Tolstoy and Schopenhauer and War and Peace: Influence and Ambivalence

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies
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This essay is an analysis of the influence that Schopenhauer’s philosophy had upon Tolstoy during his writing of the novel War and Peace. It is generally conceded that Schopenhauer’s ideas had a deep impact upon Tolstoy during the writing of Anna Karenina, however, the case of War and Peace is more complex and contested. Some have maintained that War and Peace possesses an essentially “optimistic” perspective on life, and that Tolstoy shifted his ground dramatically when he embarked upon the latter novel. Others have seen a greater degree of continuity between the two works. This essay makes the case that War and Peace is in fact a work that is deeply influenced by Tolstoy’s affinity for Schopenhauer’s view of the world. However, at the same time, it argues that Tolstoy was ambivalent about Schopenhauer’s deep pessimism, and that this ambivalence is manifested throughout the novel. Nevertheless, the essay proposes that War and Peace is a far darker and more “pessimistic” work than is often understood, and that this element of the novel is an indication of the author’s sympathy with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Tolstoy and Schopenhauer and War and Peace: Influence and Ambivalence

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies

References

2

Edward WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press1978) p. 207.

7

Ibid. p. 195.

8

OrwinTolstoy’s Art and Thought 1847–1880 pp. 156–157.

9

McLaughlin“Some Aspects of Tolstoy’s Intellectual Development: Tolstoy and Schopenhauer” p. 198.

10

WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction pp. 127–128.

11

Ibid. p. 83. Gustafson summarizes Tolstoy’s conception of the relationship between God and man by saying “If God is the whole which contains the infinite universe and I am not just a part of that universe but a participant in the whole Tolstoy reasons than there is nothing else but this whole and nothing other than me.” Gustafson Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger p. 95.

12

Ibid p. 70. When one turns to Tolstoy’s next major literary undertaking the novel Anna Karenina there is an unmistakable alteration in tone. Indeed Tolstoy is often considered to have undergone a substantial shift in perspective between writing War and Peace and embarking upon Anna Karenina. As Wasiolek has remarked “Anna Karenina and War and Peace are two worlds and only their greatness is similar. … Something light and happy goes out of his work and his life when we pass from War and Peace to Anna Karenina. No two novels could be more different. War and Peace is large and spacious multi-centered and man-centered. Men are in control. Anna Karenina is intense focused in vision and revealing of something dark and demonic in life. Men are not in control.” p. 128.

13

Ibid. pp. 127–128.

16

SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation1: 379.

23

Christopher JanawaySelf and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy (1989 reprint; Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press2003) p. 8.

24

ChristianTolstoy’s Letters p. 221.

25

OrwinTolstoy’s Art and Thought 1847–1880 pp. 156–157. Speaking of one of the novel’s climactic events the death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky Orwin writes “Tolstoy composed the final scenes of Andrei’s life in 1868 while becoming acquainted with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Yet Andrei’s death is a happy event for him and most strikingly for the world of the novel as well. The realm of perfection accessible to Andrei only in death gives order and law to life. It is the ultimate source of the ‘living reason’ manifest in Pierre. By contrast the effect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy on Anna Karenina is pessimistic.”

26

McLaughlin“Some Aspects of Tolstoy’s Intellectual Development: Tolstoy and Schopenhauer” p. 199.

29

WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction p. 128.

32

Gustafson“The Three Stages of Man” p. 507.

36

SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation1: 332.

39

WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction p. 84.

40

Ibid. pp. 71–72.

43

TolstoyWar and Peace. p. 96. See also Gustafson “The Three Stages of Man” p. 492.

44

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 658. In “The Three Stages of Man” Gustafson also notes Andrei’s alienation from the physical. After recounting Andrei’s reaction to the scene of the soldiers in the pond Gustafson writes “The lure of the flesh had taken Natasha from him; now the flesh itself so vividly realized is repugnant to him a sign of his own limitation and mortality” p. 497. And in Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger he notes that the vision of the soldiers in the pond only serves to remind Andrei that “all physical life leads to death” p. 67. Indeed this repulsion in the face of man’s physical being characterized Tolstoy himself (at least in part). As Ivan Bunin remarked Tolstoy had a “… piercing feeling of doom of the decay of all worldly flesh felt with an intensity that was innate and that filled his entire life.” Ivan Bunin The Liberation of Tolstoy: A Tale of Two Writers (Evanston IL: Northwestern Univ. Press 2001) p. 94. Bunin added “Tolstoy always hated this bestial human flesh this “meat” that was destined for an unclean death” p. 95.

45

SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation2: 381–382.

50

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 265.

51

Ibid. p. 256.

52

Steiner GeorgeTolstoy or Dostoevsky p. 270.

53

Ibid. pp. 270–271.

55

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 256.

58

Leo Tolstoy“A Confession,” in Leo Tolstoy: A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin Books 1988) p. 38.

59

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 267. See also Gustafson “The Three Stages of Man” p. 494. Gustafson translates the expression as “‘the great All or Nothing’”. He refers to it as the “‘force’ (sila)” which replaces glory as the motivation for Andrei’s continuing spiritual quest.” Ibid. pp. 494–495.

62

Gustafson“The Three Stages of Man” p. 500. As Gustafson puts it elsewhere “The moment of awareness of divinity entails death to the personality even though it is grounded in life.” Gustafson Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger p. 335.

64

SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation1: 411. McLaughlin indeed speaks of the “nihilism” latent even in Tolstoy’s earlier works which only his “… affirmation of elemental life” was able to “counterbalance.” McLaughlin “Some Aspects of Tolstoy’s Intellectual Development” p. 231.

67

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 719.

68

GustafsonLeo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger p. 68.

69

Gustafson“The Three Stages of Man” p. 500. Gustafson calls this a “transformation of categories” in which “… death is transformed into ‘life’ and ‘this [earthly] life’ becomes a kind of death a sleep from which one awakens.” Yet what Andrei embraces in the end is “life” only in a very restricted sense. The “love” that lies at the foundation of this different form of “life” is neither personal “love” nor yet the impersonal compassionate love that Andrei felt in the field hospital at Borodino (what Gustafson referring to the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls “agapic love”) Gustafson “The Three Stages of Man” p. 501. It is rather the love revealed to Pierre in his dream of the reabsorbtion of the particles of light into the endlessly fluctuating globe of light that represents the divine essence of the world the immersion in which is indistinguishable from oblivion because it implies total re-absorption into the undifferentiated essence of the universe. It is the kind of “love” that allows Pierre to turn his back on Platon Karataev at the moment of his death (as Gustafson notes “Karataev dies and Pierre is as detached from the event as Karataev himself” Gustafson Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger p. 80) a love that is far more diffuse than even “agapic love.” The state at which Andrei ultimately arrives is the point of contact between the two poles of the Divine where the “All” meets with and merges into the “Nothing.”

70

WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction p. 93.

73

Gary Saul MorrisonHidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in War and Peace p. 268.

77

WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction p. 70.

78

Ibid. pp. 66–67.

79

Leo Tolstoy“The Kreutzer Sonata: Afterword”Leo Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press 2009) pp. 166–167. Here again we find Tolstoy echoing Schopenhauer for whom celibacy was the highest form of asceticism and the core of true Christianity. See Schopenhauer The World as Will and Representation 2: 625.

80

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 502.

82

TolstoyWar and Peace p. 256.

85

SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation2: 640.

86

Isaiah BerlinThe Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher1953) p. 81.

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