A Scythe of the Times

Lev Tolstoy, in early and later life.

True story: After graduating college I set off with a dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina in my rucksack, inspired by the character of Kostya Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego in the celebrated novel, to experience life as a migrant agricultural worker. Kostya’s down-to-earth, heart-over-head morality appealed to me especially after an intellectually challenging senior year at university. I wanted to “get out of my head” and experience a different kind of knowing. And in the orchards of New Hampshire that fall, in the long rows of Galas and Fujis, I was able to experience on my own just the kind of back-to-basics satisfaction Tolstoy described in his novel:

They did row after row. They did long rows and short rows, and rows with good and bad grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had absolutely no idea whether it was late or early. A change had begun to take place in his work now which brought him immense pleasure. There were moments in the middle of his work when he forgot what he was doing and it became easy, and in those moments his row came out almost as evenly and as well as Titus’s. But as soon as he remembered what he was doing, and began trying to do it better, he immediately felt the full difficulty of the work, and his row came out badly.

This scene, as familiar to modern laborers as it would have been to a Russian peasant or a medieval monk, speaks to Tolstoy’s own spiritual dilemma: the sense of not knowing what we know, how much of what we know that gives our lives meaning is inaccessible to reason. This was a big theme in modernity that vexed the great writer, who found himself in that “dark wood,” familiar to those of us in middle age, when many realize that the master narrative that was supposed to make life meaningful — for Tolstoy it was “the superstition of progress,” — has left us cold.

The death of a loved one is often a catalyst, and the agonizing death of his brother from tuberculosis in the prime of his life was a painful moment of realization for Tolstoy. “A good, intelligent, serious man,… still young when he fell ill,” he recalls, died “without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying. No theories could provide any answers to these questions, either for him or for me, during his slow and painful death.” It’s a theme he explores further in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. For Ivan, it was the truth of his own death that never quite made sense. Tolstoy tells us Ivan could recite the syllogism he had learnt as a child from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” It made perfect sense, for Caius. Problem was: Ivan wasn’t Caius. There are two kinds of knowledge here, and this is, again, what Tolstoy is getting at: a rational type, which had seemed for a long time to him to be the only type; and an irrational type. It is this second kind of knowledge, which Tolstoy calls faith, that “provides us with the possibility of living.”

Faith offers resolution to “the contradiction between the finite and the infinite.” This is something scientism, with its reliance on “reason” and “progress” — the “superstition of the age,” according to Tolstoy — could not do. And this is where Levin comes in again as an avatar of empiricism, who finds God in nature and family. But Tolstoy was no mystic. Isaiah Berlin, in his seminal The Hedgehog and the Fox, reminds us: “He was against unintelligible mysteries, against mists of antiquity, against any kind of recourse to mumbo-jumbo.”

Tolstoy believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained; that this knowledge is always inadequate, that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories, and not because they are inspired vehicles of divine afflatus.

There is no way of knowing the unknowable, which, as it turns out, is much of what we long to know. But we can dwell in what Berlin calls “the medium,” or “the flow,” “the inexorable power of the present moment.” This is what faith came to mean to Tolstoy. But it was never completely “satisfactory” for a mind seemingly wired to seek rational answers. How could it be? How can it be? This is why some consider Tolstoy to be a nihilist.

For his part, Berlin saw him as by nature a fox (who knows a great many things) who believed in being a hedgehog (who knows one big thing). It just turned out, to his chagrin, that the one big thing there is to know is unknowable (even, alas, for the hedgehog). While Tolstoy’s spiritual journey parallels that of his fictional alter ego, Levin, the latter’s relatively happy ending represents an idealized version of life that diverged in a big way from the author’s own. As a wealthy landowner and celebrated intellectual known the world over, was always out of his element among the peasant class he so romanticized. He certainly saw his share of tragedy nonetheless. Five of his thirteen children died in childhood. Just as for Ivan Ilyich, no airtight syllogism could make sense of the reality of their deaths. At the end of his own life, Berlin observes,

Tolstoy’s sense of reality was … too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self blinded [like Oedipus] at Colonus.

Tolstoy’s spiritual journey is a reminder that faith doesn’t promise the solace of an Answer, or any solace at all in the end, but can, row after row, give us some sustaining work in which, by the sweat of our brows, to lose ourselves in the meantime.

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