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


     Whence did this "sense of the good" suddenly come? Why did this good come to Levin to bless him and not to the other characters of the novel? Why did Anna perish - and rightly? Why did Vronsky come to ruin, why did Koznyshov lead an illusory existence, while Levin not only enjoyed all the goods of life but also acquired the right to deep spiritual peace - a privilege accorded only to very few and extraordinary men? Why did fate so unjustly deal mildly with Levin and so cruelly with Anna? For another writer - a naturalist, for example - all these questions would be inappropriate. For such a man the injustice of fate is the fundamental principle of human existence, a law deriving so clearly from natural evolution that there is no occasion to be surprised by it. But such a writer does not quote the gospel and does not speak of retribution. With Tolstoy, however, his entire novel is born out of these questions. In Anna Karenina he does not simply describe life, he interrogates it, demands answers of it. His literary creativity awoke at the need to find a solution for the problems that tormented him.

     This is why all his works, the long as well as the short, War and Peace as well as "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and his journalistic articles, always have the character of complete settledness. Tolstoy always presents himself to the public with finished answers, and these answers are given in a form so precise that they satisfy the most demanding of men. Obviously this is not and cannot be a matter of chance. In it lies the fundamental point of all of Tolstoy's creativity. All the tremendous inner travail that was necessary to create Anna Karenina and War and Peace had been provoked by the need, carried to the furthest extreme, of understanding himself and the world surrounding him, of ridding himself of all the doubts that tormented him, and of finding - at least for a time - stable ground under his feet. These needs are too serious and too persistent for one to be able to hide behind a simple painting of images of immediately perceived reality or the setting down of one's reminiscences. Something else is necessary. One's right to live must be found. It is necessary to find a power greater than human which can sustain and defend this right. Personal tastes, sympathies, enthusiasms, passions - all these elements, into which realist writers are accustomed to divide human life - guarantee nothing and cannot satisfy a Tolstoy. He seeks a strong and omnipotent ally, in order to speak in its name of his right. All the power of Tolstoy's genius is applied to finding this ally and drawing it to himself. In this undertaking Tolstoy is merciless. There is nothing that he is not willing to destroy in order to arrive at his goal. There are no limits to the tension of his soul when this interest that is most sacred to him is involved.

     Tolstoy does not wish and is not able to lie, to pretend, to invent facts. He writes not for others but for himself. He does not add to Levin any qualities that do not belong to him; he portrays him frankly and honestly, with all his defects and ridiculous sides.

     "Levin," Tolstoy tells us, "is an exceedingly jealous, egotistical, clumsy man; he shirks all involvement in public activity; he is uncultivated; and yet the good is with him, the good is his life's final meaning." Levin was not only able to arrange his life according to his own needs and desires but also instinctively to recognize where he had to go and how he had to act in order that the good be on his side. And the "good" is precisely the power which made Levin a giant in comparison with other men. For there is nothing that is stronger than the good.

     At the time Anna Karenina appeared, one would have been able to convince Tolstoy of anything whatsoever rather than make him admit that the good was not on Levin's side. Even more: in the same measure as the good is on Levin's side it is against all those who think, feel, and live otherwise than he; it is against Koznyshov, Vronsky, Anna; and it avenges itself on them, even if for a time they celebrate their triumph over Levin. Levin sank himself deep in the earth Like a plow. The power that Tolstoy needed he found in him alone. Varienka, Sonia, all the virtuous characters - these do not serve the real good, for they do not live like Levin, and Tolstoy therefore puts them on the same plane as Vronsky and Anna. Life, it is true, holds for them neither tragedy nor catastrophe, but their insipid existence is worse than any misfortune. Tolstoy feels no pity for any of his victims. One nowhere hears in him the soft notes of sympathy to be found in the works of Dickens, Turgenev, and even realists like Zola and Bourget, who never allow an occasion for emphasizing their human feelings to pass.

     It must surely seem strange to Tolstoy that many of his readers reproach him for his coldness, insensitivity, and hardness. To bring Anna under the wheels of the train without uttering a single sigh! To follow the agony of Ivan Ilych without shedding a single tear! To many readers this attitude appears so incomprehensible and revolting that they are even inclined to deny Tolstoy's genius. To call Tolstoy a genius seems to them to offend morality, whose first demand is that one have compassion for his neighbor. These people strive to reduce Tolstoy to the level of second-class writers, whom one cannot seriously compare to Dickens and Turgenev; and they think, by this means, to defend their sacred rights to compassion. In their opinion, it is impossible for anyone to be a great writer who does not show enough compassion for the sufferings of his neighbor. And, from their point of view, these readers are only too right: they wish to feel compassion, for compassion is all that they can give those afflicted by fate. In giving their pity to the suffering, in shedding tears over the unfortunate, they appease their eternally restless conscience. "We cannot raise up one who has fallen, but we can weep over him; this is always a certain relief," they say. But who will be relieved? They do not answer this question; they do not even raise it; they do not dare raise it. it is understandable that Tolstoy, who manifests no humane feelings, frightens such people; and it is understandable that they flee to King Lear of the Steppes,[Turgenev] to the stories of Dickens, even to Zola's Lourdes. In these, at least, the dread provoked by the pictures of misfortune ends by giving place to noble sentiments of pity that the authors suggest to their readers. Even Zola, the Zola whom Tolstoy likes so little, knows how to move the reader in all his works by his capacity for compassion for his heroes.

     In Count Tolstoy there is no trace of such soft-heartedness. The Russian public learned with fright of the new West European doctrine of Nietzsche, who preached pitiless hardness toward the weak and the unfortunate. "What is tottering must be pushed further." "For the incurable one must not wish to be a doctor." [Nietzsche, Werke (Leipzig, A.Kröner Verlag), VI, 385, 302] We believed that no one before Nietzsche had ever preached such moral principles or their like. We were even persuaded that morality, trampled down in the West, must find a sure refuge among us in Russia. We believed we could oppose to Nietzsche our giant, "the great writer of the Russian land" - Count Tolstoy. Even those readers of whom we spoke above, those who instinctively fled from Tolstoy to Turgenev, saw in the author of War and Peace their natural and powerful protector against the storm which threatened from the West. And indeed, Tolstoy has entered into combat against Nietzsche and his followers with the freshness, conviction, and passion of a young man.

     In What Is Art? it is not basically a question, as we have already indicated, of art, or of the French poets, or of Wagner s operas, though these are much spoken of. More serious and more important problems than that of art are raised here. Morality and religion are here in question, and Tolstoy attacks a writer more significant and profound than Baudelaire or Verlaine - namely, Nietzsche. To be sure, Tolstoy rarely mentions Nietzsche's name and never quotes him. But he makes Nietzsche responsible for the new tendencies in literature. "The result of such a false attitude toward art," he tells us, "has been manifested for a long time in our society but, in recent times, thanks to its prophet Nietzsche and his disciples, as well as the décadents and the British aesthetes related to them, this attitude has stepped forward with particular shamelessness. The décadents and aesthetes of the type of Oscar Wilde deliberately chose the rejection of morality and the praise of debauchery as the theme of their works."

     It is regrettable that Tolstoy who makes Nietzsche responsible for all the sins of the younger generation, has not said a word about Nietzsche's philosophic doctrine. It even appears that the Russian novelist knew Nietzsche only at second hand, only from hearsay. What makes this clear, among other things, is his setting of Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde side by side. Had Tolstoy read Nietzsche's works, he would not have twice associated his name with Oscar Wilde’s. Had Tolstoy read Nietzsche, he would not have spoken of "shamelessness." One can accept or reject Nietzsche's doctrine, one can welcome his morality or fight against it, but if one knows what his fate was, if one knows by what ways he arrived at his doctrine, at what price he had to purchase his "new word," indignation toward him is no longer possible. Nietzsche had a sacred right to say what he dared to say. Certainly one must not use the word "sacred" in vain. I know that it is liberally abused by men to give their ideas more weight and conviction. But, as far as Nietzsche is concerned, I cannot find another word. He bears the crown of martyrdom. Everything that generally adorns human life was taken away from him. Rarely has a man received as his lot a burden as heavy as that he was forced to bear.

     In Thus Spake Zarathustra appears the story of the three metamorphoses that a man must undergo in the course of his life. At first, Nietzsche says, a man changes into a camel:
     What is heavy? asks the load-bearing spirit, and it kneels down like the camel and wishes to be well laden.
     What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? asks the load-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon myself and rejoice in my strength.
     Is it not this: to humiliate oneself in order to mortify one's pride? to exhibit one's folly in order to mock at one's wisdom?
     Or is it this: to feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge, and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of soul?
     Or is it this: to be sick and dismiss comforters, and make friends of the deaf who never hear your requests? Or is it this: to go into foul water when it is the water of truth, and not disclaim cold frogs and hot toads?
     Or is it this: to love those who despise us, and give one's hand to the phantom when it is going to frighten us?
     All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit takes upon itself; and, like the camel which, when laden, hastens into the wilderness, so hastens the spirit into its wilderness.
     [Thus Spake Zarathustra, "The Three Metamorphoses"]
     These images are the brief story of the long and sorrowful life of a martyr. Let not the reader imagine that there is here the least shadow of exaggeration. Quite the contrary: the chief, the most terrible, thing is perhaps not found here. In reading these lines one might think that Nietzsche, the load-bearing spirit, willingly accepted torture, willingly bowed his knees and deliberately took upon himself a load which surpasses human powers. In practicing such a martyrdom consciously and willingly, no matter how hard it may be in itself, there is at least one consolation - pride. The man knows that he has aimed at a great thing. But as far as Nietzsche is concerned, there is nothing of this. Misfortune seized him suddenly, unexpectedly, precisely at the moment when he might perhaps have hoped for a reward for his past life. When the bolt struck him, the sky above him was transparent and serene. He did not suspect danger from any side; he was confident and calm as a child. He served the "good," led the pure and upright life of a German professor, sought ideals in the Greek philosophers and in modern musicians, studied Schopenhauer, was Wagner's friend. For the sake of all these things, which then appeared to him most important and most necessary, he renounced real life. Later he once said: "Who has not, at one time or another, sacrificed himself for the sake of his good name?" and "It is for one's virtues that one is punished best." [Beyond Good and Evil, 92, 132]

     But at the time that he renounced life for the sake of these virtues and of his fame, in order to create new theories in the silence of his study (it was thus that he then conceived "the service of the good"), he did not know, did not even suspect, how incredibly dearly he would have to pay for his conscientiousness. Had he been able to imagine, even if only for a moment, what the future held for him, he would perhaps have hesitated much before choosing his way. But who can foresee his fate? And who, in his youth, does not trust his teachers and his ideals? Nietzsche had only believed more fervently, boundlessly, and uncompromisingly in the infallibility of his principles than did others. He choked in himself all the instincts, all the natural desires which generally know how to obtain the upper hand even in the most virtuous of souls. Nietzsche did not know the middle way. He learned and taught everything that appeared to him important, necessary and serious, and thereby forgot life. Even at the appearance of the first fateful signs of his illness, Nietzsche did not become at all disturbed. He quickly availed himself of drugs of all kinds in order not to have to follow a complicated medical treatment and thus be hampered in his work. He continued his labors as a philosopher and professor until sickness completely prostrated him. It was only then that he understood that virtue could not protect him from everything. But it was already too late. The past could not be undone. It was impossible to turn over the stone called "it was"; one thing only remained: to seek in the past a justification for the horror of the present. To understand what this "present" was, it suffices to know that for Nietzsche there was no other relief than thoughts of suicide. Three-quarters blind, harassed constantly by horrible seizures, condemned by a pitiless sickness to absolute solitude, always a hair's-breadth from death and madness - so Nietzsche lived the fifteen years in the course of which he wrote his chief works. Life was a burden to him and he hoped for a quick end to his suffering. But the end did not come so quickly. Fifteen years is far too much, even in the case of a less terrible sickness. He who suffered so much and was guilty only of the single fault of having had too much confidence in the moral ideal has the right to speak his own word, the right to demand that people listen to him and not content themselves with knowing him only at second hand.

     But let us return to Tolstoy. I have already said that a part of the reading public, even those who regarded his talent as far below that of Dickens or Turgenev, expected from him the sharpest opposition to the Nietzscheans. It is true that Tolstoy appeared cold to them; they called him the man with the soul of iron (Tolstoy, who taught how one could be deeply moved at children's stories!), but they saw in him the natural defender of the good and the opponent of Nietzsche. Especially in view of his journalistic work, in which he had so resolutely stood up for the literal interpretation of the gospel. The followers of Dickens and Turgenev did not always appreciate Tolstoy's preachments; they thought that Tolstoy went too far when he demanded of educated men that they work on the soil and dress like peasants. But when it was necessary to choose between customary morality, even pushed to the extreme, and a doctrine which absolutely destroyed this morality, they inclined toward the former.

     It was beyond doubt for everyone: Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche mutually excluded each other. Furthermore, each of these masters regarded the other as his antipode. When Nietzsche speaks of "Tolstoyan compassion" he thereby characterizes something that was absolutely foreign to him. As for Tolstoy, there is no question: his last work has only one object - to oppose Nietzsche and his doctrine.

     But is it really so? Are these two foremost contemporary authors really so alien to each other? Doubtless the very possibility of this question will appear strange to some, and even more so a negative answer. We would therefore, without deciding anything in advance, turn to the most important journalistic work of Tolstoy, which will lead us directly to his book What Is Art?, and at the same time to the questions with which Nietzsche was also concerned.

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