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Books Read in 2017-2018 > The Death of Ivan Ilych - Spoliers

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message 1: by Loretta, Moderator (new)

Loretta | 5983 comments Mod
Please use this thread to discuss the book freely!

message 2: by MJD (last edited Dec 01, 2018 07:35PM) (new)

MJD | 372 comments Tolstoy Background, Supplementary Material, and where I think Tolstoy is coming from and trying to say:

In order to better understand Tolstoy’s point of view it may be beneficial to read his autobiographical book A Confession. Also, to supplement that book, it may be beneficial to read the biographical book Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy by Otto Heller (note: the chapter on Tolstoy in this book is self-contained and can be read independent of the other parts of the book).

I also think that there are religious and philosophical sources that Tolstoy was aware of and may have incorporated into this book, which I’ll cite bellow.


Given what I've read in the two books cited above, he seems to have had a worldview very much influenced by the Old Testament book “Ecclesiastes” and the gospels in the New Testament.


The parts of Ecclesiastes that I think are the most relevant to this book are as follows:

Ecclesiastes 1:14 “New International Version” ‘I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’

Ecclesiastes 2:11 “New International Version” ‘Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.’


The parts of the gospels that I think are the most relevant to this book are as follows:

Matthew 6:19-21 “New International Version” “19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

Luke 12:13-21 “New International Version” ‘13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’


Schopenhauerian philosophy:
As Schopenhauer supposedly was influential to Tolstoy (see the preview page of the book in this link https://www.jstor.org/stable/24748326... ), reading his writings can help in understanding and appreciating what Tolstoy wrote. For example, having read both “The Basis of Morality” by Arthur Schopenhauer and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy, it seems to me that Tolstoy could have been drawing from ideas found in the "Basis of Morality" book (especially the part of Schopenhauer's book where he writes about the mental state of people as they approach death).

I think that the most relevant part of “The Basis of Morality” to this book would be as follows from the link http://www.gutenberg.org/files/44929/...



“Indeed, in Moral Science the need of a metaphysical basis is more urgent than in any other, because all systems, philosophical no less than religious, are at one in persistently attaching to conduct not only an ethical, but also a metaphysical significance, which, passing beyond the mere appearance of things, transcends every possibility of experience, and therefore stands in the closest connection with human destiny and with the whole cosmic process. For if life (it is averred) have a meaning, then the supreme goal to which it points is undoubtedly ethical. Nor is this view a bare unsupported theory; it is sufficiently established by the undeniable fact that, as death draws nigh, the thoughts of each individual assume[Pg 259] a moral trend, equally whether he be credulous of religious dogmas, or not; he is manifestly anxious to wind up the affairs of his life, now verging to its end, entirely from the moral standpoint. In this particular the testimony of the ancients is of special value, standing, as they do, outside the pale of Christian influence. I shall therefore here quote a remarkable passage preserved by Stobaeus, in his Florilegium (chap. 44, §. 20). It has been attributed to the earliest Hellenic lawgiver, Zaleucus, though, according to Bentley and Heyne, its source is Pythagorean. The language is graphic and unmistakable. Δεῑ τίθεσθαι πρὸ ὀμμάτων τὸν καιρὸν τοῡτον, ἐν ᾧ γίγνεται τὸ τέλος ἑκάστῳ τῆς ἀπαλλαγς τοῡ ξῆν. Πᾱσι γὰρ ἐμπίπτει μεταμέλεια τοῑς μέλλουσι τελευτᾱν, μεμνημένοις ὧν ἠδικήκασι, καὶ ὁρμὴ τοῡ βούλεσθαι πάντα πεπράχθαι δικαίως αὐτοῑς.[1]”

(the translation of the above quote) “[1] We ought to realise as if before our eyes that moment of time when the end comes to each one for deliverance from living. Because all who are about to die are seized with repentance, remembering, as they do, their unjust deeds, and being filled with the wish that they had always acted justly.—Ἀπαλλαγή = Erlösung. V. Joannes Stobeaus, Florilegium, edit. Meineke; publ. Lipsiae: Teubner, 1855. Vol. ii., p. 164, l. 7 sqq.—(Translator.)”

“Furthermore, to come to an historical personage, we find Pericles, on his death-bed, unwilling to hear anything about his great achievements, and only anxious to know that he had never brought trouble on a citizen. (Plutarch, Life of Pericles.) Turning to modern times, if a very different case may be placed beside the preceding, I remember having noticed in a report of depositions made[Pg 260] before an English jury the following occurrence. A rough negro lad, fifteen years old, had been mortally injured in some brawl on board a ship. As he was dying, he eagerly begged that all his companions might be fetched in haste: he wanted to ask if he had ever vexed or insulted any one of them, and after hearing that he had not, his mind appeared greatly relieved. It is indeed the uniform teaching of experience that those near death wish to be reconciled with every one before they pass away.”

message 3: by Ann (new)

Ann Rahfeldt | 3 comments surprise....this was such an easy read...probably because I have somehow got ton to age 75 and am not looking forward to death. But he could have used some more true friends.

message 4: by Rosemarie (new)

Rosemarie | 1564 comments His revelation about his life, and the mistake he made about what constituted a good life came too late.
Tolstoy was good at depicting the hypocrisy of the society of the time.

message 5: by Schneil (new)

Schneil Schnops | 3 comments Ann wrote: "surprise....this was such an easy read...probably because I have somehow got ton to age 75 and am not looking forward to death. But he could have used some more true friends."

I also found it a very easy read, which I fully didn't expect while reading a 19th century Russian novella

message 6: by Schneil (new)

Schneil Schnops | 3 comments I definitely noticed the existential themes in this novella. Those Ecclesiastes quotations are pithy expressions of the tenets of existentialism- life is meaningless, which is freeing.

message 7: by MJD (new)

MJD | 372 comments Schneil wrote: "I definitely noticed the existential themes in this novella. Those Ecclesiastes quotations are pithy expressions of the tenets of existentialism- life is meaningless, which is freeing."

While I am very interested in the philosophic implications of there being no meaning in life (I'm a big fan of Camus), I think that the Bible or this book's message is not that life is meaningless but rather that people can get caught up in pursuing meaningless stuff in a way that distracts them from real meaning. Focusing on this book, it seems to me that its saying that the pursuit of stuff and status is ultimately meaningless (kinda like being stuck on a hedonistic treadmill), but that there are other qualities to life that are worthy of pursuit (kinda like getting off the treadmill and being present in the world with others).

I think that the exploration of the idea of "having" as opposed to "being" as approached in Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism can apply well to the theme in this book.

message 8: by MJD (new)

MJD | 372 comments I really liked the part near the end where the protagonist was having trouble communicating his thoughts to others. A part that particularly struck me was this quote: "He tried to add, 'Forgive me,' but said 'Forego' and waved his hand..." http://pd.sparknotes.com/lit/ivanilyc...

What he wanted to say and what seems to have been conveyed by what he said and did seem to be radically different. It really made me sympathetic to the character about his inability to truly communicate with others.

It reminded me of the following issue that Bertrand Russell brings up in his preface to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

"There are various problems as regards language. First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology. Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology. Thirdly, there is the problem of using
sentences so as to convey truth rather than falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subject-matter of the sentences in question. Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?"

message 9: by Schneil (new)

Schneil Schnops | 3 comments good point. I should've phrased it differently, but what I meant by existentialism seeing life as meaningless is that there are no standards to life that you must adhere to. There is no judgment in the end. So life is ultimately meaningless by whatever arbitrary standard of life you've adopted. However, by recognizing the ultimate meaninglessness of life, you can then create your own meaning and purpose out of the nothingness.
If Ivan Ilyich stopped living according to this sort of bourgeois middle class standard of life that he felt was the only standard to live by, he could've carved out a more personal meaning in life and achieved some self-actualization rather than feeling like he wasted his entire life when on his deathbed.

message 10: by MJD (new)

MJD | 372 comments Schneil wrote: "good point. I should've phrased it differently, but what I meant by existentialism seeing life as meaningless is that there are no standards to life that you must adhere to. There is no judgment in..."

I think that we may be using the word “meaning” differently when it comes to judging how one should live one’s life in evaluating the meaning of the book’s message.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be interpreting living a meaningful life as living in accordance with a divine/objective command (be it be from a theistic god like in Christianity or Islam, or a pantheistic nature like in Daoism), like what is supported by people who believe in divine command theory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_... That is, that an “ought” can be derived from an “is” (i.e. This “is” God’s command, therefore I “ought” to do it.)

What I mean by living a meaningful life is that one “ought” to live a certain way given what the nature of reality “is” “if” one cares about wellbeing. That is, that a bridge can be formed from “is” to “ought” with an “if.” While one is ultimately free to not care about the “if,” I do think that if one does care about maximizing their own wellbeing they are not entirely free to act in whichever way they want. I think that I might clear things up by an analogy to eating. That is, while one technically has the freedom to eat anything they want, “if” they care about their health they “ought” to not eat lead because lead “is” poisonous. (For a more in-depth examination of this point I would recommend the book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” by Sam Harris https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7... )

Getting back to this book, I think the point is that “if” the character really cared about living a fulfilling life, then he “ought” not to have been imposing the meaning of seeking stuff and status on himself as that “is” not ultimately satisfying. Instead he “ought” to have lived in accordance with a meaning to life along the lines that it is better to focus on making connections with loved ones “if” he wanted to live a more fulfilling life given that the book gives reasons that this form of living “is” more fulfilling.

message 11: by MJD (new)

MJD | 372 comments MJD wrote: "Schneil wrote: "good point. I should've phrased it differently, but what I meant by existentialism seeing life as meaningless is that there are no standards to life that you must adhere to. There i..."

To clear things up further (hopefully), I think that Tolstoy is saying that it may be necessary to reject an externally imposed meaning for life (i.e. “bourgeois middle class standard of life”) and “carve out a more personal meaning in life” as you say, but I think that Tolstoy is saying that there is some externally imposed basis for properly creating a good personal meaning.

I am reminded of what Nietzsche’s criteria was for evaluating an opinion in “Beyond Good and Evil” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4363/... “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life.”

To me it seems that Nietzsche (a guy who promoted killing the dragon “Thou Shalt” in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” http://nietzsche.holtof.com/Nietzsche... and was always attacking supposed externally imposed and objective truth and morality) does have an externally imposed basis for adhering to opinions, that they are “life-furthering, life-preserving…” In this way I think that even in a Nietzschean conception of adopting values there is still an objective basis in that one cannot choose what is life-furthering.

Getting back to Tolstoy’s book, I think that he is using a similar basis as Nietzsche when evaluating what the meaning of life is. I think that by making an injury sustained by decorating the house in an effort to keep up with a “sort of bourgeois middle class standard of life that he felt was the only standard to live by” the basis of the main character’s suffering and death is Tolstoy’s way of saying that that standard is not “life-furthering, life-preserving…” Also, by giving his character so much bliss after adopting a new standard, a new meaning, Tolstoy seems to be saying that this other path is better.

Overall, I think that Tolstoy is pointing out that there is an objective basis to formulating a proper meaning to life, something out there to be discovered rather than created.

message 12: by Loretta, Moderator (new)

Loretta | 5983 comments Mod
Another good pick Members! Glad to see that members enjoyed the book! 🤗

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