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Tolstoy Journal: June 7, 2017: “Why should I not live for others?”

Last night during my holy hour I read “How to Resist Evil” from The Kingdom of God Is Within You, “What Pierre Learned from Platon the Peasant” from War and Peace, “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” and “A Spark Neglected Burns the House.” I am also up to page 118 of Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XXIII of The Cossacks.

It is very hard to answer the case Tolstoy presents in “How to Resist Evil.” You think it’s not as cut and dry as he says, but then you wonder if that’s really true. Maybe we just lack the courage to live the way we should.

Tolstoy: “What! All of us, Christians, not only profess to love one another, but do actually live one common life; we whose social existence beats with one common pulse–we aid one another, learn from one another, draw ever closer to one another to our mutual happiness, and find in this closeness the whole meaning of life!–and tomorrow some crazy ruler will say some stupidity, and another will answer in the same spirit, and then I must go expose myself to being murdered, and murder people–who have done me no harm–and more than that, whom I love. And this is not a remote contingency, but the very thing we are all preparing for, which is not only probable, but an inevitable certainty.

“To recognize this clearly is enough to drive people out of their senses or to make them shoot themselves. And this is just what does happen, and especially often in the military. People need only come to themselves for an instant to be impelled inevitably to such an end.

“And this is the only explanation of the dreadful intensity with which people of modern times strive to stupefy themselves, with spirits, tobacco, opium, cards, reading newspapers, traveling, and all kinds of spectacles and amusements. These pursuits are followed up as an important, serious business. And indeed they are a serious business. If there were no external means of dulling their sensibilities, half of humankind would shoot themselves without delay, for to live in opposition to one’s reason is the most intolerable condition. And that is the condition of all people of the present day. All people of the modern world exist in a state of continual and flagrant antagonism between their conscience and their way of life. This antagonism is apparent in economic as well as political life. But most striking of all is the contradiction between the Christian law of the brotherhood of all people existing in the conscience and the necessity under which all men are placed by compulsory military service of being prepared for hatred and murder–of being at the same time a Christian and a gladiator.”

Well, as I typed that passage out, I thought, there is a lot of truth here and a lot of extreme–invalid–reasoning. Sometimes stupid comments cause wars but sometimes one country wants to take over and enslave another. Sometimes people stupefy themselves because it’s fun. It’s not all or nothing, Leo. But, in general, you’ve got a colossal point here. Jesus says he could’ve called in the angels to prevent his crucifixion but he didn’t. He turned the other cheek.

What struck me in The Cossacks was the passage wherein Olyenin goes back out hunting the day after he hunted with Uncle Yeroshka. This is one of those scenes that Steiner would perhaps say is rhetoric, but it works fine for me. Olyenin feels himself one with nature, but that leads him to want to be altruistic. This has been something I have often thought about: in Buddhism, all life is the same, you are to kill nothing; but the corollary to that, it would seem, is that the life of a mosquito is equal to the life of a human being and that is absurd.

Here is Olyenin in the forest:

“‘Here I, Dmitri Olyenin, an entity distinct from all others, am lying all alone, God knows where, in the very place where lives a stag, an old stag, a handsome fellow, which has perhaps never even seen a man, and in a place, likewise, where no human being has ever been before, or thought of being. . . . Around me, flying among the leaves, which seem to them vast islands, the gnats are hovering in the air, and buzzing; one, two, three, four, a hundred, a thousand, a million gnats, and each one of them is buzzing something for some special reason around me, and each one of them is a Dmitri Olyenin, an entity distinct from all the others as much as I am.’ . . . .

“And it became clear to him that he was not in the least a Russian nobleman, a member of Moscow society, the friend and relative of this person and that, but a mere gnat, like these others . . . .

“And he began to review his past life, and it seemed to him disgusting. He seemed in his own eyes such an exacting egotist, even while in reality he had no real needs at all. And all the time he was gazing at the brilliant green of the foliage, at the descending sun and the clear sky, and he realized that his happiness still kept at the same high level.

“‘Why am I happy? And what has been the aim of my past life?’ he asked himself. ‘How exacting I have been for my own interests, how whimsical I have been, and what have been the results of my actions?–only shame and suffering! And now how little I find is essential for happiness.’

“And suddenly it seemed as if a new world were revealed to him. ‘This is what happiness is,’ he said to himself. ‘Happiness consists in living for others. This also is clear. Man is endowed with a craving for happiness; therefore it must be legitimate. If he satisfies it egotistically–that is, if he bends his energies toward acquiring wealth, fame, physical comforts, it may happen that circumstances will make it impossible to satisfy this craving. In fact, these cravings are illegitimate, but the craving for happiness is not illegitimate. What cravings can always be satisfied independently of external conditions?–Love, self-denial.’

“The discovery of this, which seemed to him a new truth, so delighted and satisfied him that he sprang up and began impatiently to consider whom he might as quickly as possible sacrifice himself for, to whom he might do good, whom he might love.

“‘Since I need nothing for myself,’ he kept thinking, ‘why should I not live for others?'”

This passage strikes me as akin to the description of Buddha under the Bodhi tree.


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