and it was only now, when tragedy approached, that he felt for the first time that he had forfeited the best in life. But this was all the more terrible! What good now his clear-sightedness, when all his accounts with life were ended? What advantage to him in the fact that something began "to shine" at the bottom of the pit into which he had fallen, in the fact that "he suddenly recognized the true direction"? What answer is there to this question? - "To protect them (those around him) and himself from suffering!" And is that all? The last words of Ivan Ilych, when he heard someone say "It is ended," were, "Death is ended. It no longer exists."

     What does this mean? "That there was no longer any horror of death because there was no longer any death. Instead of death there was light." How does Tolstoy explain in his inward soul this terrible tragedy of an innocent man? His answer is the preachment, "Love your neighbor and work." But no one asks this of him. He himself does not ask it of himself. After we have read "Ivan Ilych" we are not at all interested in knowing how to save ourselves from his terrible fate. On the contrary, with Belinsky we demand that account be taken of every victim of history and of circumstances, and not only do we not wish to climb to the highest rung of the ladder of culture but are, on the contrary, ready to throw ourselves down head first if no answer is given us with regard to Ivan Ilych.

     "The Death of Ivan Ilych," as an artistic creation, is one of the most precious gems of Tolstoy's work. It is a question mark so black and strong that it shines through the layers of the new and radiant colors of that preaching by which Tolstoy wished to make us forget his former doubts. No preaching can help him. We shall continue to ask, as Tolstoy has asked up till now; in vain did he renounce his past, emphasize so much the word "guilty," and threaten us with excommunication by morality, which means, in his terminology, by God. We know that it is not so, that there can be guilt against morality but not against God, because morality is created by men but God is not.

     Here is a momentous passage of the conversation between Zarathustra and the old pope who remained "after the death of God" without employment. The old pope relates the death of God in these terms:
     "Whoever praises Him as a God of love does not think highly enough of love itself. Did not this God wish also to be a judge? But one who loves loves regardless of reward and recompense.
     "When he was young, that God out of the Orient, He was harsh and vengeful and built Himself a hell for the amusement of His favorites. <
     "At last, however, He became old and soft and mellow and pitiful, more like a grandfather than a father, but most like a tottering old grandmother.
     "There He sat, shriveled, in His chimney corner, fretting because of His weak legs, world-weary, will-weary, and one day He choked on His all too great pity."
     Here Zarathustra interrupts him: "You, old pope, have you seen this with your own eyes? It could have happened thus, thus and also otherwise. When gods die, they always die many kinds of death.
     "Well! At all events, one way or the other, He is gone. He was contrary to the taste of my ears and eyes. Worse than that I should not like to say against Him.
     "I love everything that looks bright and speaks honestly, but He - you know it, indeed, you old priest, there was something of your type in him, the priest type - He was equivocal.
     "He was also indistinct. How He raged at us, this wrathsnorter, because we understood Him badly! But why did He not speak more clearly?
     "And if the fault lay in our ears, why did He give us ears that heard Him badly? If there was mud in our ears, well! who put it there?
     "Far too much did not succeed with Him, with this potter who had not learned his craft thoroughly. But that He took revenge on his pots and creations because they turned out badly - this was a sin against good taste. There is also good taste in piety: this at last said, ‘Away with such a God! Better to have no God, better to set up destiny on one's own account, better to be a fool, better to be God oneself.’ "
     ["Out of Service," Thus Spake Zarathustra]
     Let not the reader take offense at these words. It is a question here of that God who is identical with the "good" and who serves the preacher as a screen behind which he hides himself from his disciples. Let us hear how the pope answers Zarathustra: "‘O Zarathustra, with such unbelief, you are more pious than you believe. Some God in you has converted you to your ungodliness. Is it not your piety itself that no longer lets you believe in God?’" [Ibid.]

     So that the reader may more clearly realize how Nietzsche understood this God whom he had to kill, I shall quote one of his last aphorisms, where he defines the moral order of the world: "What does ‘the moral order of the world’ mean? That there exists once and for all a will of God concerning what man must do and what he must not do; that the value of a people or of an individual is measured by how much or how little the will of God is obeyed." [The Antichrist, 26]

     This is the view that Tolstoy recommends to his disciples. Tolstoy wishes that his disciples accept a law of which they do not know what purpose it serves, that men like Ivan Ilych should renounce the common goods, which are the most precious things in the world to them, before life teaches them that it is not the degree of pleasantness which must measure the value of human existence. He threatens them with the whole arsenal of punishments created by traditional morality; he wishes to shame them, frighten them, terrify them, in order to force them to observance of the rule, i.e., to force them to do what at the moment they do not need, what is strange to them but what they will later recognize as good.

     Tolstoy himself did not live thus. He always did what appeared necessary to him at the moment. Now it is the moral life and preaching that he needs above all else; these protect him from painful dreams. But others have other dreams and do not need Tolstoy's tutelage at all. In that case, by what right does he call his morality God and thereby bar the way to those who really seek God? Zarathustra’s conversation with the pope already shows us how little the God who is the good could satisfy Nietzsche and how the image of a "judging God" made him recoil before the customary religious conceptions. In this there is nothing surprising: Tolstoy always had the possibility of "improving" himself. He could, at the age of fifty, dress like a peasant, plow, and occupy himself with good works. But what would he have done if he had suddenly found himself in Nietzsche's situation, in which an "improvement," a return, is impossible, in which there is no future but only the past? What could the formula, "the good is God," have meant to him in this situation? Tolstoy experienced this himself; he wrote "The Death of Ivan Ilych." This question, we repeat, for those who do not close their eyes, shows through all the eloquent and pathetic phrases of his preaching. But Tolstoy does not wish to speak of it openly. Let us, then, listen to Nietzsche; he will tell us all that Ivan Ilych would have told us if he had been destined to remain for fifteen years in the state in which he found himself at the moment when he understood that "all was lost," that the "end, the final end," had come.

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