Saturday, April 07, 2012

Diving Deeper 10 - War and Peace 6

The Symbol of Atheism
Tolstoy, like Dostoyevsky, likes to give both sides of every argument.  That's what I like about this late nineteenth century literature.  I have already indicated that they are both existentialist writers who present their characters as flesh and blood human beings struggling to make sense of life and what it means to live.  I have described in detail already Prince Andrei's scepticism or atheism and his friend Pierre's despairing atheism until his conversion and joining of the Freemasons.  Now, in book two the two friends meet after two years.

In fact the two begin to argue about the meaning of life and what happiness is.  Here the strong believer (reformed atheist) meets the committed sceptic.  Their argument is worth reading in full.  I shall confine myself to just a few brief snippets here.

Pierre informs Prince Andrei that

'the great thing is... I know, and know for certain, that the enjoyment of doing this good is the only sure happiness in life...'

Pierre had just informed Andrei of all the good things he was doing for his serfs on his estates since his newly found faith in God.  Here is the sceptical Prince Andrei's response to his friend's newly found concern for the poor:

'Come, let's argue the matter,' said Prince Andrei. 'You talk of schools,' he went on, crooking a finger, 'education and so forth.  In other words you want to lift him' (he pointed to a peasant who passed by them taking off his cap) 'out of his animal existence and awaken in  him spiritual needs, when in my opinion animal happiness is the only happiness possible, and you want to deprive him of it.  I envy him while you are trying to make him what I am, without providing him with a mind or feelings like mine, or with my means... I go to bed after two in the morning, thoughts come into my mind and I can't sleep but toss about till dawn, because I think and cannot help thinking, just a she can't help ploughing and mowing... 'O, yes. Hospitals and medicine.  Our peasant has a stroke and is dying, but you have him bled and patched up.  He will drag about, a cripple, for another ten years, a burden to everybody.  It would be far easier and simpler for him to die.  Plenty of others are born to take his place...

(War and Peace, pp. 450-451)

The extreme scepticism spewed forth by Prince Andrei unsettles Pierre who is simply brow-beaten into silence and merely listens to this very negative individual that Prince Andrei has become.  Pierre realises that his friend is very unhappy, has gone astray in his life and does not see the true light.  Pierre is forced then to expound his new faith in Freemasonry to Prince Andrei.  But the sceptic, nay nihilist almost, in the prince will have nothing of Pierre's arguments for belief in God.

However, here I am reminded of John Henry Cardinal Newman's perspicacious and wise remarks that unbelief or atheism is essentially a fault of the heart and not of the mind, and that it is as useless to attempt to beat a man physically into believing as it is to arguing him into so doing.  There is much wisdom in both these remarks.  As Andrei's and Pierre's arguments progress we realise that the prince's heart has been not only broken but actually crushed with grief, and that it is this unresolved grief that has added bitterness and passion to his unbelief.  Here are the words of a crushed human soul:

'... life and death are what convince.  What convinces is when you see a being dear to you, whose existence is bound up with yours, to whom you have done wrong that you had hoped to put right... and all at once that being is seized  and racked with pain, and ceases to exist...Why?  There must be an answer.  And I believe there is... That is what can convince a man, that is what convinced me... I only mean that one is not persuaded by argument that there must be a future life: it is when you are journeying through life hand in hand with someone, and suddenly your companion vanishes there, into nowhere, and you are left standing on the edge of an abyss, and you look down into it.  As I have...  (Ibid., p. 456)

Then we get the inklings of Prince Andrei's openness to the religious dimension of life in his final thoughts on his meeting with his friend Pierre:

...and stepping off the ferry he looked up into the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw those lofty eternal heavens he had watched while lying on the battlefield; and something long dormant, something better that had been in him, suddenly awoke with new and joyful life in his soul.  The feeling vanished as soon as Prince Andrei fell back again into the ordinary conditions of life, but he knew that this feeling, which he was ignorant how to develop, lived within him.  Pierre's visit marked an epoch in Prince Andrei's life.  Though outwardly he continued to live in the same way, inwardly he began a new existence.  (Ibid., p. 456)

The above quotations illustrate the depths of understanding that Leo Tolstoy had for his characters.  They illustrate how great a psychologist he is also.  He is able, like Dostoyevsky, to literally get into the mind, the heart and the soul of his characters.  He is able to portray both characters of great intellectual sophistication like Pierre and Andrei on the one hand and the minds and hearts of ordinary soldiers and simple peasants on the other.  When reading these Russian authors I am overcome with the passion with which they write, with the sheer conviction with which they paint their pen pictures of what happens in the course of their novels.  That these two novelists were great human beings with a deep empathy for others goes almost without saying.


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