Podcast: “Sophocles and Tragic Love” | Sacred and Profane Love, Episode 8

Theatre of Dionysus.
Photo: Flickr, NMares

Download Episode 8:
Sophocles and Tragic Love

In episode 8 of Sacred & Profane Love, Jennifer Frey speaks with Dhananjay Jagannathan about Greek tragedy and the fragility of human loves and happiness, with a special focus on Sophocles’ play, The Women of Trachis.

Dhananjay Jagannathan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.   He mainly works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics, but he is also interested in contemporary virtue ethics, political philosophy, and topics at the intersection of philosophy and literature. He is writing a book on Aristotle’s practical epistemology, which was also the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Podcast: “Transfiguring Love in the Brothers Karamazov” | Sacred & Profane Love

 

SAPL4podcastimage
 
In Episode 2 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with fellow philosopher, David McPherson (Creighton University), about transfiguring love as explored by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his influential novel, The Brother’s Karamazov.  The episode covers Dostoyevksy’s treatment of the classic problem of evil—i.e., the problem of reconciling God’s love and wisdom with the evil and suffering that are part of his creation—and in particular, his idea that active and self-transcending love for others is the only proper response to human suffering, because the only true path to achieving the kind of deep happiness that is the goal of every human heart.
Works under discussion in Episode 2:
David McPherson is assistant professor of philosophy at Creighton University.  His research and teaching center around ethics (especially virtue ethics) and the philosophy of religion.  He has authored many essays on ethics, moral psychology, and spirituality.  He is most recently the editor of the collection of essays, Spirituality and the Good Life (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  David is current working on a monograph on human beings as meaning seeking animals.      

 Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

NEXT Episode 3: Nancy Snow, “Walt Whitman on hope and national character”

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

 

Virtue and the Bonds of Love

 

34731576173_0492ed5efc_z
Photo by Graeme Scott.

“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said.[1] Many of us want to know how we can become better people. We want to know how we can help our children and our students to become better people. Indeed, philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have been interested in how it is that people become virtuous, perhaps because, as Julia Annas puts it, “We cannot understand what virtue is without coming to understand how we acquire it.”[2] And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight,[3] he appears to have been exactly right, even prophetic.

 

Recent psychology suggests that an enormous factor in moral development—perhaps the great factor—is attachment. ‘Attachment’ is a fancy word for enduring love, the sort we see between parents and children, and in marriages and close friendships. None of us would want to live without such love. Few of us have ever lacked it completely, and the times we’re made to go without enough of it are oppressively painful, like going without sunlight or fresh air.

 

All of this is taken onboard by attachment theory, a research program in developmental psychology that aims at explaining the nature and significance of human attachments.[4] One of the major claims of attachment theory is that, through their early experiences with a caregiver, infants form an internal “map” of what they can expect from others. If, for instance, the caregiver is warm and attentive, the infant will write this down on his map. He will then use his map to go about future socializing. He will expect others to be warm and attentive. He will trust that, if he shows his needs to them, they will care. He will be, as the experts say, “securely attached”.

 

If, on the other hand, the caregiver is a lousy bum, the infant will expect others to be lousy bums. Perhaps he will decide that he had better rely on himself to get his needs met. He will be “insecurely attached”.

 

Of course, both the writing of the map and the using of it are unconscious processes, only entering consciousness as a whiff of anxiety here or a sigh of relief there. And this may sound like so much Freudian mysticism. But the “map” here is really just a stored mental representation, and it is by now commonplace that the brain unconsciously creates mental representations of how things are, that it uses these to make predictions, and that it begins to do so no later than when we come screaming into the world.[5]

 

Children who are securely attached have more of the stuff that virtues are made of. It is alarming, in fact. In a study from Jude Cassidy’s lab,[6] for example, researchers interviewed children using puppets (they say it’s for the kids). They ask the children questions that elicit self-reflection. They code their answers in one of three ways:

Perfect: No negative comments about the self at all.

Negative: Globally negative remarks about the self.

Flexible: Globally positive remarks about the self, mixed with specific negative remarks.

What they found? Securely attached children were more likely to talk about themselves in the flexible way. What this seems to suggest is that being securely attached means you are better able to love and respect yourself while admitting to specific ways you could improve.

 

It’s worth underlining this. Consider how important this ability is to personal growth. Indeed, one of the great challenges of human life is finding a way to admit one’s gruesome imperfections without being crushed by the shame of it. One meets many people who deal with this by only embracing one side of the dilemma. One tells the truth, and is crushed. Or one avoids the crushing but only through self-deceit. The trick is to tell the truth, the whole damn thing, without sentencing yourself to life without parole. (An analogous challenge arises when it comes to our love for others: How do we love them when we discover their vileness?)

 

The Cassidy study only scratches the surface. Here is a list of eleven other virtue-related areas where the securely attached are better off:[7]

  1. Self-worth[8]

 

  1. Realistic self-image[9]

 

  1. Emotion regulation[10]

 

  1. Cooperative problem solving[11]

 

  1. Self-reliance[12]

 

  1. Understanding of others’ needs and emotions[13]

 

  1. Understanding of one’s own needs and emotions[14]

 

  1. Acceptance of vulnerability[15]

 

  1. Resilience[16]

 

  1. Conscience development[17]

 

  1. Open and elaborative conversational style[18]

 

In light of this stunning list, it appears Chesterton was right: A thing must be loved before it is loveable. We must be loved before we are loveable. As Steinbeck writes, “underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”

 

One of the most sublime scenes in Peter Pan has Wendy telling the lost boys how she and her brothers came to the Neverland. The boys are concerned, though. Won’t their parents miss them? This is her response:

“If you knew how great is a mother’s love,” Wendy told them triumphantly, “you would have no fear. … You see,” Wendy said complacently, “our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.”

Wendy, too, is prophetic. The world can be for us a Neverland, a place of enchantment and wonder, where good things run wild, only if we know there is someone who has left the window open for us.

 

There is a thorn in all this, given the many people who endure a fraught childhood followed by a lonely adulthood. Aristotle thought that it was through practicing the virtues that we acquire them. “We become just by doing just actions,” he says. Recently, Julia Annas has taken this up, drawing an analogy with learning the piano:

 

I need first to work out consciously what is the right thing to do and then get used to doing it over and over again. This goes on from learning notes to learning scales and arpeggios and then learning how to play sonatas. As I become a skilled piano player … I can play sonatas and other pieces in a way that, as with driving, proceeds without conscious thinking.[19]

 

Annas thinks acquiring virtues is like this, a view we might call the skill model. There is something right about the skill model, but something it leaves out as well. If you want to become virtuous, the research we’ve seen here suggests, not the practicing of the virtues, but the healing of the attachments. This is something done in therapy and by working towards healthy intimate relationships. Learning the virtues is like learning the piano, but many of us are playing with hands that have been broken and mangled. We do not need practice. We need rehab.

 

References

Annas, J., (2011), Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press.

Bowlby, J., (1980), Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness, and Depression, New

York: Basic Books.

Cassidy, J., (1988), “Child-Mother Attachment and the Self in Six-Year-Olds”, Child

Development 59(1): 121-134.

Chesterton, G. K., (1909), Orthodoxy, New York: John Lane Company; London: John

Lane, The Bodley Head.

Clark, S., and D. Symons, (2000), “A Longitudinal Study of Mother-Child Relationships

and Theory of Mind in the Preschool Period”, Social Development 9(1): 3-23.

Colman, R., and R. Thompson, (2002), “Attachment Security and the Problem-Solving

Behaviors of Mothers and Children”, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48(4): 337-359.

Dykas, M., and J. Cassidy, (2011), “Attachment and the Processing of Social

Information across the Life Span: Theory and Evidence”, Psychological Bulletin

137(1): 19-46.

Fivush, R., Haden, C., and E. Reese, (2006), “Elaborating on Elaborations: Role of

Maternal Reminiscing Style in Cognitive and Socioemotional Development”,

Child Development 77(6): 1568-1588.

Goodvin, R., S. Meyer, R. Thompson, and R. Hayes, (2008), “Self-Understanding in

Early Childhood: Associations with Child Attachment Security and Maternal

Negative Affect”, Attachment and Human Development 10: 433-450.

Harcourt, E., (2013), “Attachment Theory, Character, and Naturalism”, Ethics in

Contemporary Perspective, Julia Peters (ed.), New York: Routledge.

Kobak, R., Cole, H., Ferenz-Gillies, R., Fleming, W., and W. Gamble, (1993),

“Attachment and Emotion Regulation during Mother-Teen Problem Solving: A Control Theory Analysis”, Child Development 64(1): 231-245.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (2000), “Mother-Child Discourse, Attachment Security,

Shared Positive Affect, and Early Conscience Development”, Child Development 71(5): 1424-40.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (1998), “Attachment and Emotional Understanding in

Preschool Children”, Developmental Psychology 34(5): 1038-1045.

LeDoux, Joseph, (1996), The Emotional Brain, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mikulincer, M., and P. Shaver, (2012), “An Attachment Perspective on

Psychopathology”, World Psychiatry 11(1): 11-15.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P., and D. Pereg, (2003), “Attachment Theory and Affect

Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of

Attachment-Related Strategies”, Motivation and Emotion 27(2): 77-102.

Narvaez, D., (2016), “Baselines for Virtues”, Developing the Virtues, J. Annas, D.

Narvaez, and N. Snow, Oxford University Press.

Oppenheim, D., and N. Koren-Karie, (2009), “Mother-Child Emotion Dialogues: A

Window into the Psychological Secure Base”, Stress and Memory Development: Biological, Social and Emotional Considerations, J. Quas and R. Fivush (eds.), Oxford University Press.

Pollak, S., (2011), “Mechanisms Linking Early Experience and the Emergence of

Emotions: Illustrations From the Study of Maltreated Children”, Current

Directions in Psychological Science 17(6): 370-375.

Raikes, H., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., and H. Hatton, (2013), “Declines in Peer Conflict

from Preschool through First Grade: Influences from Early Attachment and Social Information Processing”, Attachment and Human Development 15(1): 65-82.

Raikes, H., and R. Thompson, (2008), “Attachment Security and Parenting Quality

Predict Children’s Problem-Solving, Attributions, and Loneliness with Peers”,

Attachment and Human Development 10(3): 319-44.

Reese, E., (2002), “Social Factors in the Development of Autobiographical Memory: The

State of the Art”, 11(1): 124-142

Sroufe, L., (1983), “Individual Patterns of Adaptation from Infancy to Preschool”,

Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, Vol. 16, M. Perlmutter (ed.), University of Minnesota Press.

Sroufe, L., Fox, N., and V. Pancake, (1983), “Attachment and Dependency in

Developmental Perspective”, Child Development 54(6): 1615-1627.

Thompson, R., (2015), “The Development of Virtue: A Perspective from Developmental

Psychology”, Cultivating Virtue, N. Snow (ed.), Oxford University Press.

Thompson, R., (2000), “The Legacy of Early Attachments”, Child Development 71: 145-

152.

Waters, S., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., Meyer, S., Raikes, H., and R. Jochem, (2010),

“Emotion Regulation and Attachment: Unpacking Two Constructs and Their Association”, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 32(1): 37-47

 

 

[1] Chesterton (1909), p. 89.

[2] Annas, (2011), p. 21.

[3] An important exception is Harcourt (2013).

[4] See, for instance, Bowlby (1980).

[5] LeDoux (1996), Ch. 7.

[6] Cassidy (1988).

[7] I’m offering here a laundry list. Naturally, some psychologists have developed more systematic views that incorporate data in this area; see, for instance, Narvaez (2016) and Thompson (2015).

[8] Colman and Thompson (2002); Goodvin et al. (2008); Sroufe (1983).

[9] Clark and Symons (2000); Dykas and Cassidy (2011).

[10] Kobak et al. (1993); Mikulincer et al. (2003) et al.; Waters et al. (2010).

[11] Raikes and Thompson (2008); Raikes et al. (2013).

[12] Sroufe et al. (1983); Thompson (2000).

[13] Laible and Thompson (1998); Pollak (2008).

[14] Openhaim and Koren-Karie (2009).

[15] Mikulincer and Shaver (2008).

[16] Colman and Thompson (2002).

[17] Kochanska et al. (2004); Laible and Thompson (2000)

[18] Fivush et al. (2006); Reese (2002).

[19] Annas (2011), p. 13.


Brian Ballard recently earned his doctorate from the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work address the nature of emotion and its role in the good life, and he was a participant in the 2016 summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness” for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project.

Boethius on Happiness Part II: Happiness and Love

fortune3
Image found on the post Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from “the bower” blog.

Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.

I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?

I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.

Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.

Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.

Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.

Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.

 

Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Tolstoy on Love and Self-Transcendence

AdobeStock_70525485.jpeg
Leo Tolstoy, 1862

In his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy explores questions about happiness and the meaning of life with brutal honesty and realism. Tolstoy’s harrowing account of one man’s confrontation with his own mortality helps us to see that even the most selfish and shallow life still contains within it the inherent potential for redemption through self-transcendent, sacrificial love.


The story’s protagonist is Ivan, a late nineteenth century Russian bureaucrat who strives, above all else, to live a “decorous and pleasant life”—a life of material comfort that is, at least to the greatest extent he can manage, insulated from hardship or suffering.  We read that Ivan is “capable, cheerful, and sociable” as well as “playful, witty, good-humored and bon enfant.”  He is industrious in his well-appointed role as a public prosecutor and content to do “his duty,” but Tolstoy cautions us that Ivan understands duty not in the moralist’s sense, but in accordance with what members of the Russian haute bourgeoisie perceive as good, proper, and decent.  It is their standards that Ivan has internalized and their approval and validation that he seeks.  By this measure, even at a young age, Ivan is succeeding in living well, and this brings him great satisfaction.

As a young man Ivan falls in love with “the most attractive, intelligent, brilliant girl,” Preskovia, who was also a member of his social class and consequently shared his general outlook.  Ivan married her both because he loves her (at least as he loves anything –he finds her company “agreeable”) but also because she is met with the approval of his social circle.  But the demands of marriage and family life soon lose their charms for Ivan, as he learns that domesticity does not always (or perhaps even very often) fit his ideals of agreeableness; thus he quickly finds it essential “to shut himself off from such interferences” to his personal well being.  To avoid the trials that typically attend family life, Ivan throws himself into his work, where he takes particular delight in the power and honors the position affords him.  Of this darker aspect of Ivan’s pleasure seeking, Tolstoy writes:

The awareness of his power, the power he had to ruin anyone he chose to ruin, the importance and even the outward dignity of his entrance into the courtroom and his meetings with subordinates, his success with both superiors and subordinates, and—above all—the mastery with which, as he felt, he carried out his duties—all this gave him pleasure, and alongside chats with his colleagues, dinners, and whist [cards], it was what filled up his life.  So, on the whole, the life of Ivan Ilyich went on as he felt it ought to, that is pleasantly and decorously. (p. 169)

In this way, we learn, seventeen agreeable years of Ivan’s life pass.

But then Ivan reaches a point of perceived stagnation in his career, and feels that his talents are being neglected.  He sees that he is being passed over for promotions that he both desires and feels he alone deserves, and he feels forgotten and wronged by his colleagues.  He sets off for Petersburg with a single aim: to get a position that carries a significant raise.  Through luck he succeeds, attaining a position in a new ministry “two grades higher than his colleagues.”  At this achievement, all his hard feelings are forgotten, and he is “perfectly happy.” Ivan takes particular pleasure in his awareness that he is now the envy of many colleagues who previously ignored him, and who now must grovel before him.

The newfound happiness Ivan experiences on the occasion of his promotion allows him to resume pleasant relations with his wife.  Having a new influx of money, they take on the task of securing a much larger apartment they can decorate together.  Ivan throws himself into this task with determination and joy, making every detail very elegant and comme il faut.  He particularly relishes his thoughts of how impressed his friends will be once his vision of a finely appointed home is completely realized.

At this point in the narrative Ivan truly believes he is happy and living just as he should. Although his life is devoid of love and shot through with motives of pride, vanity, and greed, as far as he can see everything is very good. And yet Ivan stands on the precipice of existential despair. For his agreeable existence is about to be disrupted by a mysterious ailment, which will open up horizons of suffering and torments previously unimaginable to him.

Ivan’s troubles begin with bouts of nausea, and a mysterious pain on the left side of his stomach, which only grows worse over time.  His condition casts a pall over his otherwise happy mood, and makes him unable to find pleasure in his normal routines.  Just as quickly as their reconciliation had come about, relations between Ivan and Preskovia begin to unravel; they take to quarrelling often as Ivan finds that the easy and agreeable feelings he longs for have vanished. Soon enough, a mutual hatred grows between them.

Despite the fact that he is seeing all the most famous doctors and taking his medicines punctiliously, Ivan can see that his condition is worsening.  He begins to realize the gravity of his situation, and despair descends upon him.  After a month of trying to convince himself that he is improving and will recover, Ivan realizes that he is dying.  And yet he is unable to comprehend or reconcile himself to this fact; in fact, he actively works to hide from the grim reality.  Of Ivan’s internal struggle with the truth, Tolstoy writes:

“He couldn’t understand it, and tried to banish this thought as false, wrong, and morbid, and put other thoughts in its place, correct thoughts and healthy ones.  And this thought—and not only the thought but what seemed to be the reality—kept coming back and standing there before him.  And he called up a succession of other thoughts to displace this one, hoping to find support in them. He tried to return to his old thought patterns, which had once shielded him from death. But strangely enough, everything that had once screened away, hidden, or abolished the awareness of death now failed to produce that effect.” (p. 188)

Ivan finds himself in unchartered psychological territory, as neither work, cards, or his fine home can any longer distract him from the unbearable truth.  He finds himself all alone, face to face with it, though there was nothing to do “but stare at it and shudder.”  He must confront and reconcile himself to death, but finds he is unable.

And so his life becomes a torment to him.  Ivan is particularly aggrieved by the fact that no one around him—his colleagues, his doctors, his family—will acknowledge reality.  They all perpetrate the “lie” that he is merely ill; worse still, they force him to participate in this lie.  And so Ivan is deprived of the pity he feels is owed to him.  Ivan wants desperately to be “caressed, and kissed, and wept over” even though he knows such behavior does not befit a man of his age and social stature.  Instead he is merely prodded and poked by his doctors, cajoled by his wife, and ostracized by his so-called friends.

Ivan begins to enter a phase where his sufferings take on new dimensions: fear, helplessness, loneliness, and doubt.  In particular, Ivan begins to doubt that his life had been anything more than a trivial and dubious mistake.  He begins to worry that he never perceived reality clearly, and that what he thought was life was really death:

“It’s as if I had been going downhill, while imagining that I was climbing uphill.  That’s what it was.  In society’s eyes I was going uphill, and at exactly the same pace life was vanishing from under me.” (p. 202)

But once again, while Ivan knows the truth in his heart, he is still unable to reconcile himself to it. He struggles and fights back against it:

“‘Perhaps I didn’t live as I should have done?’… ‘But how can it have been wrong, when I did everything properly?’ he said to himself, instantly dismissing as completely impossible this one and only solution to the whole riddle of life and death.” (p. 202)

Ivan’s struggle to accept the truth, “that everything had been a huge and terrible deception which had shut out both life and death” (p. 206) is his final torment, the cause of an internal struggle that sends him into a fit of madness during which he screams uninterrupted for three days.  Tolstoy describes his inner ordeal as follows:

“For those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which some invisible, invincible force was thrusting him.  He fought as a man condemned to death fights in the arms of the executioner, knowing that he could not save himself; and minute by minute he felt that, despite all his struggles, he was drawing nearer and nearer to the thing that horrified him.  He felt that his torment lay both in the fact that he was being thrust into that black hole, and even more so in the fact that he could not get into it.  And what prevented him from getting into it was his awareness that his life had been a good one.  It was this justification of his own life that held him back, not letting him go forward, and tormenting him more than anything.” (p. 207-8)

The struggle ends when Ivan has a sudden revelation: his life really was a worthless mistake, but it could now “be put right.” But how? Ivan does not have a clear answer until Vasya enters the room, kisses his hand, and bursts into tears; soon after Preskovia, who is also weeping, enters as well. For the first time Ivan sees what they need from him and lovingly responds. He realizes that to let himself die he needs to cease justifying his own life.  And so, instead of continuing to try to reassure himself, he asks them for forgiveness for his failures.  And with that gesture, suddenly,

“it was clear to him that the thing that had been oppressing him, and not letting him go, was now releasing him all at once, from two sides, from ten sides, from every side. He was sorry for them, and he must do what is needed so that they should not be hurt.” (p.209)

At last Ivan sees how to put things right: he can, and will, for the first time in his life, put the needs of others before his own. And with that final act of love and reconciliation, Ivan conquers death—the spiritual death of being trapped inside the prison of the self—and in so doing redeems his pathetic life.  For it was that same selfishness that had him locked in an ongoing struggle with truth that was preventing him from the possibility of a happy death.  Of Ivan’s final moments, Tolstoy writes that he searches for death but cannot find it: “Instead of death there was light.”  By embracing the truth of sacrificial love for others, Ivan is released from his suffering and dies in a condition hitherto unknown to him—not a state of agreeable pleasure, but immense joy.

Click here to see the translation used in this reading.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.