Monday, October 24, 2011

Tolstoy Argues with Ecclesiastes

[This is both a coda to my recent sermon on Leo Tolstoy's  "dark night of the soul" and an additional chapter to my new book Wisdom for the Ages: A Season with Ecclesiastes.]  

Leo Tolstoy (born 1828) had a spiritual crisis at full midlife.  By then, this scion of old Russian nobility had become the acclaimed author of two monumental books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Many already considered him the greatest novelist of the 19th century.  Additionally, he had privileges of status and wealth, as well as a large family.  Yet he was a spiritual wretch.

He chronicled his life experiences, as well as his state of mind, in Confession, one of the most noteworthy religious autobiographies ever written—still readable.

In Confession, Tolstoy sketched the dissipations and debaucheries of his youth and early adulthood.  He also expressed guilt over his inherited privileges, including a large ancestral estate, replete with serfs.  (His early debauchery resulted in an illegitimate child by one of these serfs.)

A contemporary of Tolstoy, the American psychologist William James, in the now classic Varieties of Religious Experience, provided a handy category to understand Tolstoy’s spiritual state of mind as he approached fifty years of age.  Tolstoy was a classic “sick soul,” tormented by his sinful nature in the midst of a meaningless world.

In Confession, Tolstoy described his dilemma clearly and cogently:  “My question — that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide — was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?’

“Differently expressed, the question is: ‘Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’”

A rational, organized thinker, Tolstoy posited four responses: 1) ignorance—not knowing the question in the first place; 2) Epicureanism—living in the moment and moderately enjoying life, nonetheless, oblivious to deeper concerns; 3) the way of strength and courage--suicide; and 4) the way of weakness—knowing life’s absurdity, yet clinging to in vain hope. Tolstoy saw the fourth way as his personal situation, yet another instance of his inherent wretchedness.

My appreciation for Ecclesiastes causes me to examine Tolstoy’s criticism of the Epicurean solution, which Tolstoy strongly identified with Solomon of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Tolstoy opined, “Solomon expresses this way out thus: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: and that this should accompany him in his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.

"’Therefore eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart.... Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity...for this is thy portion in life and in thy labours which thou takest under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is not work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.’

“That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental, and that not everyone can have a thousand wives and palaces like Solomon, that for everyone who has a thousand wives there are a thousand without a wife, and that for each palace there are a thousand people who have to build it in the sweat of their brows; and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon's slave. The dullness of these people's imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.”

In a previous chapter of Confession, Tolstoy had quoted more than a thousand words of Ecclesiastes, one fifth of the ancient book’s text.  This suggests that Tolstoy realized how formidable a voice Solomon (or whoever wrote it, Tolstoy editorialized) presented.

Tolstoy’s judgment of moral dullness is an apt criticism of Ecclesiastes and Epicureanism.  Both lack ethical responses to injustices and inequities.

The moral acuity of Tolstoy—the moral acuity of Siddhartha, too, before his Enlightenment--might be the peculiar sensibility of what William James called a “sick soul.”

In the end, Tolstoy embraced faith in answer to his despairing question, in particular, the radical Christianity of Jesus’s teachings as evidenced in the Sermon on the Mount. (Tolstoy became a Christian anarchist and something of an ascetic.)

Ecclesiastes and Tolstoy both faced the notion of life’s absurdity arbitrated by death and reached divergent conclusions.  These conclusions show the divergence of the “sick soul” from the “sick soul’s” counterpart, the “healthy minded” person.

Ecclesiastes leans to a realistic healthy mindedness, that is, a reasonable enjoyment of life in the face of life’s absurdities, nonetheless.

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