Tolstoy and Rousseau

A fairly short work one might read in order to gain rapid insight into Tolstoy’s view of the word is Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.  Somewhere in this blog I previously mentioned that Tolstoy was obviously influenced by Rousseau.  Over the last few weeks, I reread this Discourse and now better understand the depth of Rousseau’s influence over TolstoyMany, if not most, of Tolstoy’s fundamental attitudes about the world, as expressed in War and Peace, undoubtably have their origins in his reading of Rousseau.

Rousseau was one of the Enlightenment’s most original thinkers, and was widely influential among other important thinkers and writers, as disparate as Immanuel Kant and Leo Tolstoy.  Although Rousseau was a fundamentally romantic thinker, he appealed to a wide ranging audience.  Kant, for example, is one of history’s most logically exacting and abstruse philosophers.  His approach to his subject was primarily epistemological, and his treatment rigorous.  He was renowned in his native Koenigsberg, where he spent his entire life, for the regularity of his daily walks.  It was said that one could set one’s watch based upon the appearance of Kant on his walk.  Yet he would miss his walks when a new publication from Rousseau became available, and Kant became engrossed in it.  One may understand Rousseau’s influence upon Kant perhaps most directly in Kant’s reliance upon the “categorical imperative” in his moral philosophy.  The categorical imperative, according to Kant, is unique to human consciousness, and is the fundamental guide to our moral judgements.  The categorical imperative is the principle that only those actions are morally right which can be performed according to a mixim which one and all would will to become a universal law of behavior for mankind.  Although rather abstractly stated, this is a deeply democratic principle, with a feeling for universal human equality at its core.  It is pure Rousseau, dressed up to be philosophically respectable.  It’s the golden rule and all that underlies it made fundamental.

As a young man, Tolstoy was so devoted to Rousseau that he wore a medallion around his neck with Rousseau’s portrait on it.  Tolstoy wrote much later that reading Rousseau’s Confessions and Emile had an “immense influence” over him.  (See, for example, Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy, p.56)  (I recommend Discourse on the Origin of Inequality rather than his later works insofar as the Discourse is a shorter statement of the basic insights that ground the thinking in all of Rousseau, and insofar as this shorter work shows us how Tolstoy’s view of society reflects Rousseau’s original intuitions.)  Tolstoy would simply not have developed as he had without the influence of Rousseau.  Understanding Tolstoy without reference to Rousseau may be nearly impossible.

According to Rousseau, almost all of society’s influence on individual persons is pernicious.  Society corrupts and perverts our original good nature, and alienates us from our true selves.  Reason more often leads us astray than towards our best interests.  And our most basic emotions, especially empathy for others, are healthier and more likely to lead to happiness than feelings and subsequent thoughts and schemes stemming from envious or invidious comparison.  (Does any of this seem familiar?)  Rousseau does not simply posit this, of course.  He makes argument after argument for these conclusions, mostly from the basis of a pre-Hegelian analysis of the logically necessary development needed to take mankind from a primitive state of nature to our current state of society. I’ll not delve much further into all Tolstoy adopted from Rousseau.  I’ll not much summarize Rousseau’s thought; interested readers should turn to Rousseau.  This is not a study of Rousseau’s influence upon Tolstoy, which could run to a considerable length.  I would rather simply establish that Rousseau was a profound influence upon Tolstoy, and suggest a few ways Rousseau may be utilized to better comprehend Tolstoy.  In at least one subsequent post, I intend to revisit Rousseau to better understand Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei.

George recently wrote about the importance of location in Tolstoy.  I think he is quite right about this.  One way to think about it may be in reference to our less civilized, more authentic selves.  In these terms, it may not be the places as much as the mental cast of mind which the various settings bring out in the characters.  Thus, Rostovs in the country are much more likely to be happy than anyone in a Petersburg salon.  It is far more likely that our original and spontaneous feelings for each other to well up inside us and between us while in the country than in more sophisticated circumstances.   According to Rousseau, the attitudes and skills engendered in us as civilization advances corrupts our original nature and sets us all against each other, thereby depriving people, especially people of high society, the satisfactions and happiness afforded us in much more primitive circumstances.  Tolstoy simply absorbed Rousseau, and seems to be the novelist to bring Rousseau’s ideas to life in literature.  The Rostovs, free and at a fair amount of leisure while in the country, like primitive, pre-civilized man, could indulge and enjoy their own basic good natures.  And someone like Boris, who is lost in his attempts to achieve worldly success, will never find true happiness anywhere.

In addition to the similar views both held about the word and society, Rousseau and Tolstoy also had rather similar characteristics as thinkers, and as men.

As thinkers, both were deeply interested in philosophical issues, but neither really brought a philosophical approach to the matters they were so passionate about.  Instead of arriving at their views through reason and deduction, they seem to have found their beliefs more by intuition.  Indeed, both had an active distrust of reason.  Both seemed to think that the force of of their heart would bring them to the truth far more reliably than mere reason.  So both were far more susceptible to romantic zeal, and were rather too impressed with the unique importance of their personal perspective on things than was intellectually sound.  Perhaps these flaws appear in their respective theories of history.  Although Rousseau’s is probably the stronger, both are idiosyncratic beyond a mere fault, and, while interesting, neither commands a wide following.

Both men were largely self-educated.  It is probable that this is partly what accounts for the self-certainty each had in his views, and in other aspects of their personality.  Both could be megalomaniacal in their dealings with others.  Both usually fancied that they lived according to a higher moral sensibility than nearly the rest of humanity.  (And therefore each would frequently be tormented by feelings of shame and moral failure when they allowed themselves to consider their sins.)  Both were essentially loners, strangely at odds with the world.  Yet the delusions of grandeur that each held propelled them to accomplishments far beyond those of nearly all more ordinary men.

One thought on “Tolstoy and Rousseau”

  1. In the decadence of the baroque era, in the middle of the 18th Century in France or the beginning of the 19th in Russia, I suppose that Rousseau seemed a plausible response to an artificial and sterile social life. It astonished me, in reading The Confessions, to see that high officers of the state would help to correct Rousseau’s proofs. To be an aristocrat (or a novelist) and a devotee of Rousseau is to act in a comedy without knowing it.

    I suppose that the four main characters achieve something like true happiness in the epilogue. Yet it seems to me qualified: Pierre’s notions are not much sounder at the end than in the beginning; that calls into question Natasha’s admiration of him; and Nikolai Rostov’s admiration of his wife has something juvenile about it.

    Nor do the artificial characters seem to feel their lack of true happiness. Prince Vassily has lost a son and a daughter but has gained a new post and star, and seems content. Boris would have liked a prettier bride to accompany the Karagin fortune, but does not seem troubled once the bargain is made. Berg does not seem capable of reflection, let alone doubts, and probably could not find a better temperamental match than Vera.

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