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


     Tolstoy, on returning to his estate, arrived at certain conclusions which give us an answer to these questions. They are known to all, and it is not necessary to speak of them in detail. Tolstoy recognized that all our misery comes from the fact that we, the educated and wealthy, who are ready to help the poor of the Liapine House, do not have the requisite moral qualities, and that we must heal ourselves before we can think of healing others. With money it is impossible to do any good here, for it is not a question of money with these miserable people. What is necessary is that they be taught to respect and love work, which provides the means of existence. But how can we teach them this when we, for our part, ‘do not do anything? Therefore we must begin with ourselves, become better ourselves; then all the rest will come of itself. Then we can teach by word and deed, and not only by words that our deeds contradict. In renouncing our right to the work of others, we no longer rob them of their necessities, which constitute for us only our luxuries. So Count Tolstoy put off his European clothing, dressed himself as a peasant, began to fire his own stove, to clean his own room, to plow, to sow. "When," he says, "I arrived at this consciousness and this practical conclusion, I was completely recompensed for not having recoiled before the commands of reason and for having gone where it led me."

     But in what did this recompense consist? Was there any transformation in the life of the inhabitants of Liapine, any alleviation of their terrible fate? No, obviously not; the poor of Liapine were forgotten: it was only Count Tolstoy himself who became better. "It turned out," he explains, "that in devoting eight hours to physical work, eight hours that I had formerly spent in strenuous efforts to overcome boredom, I still had eight hours more... It turned out that physical work not only did not exclude intellectual activity but improved and facilitated it." And further on he says: "The harder the work was, the closer it came to the grossest kind of farm labor, the more pleasure and knowledge did I receive, the closer and more amiable were my relations to people, the more happiness did I feel in life." Despite the warnings of his doctors, physical work did not at all injure Tolstoy's health; on the contrary, the more he worked, "the more power, good disposition, gaiety and happiness" he felt. Moreover - and this is the most important thing - he enjoyed perfect peace of soul and ease of conscience; and he promises the same results, in feeling and eloquent words, to everyone who will follow his example. "You will experience the joy of living in freedom and like-wise in goodness. You will acquire a window, a vision of the domain of morality, which had been closed for you till now.

     These were the conclusions to which Tolstoy came at his estate. So, for us educated persons, there is the possibility of living well, of escaping from boredom, of becoming fit, gay, happy; in addition, we can again have the good on our side, calm our conscience, and become kind, virtuous, and happy men. Tolstoy had learned this from the poor of Liapine, whom he wished to help. Is it not true that these poor were for Tolstoy a godsend? And were they not precisely what he most needed at that time when he could no longer be fit, gay, happy, joyous, and virtuous in the manner of Levin through the cultivation of bees, the family, things that had previously been so highly regarded? This seems to be the fate of the poor: they have always served and will continue to serve as a means for the rich. If it is impossible, or if one has no need, to draw material goods from them, they can nevertheless bring "moral" consolations. And it turns out that not only does the misery of Liapine not render it impossible to live, but that one can live excellently, gaily, joyously, just as did, in their time, Levin or Pierre Bezukhov after his marriage. And more yet: now, after the census, a certain completely new and most important factor in life appeared - the consciousness that all these joys are not simple joys, as is the case with others, and also not the good, as with Levin, but an act in the name of, and for the sake of, the suffering neighbor.

     If it was possible before for him to be angry with those who did not live as Levin did, it was possible for him to destroy, for the sake of the "good," Vronsky, Koznyshov, Anna Karenina - it goes without saying that this right will now become a duty - one could say a holy duty, if the content of the word "destruction" did not fit so ill with our conception of holiness. Tolstoy, from all appearances, waited only for the day when he could finally begin to preach freely, openly, not through novels where one must attack cautiously and take account of all the conditions that the desire to create a work of art presupposes, but through articles expressly written that had no goal other than preaching. Then only did he find his work, his true work.

     It is true that Count Tolstoy proclaims that he has found the means of curing mankind of all the social evils from which it suffers. In his opinion, he has discovered Archimedes' lever. One need only press this lever, and all the old world will be turned around, all misfortunes will disappear, and men will become happy. But he speaks very little of this. For him it is self-evident, so self-evident that he does not even envisage the possibility of real doubt about the efficacy of the means recommended by him for saving mankind. To all objections Tolstoy replies either with the legend of the man who, by his persistence, frightened the spirit of the sea or with general considerations, of which the following is an example:
This will be [i.e., that all men will begin to live according to Tolstoy's principles] - and it will be in a very short time - when people of our circle, and along with them the great majority of people, will no longer believe that it is shameful to make visits shod in boots but not shameful to walk with overshoes among those who have no shoes at all; that it is shameful not to know how to speak French or not to be familiar with the latest news but not shameful to eat bread without knowing how it is made; that it is shameful not to have a starched shirt and a clean coat but not shameful to be properly clothed and thus bear witness to one's idleness; that it is shameful to have dirty hands but not shameful to have hands without callouses. All this will be when public opinion will demand it... it will be very soon.
Soon is a relative conception; it may mean fifty years, a hundred years, it may mean less. Meanwhile twenty years have passed since "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census" was completed. And though Tolstoy, during all that time, and without relaxation, has preached only this, the conditions of life have not been improved but; on the contrary, have become even worse.

     If, as he had done twenty years before, Tolstoy now again conceived the idea of going to visit the night-shelters of Moscow, he would certainly not find his old acquaintances there. Time, which indifferently sweeps away from the earth all happiness and misery, has also disposed of them. But Tolstoy would have found there new people just as frightful as those he had seen formerly, and in much greater numbers. In twenty years scores, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of men have passed through the night-shelters, lived there, suffered there, committed crimes, and died, while Tolstoy was perfecting himself morally at Yasnaia Poliana and writing his thundering articles against those intellectuals who had not allowed themselves to follow his example. What does this mean? How could Tolstoy tell himself, and try to persuade others, that he was fully recompensed for not having recoiled before the conclusions of reason? What pleasure could there be, so long as people live in night-shelters and so long as their number is so overwhelming? The prophecy "it will soon be" showed itself a lie! And what an oppressive lie!

     Here appears for the first time the fact, paradoxical at first sight, that preaching, like many other kinds of intellectual activity, has not and does not seek any goal outside itself. Ostensibly it is not only by word but also by deed that Count Tolstoy teaches men to come to the help of their neighbors. But it turns out that neither words nor deeds have any relationship to the neighbor. The articles and books, each one better than the other in power and fullness of expression, ever and again remind the reader of the restless thinker of Yasnaya Polyana; Count Tolstoy persuades himself more and more that he has discovered a new way which will without any doubt - and in a short time-lead to universal happiness. But happiness is just as far away as it was before, and suffering, that terrible suffering which the famous writer has so masterfully presented to us, remains the same or has become even more frightful. And "yet he was satisfied!" Has he already forgotten his "it is impossible to live thus" simply because he works and writes good books, because he has succeeded in making the "good" again come to his side? Is it for him so "pleasant to give," does he consider the act of giving so important, that he can for its sake forget the harsh "it is impossible to live thus" and even advance, with severe and annihilating accusations, against all those who are not disposed to see a solution in the way he has pointed out?

     In "Reflections of the Occasion of the Census," he still does not appear so clearly as accuser. Tolstoy, who had just again felt the "approbation of the good," considered himself still too rich to be angry and indignant. He hoped, as it were, to win people through friendliness and soft words. But naturally they did not follow him, and as the years passed, as "it will soon come" was postponed more and more to the future, as the happy times did not arrive, as the prophecies remained unfulfilled, Tolstoy's irritation increased. The inevitable "who is to blame?" arose. Who is responsible for the fact that the simple and clear doctrine of Tolstoy was not realized? Men, naturally, are responsible, and men only, for outside of men who is there to call to account? To whom can one ascribe blame? Whom reproach? Here is the essence of morality. It cannot exist without its antipode - without immorality. Evil is necessary to the good; it serves as the object of its vengeance. And good people need wicked people in order to call them to judgment, at least to the imaginary judgment of conscience.

     This also explains Tolstoy's strange sympathy for the Critique of Practical Reason. The follower of the gospel, the disciple of Christ, declares that the Critique of Practical Reason "contains in itself the essence of moral teaching." The very origin alone of the Critique takes away from the true Christian the right to call himself a Kantian. The Critique of Practical Reason is only an appendage to the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant found synthetic a priori judgments and recognized them as the sources of our knowing, the condition of the existence of knowledge. It is thus, as he himself explains in his Prolegomena, that he checked the skepticism of Hume, who had set up the thesis of the impossibility of any knowledge whatsoever. Whether Kant was right or not when he thus solved Hume's problem, the solution in any case appeared to him so important and so comprehensive that he applied it, without further ado, to the questions of moral philosophy.

     In the empirical sciences we were irritated by the concept of causality and were inclined to regard it as the illegitimate child of experience. Kant demonstrated the legitimacy of causality by classifying it among synthetic a priori judgments, that is to say, those judgments which precede experience and condition experience. The categorical imperative is constructed after the fashion and in the image of the principle of causality simply because it had to be so constructed for the sake of the completeness of the system.

     For Kant real contradictions do not exist in the domain of moral life. The incomplete edifice of metaphysics arose before him, and his task was limited to completing what had been undertaken, without making any change in the plan previously conceived and already half-executed. Thus arose the categorical imperative, the postulate of the free will, etc. All these questions, so fateful for us, meant only building materials to Kant. He had fissures in his edifice and needed metaphysical stoppers; he was not at all concerned with knowing to what degree this or that solution corresponded to reality but considered only whether they suited the critique of pure reason, whether they confirmed or disturbed the architectonic harmony of the logical edifice. And naturally he attained his goal. The logical coherence of the different parts of the edifice leaves nothing to be desired: it is completely Kantian.

     All the more surprising is Tolstoy's relation to the Critique of Practical Reason. What is there in common between the categorical imperative or the principle of retribution proclaimed by Kant and the teaching of the gospel? it is understandable that the professors of philosophy should venerate Kant's moral doctrine and that they should be enraptured by "his noble defense of duty." What especially impressed them is that the firmness and the precision of the conclusions of Kant's ethics are similar to those of mathematics.

     But Tolstoy? How could he accept a doctrine in which justice and not mercy is the principle of punishment ("the proud word justice," as Tolstoy himself says in War and Peace), a doctrine in which it is maintained that punishment must take place not in order to preserve society from danger, nor even thereby to rehabilitate the criminal, but simply because the crime was committed? For Kant the possibility of substituting the word because (weil) for in order that (deswegen) had been a true and very important victory ad majorem gloriam of the critique of pure reason, which naturally was all-important for its author. But Tolstoy says that the critique of pure reason is devoid of value, that "it only promotes the regnant evil." What, then, could have drawn him toward the critique of practical reason? Kant's doctrine of compassion could hardly have appealed to him. The "foundation" on which Kant based himself in order to reject compassion is known: it only augments the quantity of suffering by adding the sorrow of him who has compassion to the sorrow of him for whom he has compassion. All these practical conclusions, which agreed so well with Kant, were very little in harmony with the spiritual demands of Tolstoy, according to whom "the happiness of men lies only in self-renunciation and the service of others."

     What, then, are the reasons which could lead Tolstoy, so reluctant to praise scholars - especially famous scholars - to esteem so highly the Critique of Practical Reason? One only, apparently: the categorical imperative, the obligation to serve the good (as such) - thus exactly that which Levin had once, after painful doubts, rejected as a principle false and contrary to life. Now, all of a sudden, Tolstoy sets this principle above everything. "To serve the good" is for him no longer a burden but, on the contrary, the removal of a burden. Moreover, besides alleged duties, the categorical imperative gives him the right to demand of others that they act as he acts, that they live as he lives. This is what gives him the happy occasion to come forward as a preacher; this is what opens for him new horizons and perspectives which now, after another period of his life with different horizons and perspectives was finished by War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he especially needed. And so Kantian duty, in that form which does not allow any room for doubt about what is permitted and forbidden, becomes the foundation stone of the doctrine of Tolstoy - the same Tolstoy who until recently had trusted so little in reason and demanded of men that they not lightly exchange the ways of their fathers, that they not rely too much on the demonstrations of reason, which imagines itself able to refashion the world, but rather more on immediate instinct, which helps man "to sink himself into the ground like a plow."

Orphus system

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