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


     The article entitled "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census of Moscow" appeared a relatively short time after Anna Karenina. Only three or four years separate them. In reality the time span was even briefer for, as Tolstoy himself admits, he had begun this article a number of times several years before without finishing it. It may be assumed, accordingly, that the census was not the cause of the change in Tolstoy's world outlook. The things necessary for the inner turnabout seem to have been present in Tolstoy's soul much earlier. As commonly happens in life, the census was merely the external pretext that Tolstoy had perhaps been seeking for a long time. His moral equilibrium - what he called, in speaking of Levin, "a life made meaningful by the good" - had for a long time been only a memory of the past. Perhaps Anna Karenina was only an attempt to reestablish the past; and when Tolstoy told us with such conviction that the good is with Levin and for him, that Levin had sunk into mother earth like a plow, that what he did is the best and the just thing to do - perhaps at that very time Tolstoy himself lived only in remembrances of the past, a past to which he felt himself all the more powerfully drawn the more clearly and painfully his consciousness told him that the ground, which had formerly appeared to him so solid, was giving way under his feet. Perhaps we can find in this an explanation of the poorly disguised joy he feels at the possibility of covering Anna with shame and leading her to her doom. Tolstoy already recognized that he had begun to lose his rights; his management of his estate, his concern for his family, his involvement in the affairs of the peasants, his critical attitude toward liberalism and the newspapers, his "negative" service of the good - in a word, all that filled Levin's life - ceased to suffice for him. He experienced an inner emptiness, he lost that firmness which had given him the right to look down on every person and to live in the conviction that God was with him and against his enemies. Anna Karenina appears to have been written ex post facto.

     This may be the reason why we find in this novel such scrupulous fairness and such exaggerated attention to all the characters who do not follow Levin's course. The author, in the final analysis, will not spare one of them, and that is precisely why he shows them to us from their best side. They are thoroughly good, intelligent, honest, beautiful. Tolstoy is in no hurry to show us their weaknesses. Only on rare occasions, by a trivial trait, by an almost insignificant remark, does he suggest to the reader in what the inadequacy of these persons consists. But the blow will be struck with a sure and strong hand. Not one will escape his fate; the triumph is reserved for Levin, for Levin's kind. But not for long. Anna Karenina was the last attempt Tolstoy made to maintain himself on the ground on which he had previously been firmly established. All that had formerly interested him had ceased to exist for him; he had already long outgrown Levinian joys and sorrows. When Tolstoy came to Moscow before the census, he was already, it appears, quite different from the writer who had just published in Russki Vestnik a great novel in which he had presented such a clear and definite outlook on life. Though he was no longer a young man - he was then already over fifty - and though he was a writer admired by all, especially for the firmness and daring of his ideas, he was in reality a man tortured by doubts, sure of one thing only: that what remained to him was no longer worth anything at all and that he had to seek something else.

     Strange as it may seem, the horrors that Tolstoy discovered when he visited the shelters for the poor and homeless in Moscow during the census were almost a godsend. "Life in the city," he tells us, "which had always appeared to me strange and incomprehensible, disgusted me so much that all the pleasures of my luxurious life, which I had formerly experienced as joys, were transformed into tortures. Despite all the efforts I made to find inwardly some justification for our life, I could never see either my own salon or that of others, or an elegantly laden table, or bright coaches, or well-fed coachmen and horses, or fine stores, theaters and clubs, without irritation. Beside all this I could not help seeing before myself constantly the inhabitants of the Liapine asylum [a shelter for the homeless in Moscow] - hungry, shivering, despised." Such a comparison between the luxury and security of his own life and the misery, the naked misery, of Liapine would necessarily provoke a violent reaction in a man who had never opened his eyes to the misfortunes of his neighbor. But Tolstoy was not at all a novice in such things. The author of War and Peace, who had so masterfully portrayed all the horrors of 1812, who had looked in the face thousands of deaths and killings, the most terrible and repugnant manifestations of human cruelty and baseness, and had come out of all these trials of life unbroken, could not be shattered at the sight of misery like the young Indian prince [Gautama, the Buddha] who, for the first time leaving his palace, suddenly found on his path a sick man, an old man, and a beggar.

     I do not mean to say by this that a man arrived at mature age learns, or must learn, to regard with indifference the evil that rules on earth. Quite the contrary; the mature man can experience human misery more deeply than the young man. But this is what makes for us all the more mysterious the feelings of Tolstoy about what he saw in the Liapine House. First, he later said, he had been so shattered by the external environment and conditions of life of the inhabitants of the shelter that he could not speak of them without tears and anger. "Without noticing it myself, I cried with tears in my voice and gesticulated with my hands in speaking of it to my friends. I cried over and over again: ‘It is impossible to live thus, impossible to live thus, impossible.’" But all his friends, Tolstoy tells us, set about explaining to him that he was so moved not because the things that he had seen were themselves so terrible but because he was such "a very gentle and very good man." And these explanations convinced him. "I gladly believed them," he says, "and before I could look around, in place of the feeling of self-reproach and repentance that I had first experienced, I felt a certain satisfaction in my own virtue and the desire to show this virtue to others." Later Tolstoy understood that his friends had deceived him with ingenuous and false sophisms and that he was not at all a virtuous and good man but, on the contrary, a very bad man. And this is what finally led him to preach the rejection of civilized life.

     The question arises: what if, considering his past life, Tolstoy had become convinced that his friends were right, that he was indeed a good and virtuous man and not at all a bad and guilty one? The condition of those sheltered in the asylums would not have been improved. Hordes of half-frozen people, barely covered with rags, would have pressed, as before, through the streets; the police, as before, would have led men who beg in the name of Christ to jail; the night patrols would have collected, as before, their quota of miserable and repulsive prostitutes. Everything would have been the same except one thing: Count Tolstoy's conscience would have remained undisturbed. Would he have been able to feel content with his virtue and show it to others, as when he had believed his friends?

     This question is more important than one might at first blush think. It contains the explanation of Tolstoy's real concerns and what he sought in the underworld of Moscow. It is obvious that it was not a question of the beggars of the Liapine House but of himself - Tolstoy. When he went to these unfortunate people he was not seeking to give them something but rather to take something from them; he raised questions not for their sake but for his own. He could have left them, closed his eyes, forgotten them, as he had done before when he had found himself face to face with misfortune. But this time he needed the beggars - not all of them but some only, and not the poor of Liapine but others. As for those whom he does not need, he will turn away from them. He will leave them, as he left Sonia, Varienka, Anna, to whom his attachments were neither immediate nor personal; he will then draw near to those with whom he can live, those who will not destroy his vital energy but augment it, those who will help him sink himself into the ground like a plow and give him the possibility of feeling joyfully that the good is again with him. In a word, he needed those poor who could mean to him what agricultural pursuits, the cultivation of beehives, and his family had meant to Levin. As for the others, the beggars of the city, about whom all this alarm had apparently been made, Tolstoy will abandon them; they are not to be helped. "One must not wish to be the doctor of an incurable person." These words, as the reader will recall, are Nietzsche's. I have already quoted them together with another of his thoughts that is almost identical: "What is tottering must be pushed further." The reader will perhaps not be able to decide to attribute the second precept to Tolstoy. But the first? This also summons up terror in many. And yet it summarizes the attitude of Tolstoy towards the poor of the asylums of Moscow.

     Immediately after the census, Tolstoy, who had written down the names of the most needy, resolved to devote himself to charitable work. Those of his friends who had promised to help him left him in the lurch. Nevertheless, he regularly visited his poor and helped some of them. On one of his rounds he met a woman who had not eaten for two days. In answer to his questions, she told him that she had formerly been a prostitute but, now that no one wanted her, she did not know how she was to earn her bread. I shall not report the details of this terrible scene - the woman had in fact not eaten for two days. But Tolstoy concludes his account in the following words: "I gave her a ruble, and I recall distinctly how very happy I was that others had seen it." Is it possible that this is right? Can it be that Tolstoy was really "very happy that others had seen it?" We have no reason not to believe it; furthermore, to avoid all possibility of doubt, he goes on to say: "I was so happy to give that, without considering whether it was necessary or not, I gave something to the old woman."

     I do not wish to hold Tolstoy at fault or to accuse him. The author of War and Peace, of "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census," is above all suspicion and all accusation.

     But it is all the more important for us to understand the meaning and scope of his preaching. These honest admissions are for us landmarks which show the sources whence he drew his prophetic inspiration. It was pleasant to him, "very pleasant," to give alms, even at the moment that a terrible drama was unfolding before his eyes. And who does not feel the drama in the few words: "She had formerly been a prostitute but, now that no one wanted her, she did not know how she was to earn her bread." His friends had succeeded, by pointing to the sensitivity of his soul, in turning his attention away from the spectacle of the night-shelters of Moscow. Here lies the same riddle, but also perhaps the solution to the enigma of Tolstoy's nature. Without reading the article on the census to the end, one can guess its conclusion. When, it is so necessary for a man to be virtuous, he will always in one way or another maintain his right before others. The good will come to him, he will make it come to him, even if for this purpose it be necessary to deprive all other men of it.

     This is what happened, as all who have read "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census" know. Tolstoy abandoned the poor of Moscow for the reason, which he explains in detail, that one could not help them any longer. He gave money to some of them - once, twice, three times; he gave them as much as they needed, by their own reckoning, to put themselves on their feet, but it led to nothing. Tolstoy could not save a single one of them. So he returned to his estate to assimilate his impressions at leisure and find a way out of his inward distress.

     His situation was indeed frightful. The words with which Tolstoy defined his state of mind, "it is impossible to live thus," show us, even if his stories about the poor of Moscow have not made a strong enough impression on us, what impact the miseries of big city life had made upon him. And indeed, how can a man like Count Tolstoy live, when around him exist inhabitants of night-shelters? Happy are those who have never seen such horrors with their own eyes. But what must he who has seen them, who cannot forget them, who does not wish to and must not forget them, do? Can one keep them simply as memories?

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