In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment|
Cogito, sum; certum est quia impossibile. This was what Tolstoy really thought when he preached to men submission to reason. And he knew only too well that this theory of knowledge (for these few words contain a whole theory of knowledge) was a defiance of all traditional self-evident truths. More than a mere defiance; it was a complete, definite break with the traditions of the common world. This break once made, man has nothing left to say but what Tolstoy said in The Diary of a Madman: "They certified that I was sane; but I know that I am mad."
A madman's theory of knowledge! Is this not an absurdity? Can a madman have any knowledge whatever? Can he create a theory? Is it, in fact, possible to go on listening to Tolstoy after such confessions? These questions cannot be evaded.
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics thus: Pantes anthropoi toû eidenai oregontai physei (it is in the nature of all men to aspire to knowledge). On the other hand, one of the most remarkable philosophers of the present day, Bergson, establishes his theory of knowledge on the following principle: "Originally, we think only in order to act. It is in the mould of action that our intelligence has been cast. Speculation is a luxury, whereas action is a necessity."
We are bound to adopt the second part of Bergson's statement: thought is, in fact, a luxury and action a necessity. I do not, however, think it would he true to conclude from this that men begin by acting and only think afterwards. For this involves the further implied assumption that men are first of all concerned with necessity and only think of luxury when they already possess all necessaries. But that is a gratuitous supposition, or rather, it springs from the observation of modern daily life with its varying preoccupations. Necessities are imposed by the particular, temporary, and changing conditions of human existence, but it is in the very nature of a living creature to aspire to luxury. And only when unable to achieve the higher aim does he force himself to be content with necessaries. Young animals play, and only those whom experience has ripened struggle for existence and are content with necessaries. Even men born in hardship and privation are not reconciled with necessity except with gnashing of teeth. We are naturally pleased to set up necessity and various "existence minima for our neighbours as a moral principle and a limit, otherwise it would be impossible to set a term to human appetite; but these are the commands which man imposes on nature and not nature on man.
Aristotle is nearer the truth than Bergson. To know, to think, cogitare (in the sense given to the word by Descartes), is a fundamental necessity to man, an essential of his existence. But it is true, and Bergson was so far right, that in the conditions of human existence, in the midst of the incessant struggle for daily bread, our thirst for knowledge is diverted and deformed. But this is the condition of sinful man, since the Fall. In paradise, where abundance reigned, it was not necessary to act. But those who were cast out of paradise found themselves faced with the dilemma: act or perish. God's curse weighed them down: In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread. But the remembrance of Paradise Lost still lives in us, and Aristotle's words, the testimony of a man two thousand three hundred years nearer to Adam, proves that he still remembered what we have now almost forgotten.
We in these days look upon Plato's anamnesis as unscientific, and prefer in this connection to talk of atavism. And yet I do not think that our contempt of Plato is justified. Plato himself, like all the Greeks, reverenced the wisdom of those who had lived before him. Hoi men palaioi, kreittones hêmôn kai enguterô theôn oikoûntes, he said (the ancients, being wiser than ourselves, and dwelling nearer to the gods) [Phil. 16]. Plotinus thought the same, and wrote, palaioi kai makarioi philosophoi (the ancient and blessed philosophers). Thus we must not deny the anamnesis, and Bergson would have been nearer to the truth if, instead of "originally", which corresponds to the Greek physei - by their nature - he had said "usually". He would thus probably have expressed more adequately his own thought, which in more than one respect is very important and far-reaching.
Another question presents itself now. We see that reason cannot know truth, either "originally" as Bergson has it, or as I rather believe, because it has betrayed its nature and its origin and degenerated to such a point that it can only give us more or less useful statements which should help us in our struggle for existence. But what of philosophy? Philosophy does not pursue practical and useful ends. Neither is it satisfied with "minima of existence". It seeks, as Plotinus says, to timiôtaton - what is most important and significant.
The ancients said that men should not only dzên - live - but eû dzên - live worthily. Philosophy aspires to the truth. And at the same time the only source of knowledge, as generally assumed, is reason. How get out of this predicament? Must we educate our reason again in the hope that it will return to that state which preceded the Fall, and of which legend has told us? But reason will not allow itself to be educated anew. And, moreover, who is there who could effect this regeneration? Reason itself?
Bergson, like others of the leading modern philosophers (Husserl in Germany), speaks of intuition. But Intuition is the daughter of Reason, flesh of her flesh, and we may be sure in advance that she has inherited all her mother s vices. So it is, too, with Bergson. He himself falls into the magic circle which he makes such strenuous efforts to avoid. In spite of every effort and precaution, Reason, according to her custom, continues to replace the truths which we are seeking by pragmatically useful and therefore generally convincing self-evident judgments. Intuition cannot in the long run reveal to us the inner life of man, which is particular and complex, capricious and chaotic, full of the unforeseen. The dynamic is just as mechanical as the static, and movement will no more discover the springs of life for us than immobility.
Bergson makes every effort to rid himself of the power of general ideas, but "reason", which cannot and will not give up its mission, turns his attention to "ourself", the human self in general, and transforms the consciousness of man, viz. that which is, on Bergson's own showing, unique, essentially not to be resolved, into a place of passage (lieu de passage) or temporary depository (dépositaire) of the élan vital (life force), i.e. into one of those general ideas which he himself has so eloquently condemned. And in Creative Evolution Bergson demonstrates by the use of arguments furnished by reason, that the idea of order is fundamental and chaos is contradictory. Thus reason is once more reinstated in all the sovereign rights which had been solemnly denied to it. Reason is declared infallible, just as by the extreme rationalist, Husserl: Roma locuta, causa finita.
This is not the place to examine Bergson's philosophy in further detail. I will only say - for it is right, and even necessary to say it here - that when I went abroad again after the war, and had the opportunity to study Bergson's works, I was profoundly moved. Philosophy is pursued by a fatal destiny; the same thing that happened to Descartes has happened to Bergson. The light of truth shone in his eyes; but he wanted to impart it to mankind, and immediately he was obliged to forget all that he had seen. Truth is not for common possession. It dissolves in smoke at the first attempt to draw an advantage from it, to receive it into the "common world". Bergson knew that too - he knows infinitely more than he tells us - and it is for this reason that he repeats with so much insistence that only great artists, free from the dominion of general ideas, are able to understand and to describe truthfully the inner life of man. But then it is among them and their works alone that philosophy must seek to discover what is "given directly"; it must overcome at all costs the temptation of the apparently convincing evidence of reasonable proofs. If the reflection which escapes him, as though by accident, in his first book, that the absence of all reason is in certain cases the best of all reasons - if this reflection had played the part in the development of his thought which is played by the idea of intuition, he would not perhaps have affirmed, in contradiction to the whole spirit of his philosophy, that "our ego is infallible in its immediate cognitions" (notre moi, infaillible dans ses constatations immédiates); for "our" ego is something general, it is consciousness in general", the impotence of which (outside its own proper functions, limited as they are sub specie aeternitatis) Bergson himself has demonstrated with such noble courage, such pitiless force. He would rather have spoken of the One of Plotinus, to which he was so near, it seems to me, in his aspirations: perhaps he would not have been afraid to take Plato's anamnesis under his protection, or even Socrates' "daemon". He might then have remembered the katharsis (purification) which philosophy has banned, and the exercitia spiritualia. For after all, those ancients were our superiors, they lived nearer to the gods, although they could neither fly through the air nor talk to each other across hundreds of miles of space.
But I repeat, to be able to do this, Bergson would have had to keep in mind the truth revealed to him; our logic, the logic of beings who eat their bread in the sweat of their brows, has fundamentally perverted our capacity to know by accustoming us to think in accordance with the exigencies of our earthly existence. Only he can know and think, who has nothing to do, who, thanks to a combination of circumstances essentially fortuitous, has been cast out from the world common to all, and, left alone, abandoned to his own devices, has suddenly discovered the truth which by its very nature cannot be necessary, obligatory, or universal. For this solitary man, "chance", so despised and rejected by science and by "our ego", becomes the principal object of his search. He resolves to perceive, to treasure, and even to express that revelation which hides behind the accidental, which is invisible to a reason busied over earthly affairs and subservient to the exigencies of social existence.
Such was Plotinus, the last great philosopher of antiquity. Such also was Tolstoy.
The characters of the posthumous works of Tolstoy which we have just been studying, still take a certain part in social life. They still preach, still struggle; they therefore act and retain a certain hope in Descartes's ergo, in Bergson's infallible general ego. But Ivan Ilych (in The Death of Ivan Ilych) and Brekhunov (in Master and Man) have neither the power nor the need to do anything at all. They are both slowly dying, and therefore ceasing to exist for the inhabitants of the common world. It would seem that in these circumstances there is nothing to be said about them. If Tolstoy had really been that faithful vassal of reason which he prided himself on being, he would not even have thought of writing a story on so unreasonable" a subject as death. A man dies, there is nothing to be done but bury him.
In the judgment of reason is it not, to put it mildly, idle curiosity to spy on what is happening in a soul in its agony?
But Tolstoy took no account of the pronouncements of reason. He knew how to make for his objective when he wanted to, without asking the permission of the authorities. When needful he was not even afraid to pass judgment on reason itself.
Both Ivan Ilych and Brekhunov are outside reason: they die in absolute solitude. Tolstoy cunningly cuts them off from all society, all action, all the sources from which we can generally draw strength to live.
"It was impossible even to deceive himself. Something terrible, novel, and so important that nothing of equal importance had ever happened before, was now taking place in Ivan Ilych. And he alone knew it. Those around him did not understand, and would not understand, they thought that everything was as it had been before. He had to live like this, on the edge of the abyss, absolutely alone, without a creature who could understand or have pity on him." It is not enough to say that no one wanted to understand him and pity him; for to them all, his kinsmen, his wife and his children, he became a grievous and repugnant burden. No one believed or wanted to believe that something so new and so important was happening to Ivan Ilych and that nothing like it had ever happened before, just as Nicolai Ivanovich's people did not believe him when he tried to tell them what he knew. Every one was deeply and sincerely convinced that Ivan Ilych, by his caprices, was unlawfully, even criminally disturbing the order of existence admitted by them all. They could neither go to the theatre nor arrange about the daughter's marriage, nor buy her clothes. They could "do" nothing. On the other hand, it was also impossible to stop the course of normal existence for the sole reason that, from Ivan Ilych's own private and particular point of view, something extraordinary was happening to him, when it was something which, in everybody else's opinion, happens quite often, need surprise no one, and should not provoke any special anxiety or question.
The neighbours and friends of Ivan Ilych reasoned like Epictetus. When we learn of the death of someone who is a stranger and far away from us, we remain calm and say that what has happened was in accordance with the incontrovertible decrees of nature. Dear though Ivan Ilych may be to us, the existing order cannot and should not be upset on his behalf. This is an obvious truth which no sane man will deny. The relatives do all that they can to maintain the usual and decent order. They try to make the sick man as comfortable as possible, they call the most expensive doctors, give him his medicine at regular hours, think of little amusements for him. But all this, instead of calming Ivan Ilych, agitates and excites him more than ever. He sees in it the expression of the unshakable conviction that the existing order, as incarnate in his relatives, cannot and will not take any account of this new, extraordinary sensation. But it is not enough for the relatives and friends of Ivan Ilych to refuse to admit the peculiar importance of what is happening to him; in the name of reason, the depository of necessary truths, they demand that Ivan Ilych himself should not attach such importance to it, for there cannot be two truths, one for every one and the other for Ivan Ilych alone. It is this especially which provokes him to such transports of rage against every one round him, and finally creates a nightmare atmosphere which completely shuts him off from the outer world. He grossly, brutally, and motivelessly insults his wife, his children, his future son-in-law, and the doctors who are attending him. Ivan Ilych demands the impossible of them. He wants them to recognize that this new and extraordinary thing which is happening to him is the most important thing in the world, and that for its sake they should abandon and forget everything else, and join with him in a revolt against the existing world order. He persists in believing that if he is in the right, this "right" obliges every one to support him. To be in the right and not have this recognized, supported by any one, is of no use to him. Is that, indeed, being in the right at all?
But the relatives and friends cannot follow Ivan Ilych, nor even understand what is happening to him. They have neither the strength nor the inspiration necessary for that, any more than Ivan Ilych himself had before he fell ill. Normal man can only live if he walks in step with other men, and is sustained by cosmic and social order. Lonely, self-willed men provoke the indignation of their fellows and are regarded as criminals against God and society. Every one demands that Ivan Ilych should first submit himself and accept the inevitable. "He saw that the terrible and hideous act of
dying was regarded by those around him as an accidental unpleasantness, rather out of place, and that it was judged by the standard of the same conventions which he himself had served all his life." The conventions. That is how Tolstoy designates everything that we are accustomed to call social and cosmic order, the world common to all waking men, to which Aristotle opposed the individual worlds of those who slept and dreamed. The dying man is also a dreamer, who is being torn against his will from the common world.
Tolstoy tells us Ivan Ilych's past life in detail. Not only has he never dared revolt against the laws of nature, he was even afraid to trouble the established order of man, to offend even against the conventions. He had a special instinct for finding out the well-trodden high roads, and himself and others regarded this tact as a special gift, for which he was esteemed and loved. It was with stupefaction, even with horror that he now looked back upon his past. His aptitude, his enthusiasm in submitting himself and others to a definite and unchanging order, now appeared to him not as a blessing but as a curse. He wants every one, absolutely every one, to see things from the same point of view as himself. It is his most deep-rooted conviction that only that is true which is universally admitted, that which every man can be obliged to recognize. He sees clearly that his newly perceived truth awakens no sympathy in any one and will never be recognized by any one. For all except himself, it is "evident" that death is only an accident, that his account is closed, and that he will have to render up his "accidental" self and ensure the triumph of eternal, impersonal order and that reason which he himself, not so long ago, extolled as the only source of wisdom and justice.
Moreover at this very moment - and this is what makes the horror of his situation - he continues to believe within himself that it is not he but they who are right. This is precisely why he so passionately hates his surroundings; he feels that right and the might which protect right are not on his side but on the other. If it had been possible, he would most gladly have continued to sit in the law courts, to play whist, talk politics and so forth. And now he is cut off from all this. This same eternal order which had never ceased to sup port him from the time of his birth, and which he had always so faithfully served, had now turned against Ivan Ilych and did not seem in any way ashamed of this base treason, did not even think any explanation necessary by way of justification. "It was thus, and now it is otherwise." Prayers and entreaties make no difference. Ivan Ilych is excluded from the "common world" which he loved so much, and in which he had placed his whole trust. All efforts to return to the land of his fathers, to get back to the familiar hearth, are alike unavailing. Where he had felt himself to be a man in possession of his rights, he now sees himself reduced to the level of an "accident", deprived of all protection of the law. Now everything is banded together against him with the same implacable rigour that he used formerly to admire.
Ivan Ilych still refuses to believe that what has happened to him is final. It seems to him that it cannot be so, that he is dreaming, that he is going to wake up and find himself again in the old intelligible reality.
Was death really the only truth, and were all the other sweet, calming truths good for nothing but to be destroyed or thrown out on the rubbish heap? Then on what could he lean? What could he do, what could he undertake? Must he give up all human rights, the rights of every reasonable being, and humbly and submissively cast himself into the black pit, as a hypnotized bird casts itself into the serpent's jaws? Reason, which had always rescued him from the most difficult situations, reason which "thinks in order to act", gathers together all its forces. But it can find nothing. "And the worst of it was that IT drew his attention, not in order that he might do something, but simply in order that he might contemplate IT, look IT right in the eyes, and suffer horribly without being able to do anything." And Tolstoy repeats further on: "He went into his study, lay down and was alone with IT. They were alone between four walls and he could do nothing with IT, only look at it and shudder."
- "He tried to re-establish the old train of his thoughts which the idea of death had shattered. But, strange to say, everything which used to drive away and dissipate the thought of death was now powerless to do so. Ivan Ilych now spent the greater part of his time in efforts to reawaken the feelings which had hidden death from him for so many years. Sometimes he said: 'I am going to think about the business of the law courts; used it not to fill my whole existence?' He went to the court, driving away all his doubts. He began to talk with his colleagues, he sat down, casting, from long habit, a pensive and absent glance over the crowd, grasping with his wasted hands the arms of his oak chair. From habit, too, he fingered the documents, leant over to a colleague and exchanged a whisper with him; then raising his eyes and straightening himself in his chair, he spoke a few words, and the business began. But suddenly the pain in his side seized him again, quite regardless of the suit which was proceeding, and he felt the sinking again. Ivan Ilych went on with his work, trying to divert his thoughts, but IT went on. IT rose up, planted itself before him and stared him in the face; and he stiffened in anguish and his eyes were dimmed. He asked himself then: 'Is death, then, the only truth?'"