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


     A comparison between Tolstoy's new doctrine and his former world-outlook may perhaps seem unjust and unnecessary to the reader. The old is not to be touched. And Count Tolstoy has so solemnly renounced his past that it is altogether impossible to accuse him of contradiction and inconsistency. He himself admits having been "bad" before. What more is needed? But I do not in the least wish to reproach Tolstoy. He was, is, and will always be "the great writer of the Russian land" [Turgenev's expression in his last letter to Tolstoy]. If I seek to investigate his past, it is not to accuse him but only better to understand the meaning and scope of his doctrine. And I am less struck by the difference between the former and the present Count Tolstoy than by the unity and consistency that characterize the development of his philosophy. One finds in it, to be sure, some essential contradictions, and these ought not to be ignored. Tolstoy from the time he created War and Peace and Anna Karenina is for us in any case an important witness, to whom one not only can listen but to whom it is our duty to listen. Especially in view of the fact that this extraordinary man, as has already been shown above, always, throughout all his life, stubbornly professed the conviction that outside the "good" there is no salvation.

     All the transformations in his philosophy never pass beyond the limits of "life in the sign of the good"; they touch only the question of knowing in what the good consists and how one must act to have the good on his side. This explains Tolstoy's purely sectarian intolerance toward the opinion of others, toward those who led a life different from his own. Such is the nature of the good; he who is not for it is against it! And whoever has recognized the sovereignty of the good is compelled to divide his neighbors into good and wicked men, i.e., friends and enemies. It is true that Tolstoy always expresses his preparedness to pardon his neighbor, to let him pass from the category of wicked into that of good, but only on the strict condition that he repent. "Acknowledge that you have been wrong, that you have been bad, live as I do, then I will call you good." He knows no other way of reconciliation. Even more, if the condition of repentance is lacking, eternal enmity is declared. Not, obviously, enmity in the ordinary sense of the word. Count Tolstoy will neither strike his enemy nor try to do any harm to him. On the contrary, he will turn the other cheek when anyone strikes him; he will accept insult and suffering and will be all the more happy the more he can yield. He reserves one thing only: his right to the "good."

     To every attack against this right Tolstoy shows a greediness like that of Shakespeare's Henry V, when it is a question of glory. Both Tolstoy and Henry V believe that in this case greed is not a vice, that no one can be reproached for it, that, on the contrary, it must be counted an excellence. We can gladly let the English king rest, but when a Tolstoy shows himself eager to defend his right, like a knight of the Middle Ages, one is led to serious reflections. That virtue, that good, which we have always believed to be beyond the hereditary activity of egoism, suddenly shows itself to be just as human, just as inalienable, as all the other purely pagan goods - glory, power, wealth. For the sake of the good, just as implacable a struggle is possible - by means, of course, of other weapons.

     All of Tolstoy's life is an example of this; all of his preaching is proof of it. In his last work, What Is Art?, Tolstoy, an old man of seventy, undertakes a battle for his right against an entire generation. And how this struggle inspires him! The sole purpose of this work is to declare to men: "you are immoral but I am moral, i.e., I, not you, possess the highest good." And this work is written with such mastery that one can find nothing like it, not only in Russian literature but in contemporary world literature. Despite the external calm of the almost epic tone, the passionate excitement and indignation which agitated Tolstoy make themselves felt only too strongly, even by those whom the sources of the brilliant writer's creativity do not interest greatly. One does not find in it any trace of the insulting words that ordinarily betray human anger. Tolstoy even avoids open sarcasm. He has no weapons other than his delicate irony and a few epithets of - at first blush - inoffensive character, such as "wicked," "immoral," "depraved." The word "impudence" is used only once, in relation to Nietzsche. It might be thought that one could not do anything in this way, especially in our day when the word "immoral" seems to have long since lost its former sharpness and its opposite, "virtuous," that Tolstoy was not afraid to use to designate those spiritually close to him, has become almost synonymous with "comical." And yet, what can a genius not accomplish! What Is Art? is the model of a polemical work. To express with greater power what Tolstoy has expressed is impossible, even without the framework of mild Christian apologetic to which he voluntarily limited himself. I am profoundly convinced that most readers, especially Russian readers, however far they may be from Tolstoy's ideals, however little inclined they may be to renounce their privileges, must experience, in reading his book, true pleasure and even find that "basically" he is completely right.

     It is true that in this instance, as has always been the case to the present, the cause of the "good" was not at all advanced but even perhaps hurt. For among the many readers of Tolstoy, who enjoy the artistic talent of the great master, there are also some who sincerely wish to learn something from him and to improve themselves. But Tolstoy's words fall like lead on the conscience of these people. Even now their life is not happy; the hard reproaches of the inexorable judge end by poisoning it. "Yes, we eat, we drink, we dress ourselves, and we take everything away from the peasants, to whom we give nothing in return." So they repeat these words of their teacher, but naturally they can do nothing. They go into the villages where Tolstoy calls them; they return with consciences still more burdened, for, in the villages, they arrived at nothing or almost nothing, even though they followed the program worked out at Yasnaya Polyana. They had been asked to live with and like the peasants; obviously they could not carry this through and returned to the city sick, weak, exhausted, their consciences depressed by the weight of their guilt.

     As for those who should have been overthrown by the Archimedes' lever that Tolstoy had found, they enjoyed his works without any distress of soul. Quite the contrary, they read his articles with ever new pleasure as a model of edifying literature, as they had read the gospel and the prophets. I knew a very rich industrialist who loaned his money at usurious rates of interest and nevertheless called himself a Tolstoyan. His is not an exceptional case. On the contrary, it is typical of the reaction of the public to preaching. But why so many words? Tolstoy does not preach in his own name. He only repeats in modern language what the prophets and apostles taught two thousand years ago. But if the European peoples have regarded the Bible for so many centuries as a sacred book and yet despised its commandments, how could Tolstoy seriously hope that his word would have more effect than the word of his teachers? His promise "it will soon be," as well as his ardent preaching, had obviously nothing to do with the real struggle against evil and falsehood but only with his own, entirely personal ends. What he wished did not relate to something outside himself - it was not others whom he wished to help, but only to find for himself the confirmation, the satisfaction, which he had not found in his literary work. War and Peace, which carried the mark of complete achievement and reconciliation, was followed by Anna Karenina; Anna Karenina, which seems to be the creation of an untormented and self-satisfied mind, was followed by the preaching of morality. Is this now the end? Who can foretell? Will not Count Tolstoy perhaps find the power and the courage to burn what he now venerates and proclaim a new word? Now he rejects his earlier literary work, to which he had devoted himself with so much integrity and passion. This work is good for nothing, it has had no effect. But will the preaching in which he now believes have any greater effect? What, then, does Tolstoy consider as the criterion of human activity in general? He now rejects all art, his own as well as others, because the masses do not need it. But if preaching also does not ameliorate the conditions of existence of the masses, must he not consistently reject it as well?

     But, as far as preaching is concerned, Tolstoy does not seem to apply, at least at present, the measure that he is accustomed to applying to all other types of literature. Preaching is good in itself, independently of any results it may bring about. It is possible to make art worthwhile in the same sense. For this it is only necessary that it propose to itself the same ends as preaching. The artist who wishes the right to bear this honorable name must satisfy two conditions in his creations: first, he must write in such a way that all, without exception, will understand him and, secondly, he must write not about what interests him but only about what can provoke good feelings in people. From this point of view, Tolstoy condemns all of modern art, beginning with his own works and ending with Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe - not to speak of less famous writers, especially the more recent ones, for whose condemnation he cannot find in his scanty repertory of pious-insulting words sharp enough expressions. He makes exception only of a few works of a few writers.

     In this very brief list of worthy teachers it is interesting to find the name of Dostoevsky, the same Dostoevsky whom Nietzsche also called his teacher. Basically, Dostoevsky does not meet the fundamental condition that Tolstoy has set for writers. The peasants do not understand him, for he is to them just as "learned" as Shakespeare. But Tolstoy appears to calculate that, in compensation, Dostoevsky better than anyone else satisfies the second condition: to teach the good. In this respect, Tolstoy is entirely right. Dostoevsky, indeed, in all of his works (with the exception perhaps of Memoirs from the House of the Dead, a work that Tolstoy particularly recommends), never forgets to teach the good. How, then, did it come about that this writer won the favor of Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom the good is about the same as the devil is for Goethe's Gretchen? To understand why Nietzsche and Tolstoy both esteemed Dostoevsky is to find the clue which will explain their philosophies, which are apparently contrary to each other. We will therefore try to test this explanation by considering the most characteristic and best known work of Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

Orphus system

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