…notes on tolstoy’s death of ivan ilyich

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…notes on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

If a confrontation of our personal existence is said to be existential, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych from the 1880s is a poignant account of a confrontation with Ivan’s life by way of his impending death.[1] Although this is a fictional account, it serves as an allegory for our confrontation with mortality. Perhaps the existential allegory is to urge us into recognizing that the life we face & look back on when we are about to die, should be of concern for us now, today as we read it. Tolstoy’s story becomes a moral lesson since it teaches us that the thought of one’s quickly approaching death enforces an evaluation of the life we’ve led up until then. One unfortunate feature of this confrontation is that life runs out faster than we can do anything to revise our actions up till then.  Life can be wasted away.

More than ¾ through Tolstoy’s recounting of Ivan’s steady decline, Ivan recalls a familiar example of deductive logic:

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Caius is a man

Conclusion: Caius is mortal

As philosophy students we usually introduced to this with  Socrates’ name in the place of Caius (a.k.a. Julius Ceasar).

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Socrates is a man

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

So the logical argument is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true in all cases. A deductive argument is generally said to argue from the general to the specific. When we examine the premises of the argument as true, the conclusion is sound (not merely valid). In other words, the premise all men are mortal is true. Albeit sexist in its antiquity, such statements are better thought of nowadays as: all humans are mortal. Nevertheless arguing that men and women are mortal does not invalidate the logic—no doubt, men are mortal as much as women, children, &c. (these points are for another paper). Nevertheless, we cannot deny this argument. This is one thing we can take for-granted: we all must die one day. This is irrefutable, yet in health we often feel we have some distance to its cold logic. This distance is what Ivan Ilych suddenly has the existential proximity to with the fresh threat of his own death in sharp focus. As Ivan thinks of this in revelatory horror, “And it cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too awful.”[2] Caius is mortal, Socrates is mortal, everyone is mortal & the simple cold logic is that we are mortal too. Today we update the argument like so:

Premise: All humans are mortal

Premise: I am human

Conclusion: I am mortal

When we think of this logic we are introducing ourselves to basic logic in philosophy class. Logically, we know it’s is a sound argument, there’s no argument against it. We do not live forever, but death seems to always come for someone else, not ours, or at least not now in the classroom, or while we’re reading this. We often feel that death will not come for some time in the far distant future.

Ivan’s looming death puts his life up till then into sharp focus causing him to look helplessly forward to his inescapable decline. His existential crisis is our existential crisis only if we are keen to its significance before it’s too late. His life was for the most part unhappy save a game of bridge here & there in the name of enjoying friendships. He had an upstanding job as a judge which brought him negligible fulfillment. His marriage was clouded with petty discord. The beginning of his decline happens when he falls off a ladder decorating his home as an aspiration of popular bourgeoisie taste.

Tolstoy’s moral lesson is an exhortation for us to live authentic lives. To be authentic is to take ownership of one’s life instead of obliging our behavior around the expectation of others. Death sharpens our focus on life. It is up to us to face mortality as a way to inspire us to lead a life we can value when we face death authentically, soundly & honestly.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, edited by George Strade (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).

[2] Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilych, 122.

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