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Tolstoy contra Nietzsche

I’ve recently been reading through Nietzsche’s major works in chronological order. This project has been stalled for a while, in part because life has gotten very busy and in part because the translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra I ordered is not yet in stock and so still hasn’t shipped. Much of Nietzsche’s work is directed toward providing stinging critiques of Christianity and Christian morality, but these critiques are only half (if that) of the picture. They clear away the rubble in order to make room for Nietzsche’s positive project, which is where his greatest genius lies. This project is of course tragically misconceived in all sorts of manners, and I don’t really feel up to the task of putting these misconceptions to right. A huge aspect of Nietzsche is the tone in which he writes, which captures the mood of living that he espouses: a probing, questioning, experimental, gay mood. I lack anything comparable to his masterful writing technique, and so I literally could not convey his ideas entirely fairly, even if I understood them all clearly (which I don’t). It’s enough for my purposes to say that his vision involves applying the rigorous methodology and attitude of science to the task of aesthetically structuring one’s life. In addition, his vision cannot be grasped if you ignore the myth of the eternal recurrence, which acts as Nietzsche’s counterpart to the Christian myths he rejects. Finally, there is a strong current of individualism in his writing (comparing this to Emersonian individualism should help clear up some misconceptions). Those who are interesting in exploring this further should turn to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra by Kathleen Marie Higgins, which does a fantastic job of capturing all of these essential points.

I spoke of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as an act of clearing away the rubble, as if Christianity were already on the wane, and Nietzsche was simply discarding the ruins, rather than demolishing a living city. This, I think, is fair: Nietzsche famously claimed that God is dead, meaning that the idea of God had already become unbelievable before he started his critique. On this indubitable fact, Nietzsche began his positive project. But Nietzsche was not the only person to recognize the death of God in at least some respects, and he was not the only person to lay out a positive project starting from the death of God. Specifically, I think Tolstoy’s War & Peace is precisely such a project, and provides a comprehensive alternative vision to Nietzsche’s vision.

It may be weird to speak of a Christian such as Tolstoy, writing a fundamentally Christian work, building off of the death of God, but I think that is nevertheless the case. Tolstoy lays out a philosophy of history throughout the book, culminating in its complete formulation in the epilogue. Tolstoy notes that historians have dispensed with appeals to the divine in their histories, but have retained the historical concepts that were justified by these appeals. Tolstoy critiques this retention, showing it incoherent and incapable of explaining history. Most notable among the critiques, for my purposes, is his ridiculing the notion that especially powerful people shape the course of history. Such power could only be explained by appeal to the divine. Without that, we can see that so-called powerful people are in fact the furthest removed of all from events and so shape them the least. Events occur because of mass action. The orders of the powerful at best describe these events, but do not cause them. Most orders fail to describe events, but confirmation bias lets us forget these failed orders and remember only those that do get a purchase on reality. Tolstoy’s account is of course much richer than this, not in the least because it is exemplified on every marvelous page of his massive book, but in this brief summary the opposition to Nietzsche can already be seen.

Before I explore it further explicitly, however, I’d like to comment on style and form, because there are interesting similarities and differences between the two writers on these counts. Stylistically, both authors brilliantly bolster their works with short, aphoristic insights into human psychology. Nietzsche juxtaposes them with each other and with longer musings, slowly bringing the reader around to a new way of seeing things. He points out small hypocrisies and elements of our character, revealing lies we tell about and to ourselves, gradually building them up until they form an insurmountable edifice that the project of traditional morality has no hope of overcoming. While imbued with that peculiarly Nietzschean spirit, the logic of Nietzsche’s aphorisms is distinctly cold. In Tolstoy, on the other hand, there is still a clear logic to his use of aphorisms, but it is a warm, even comforting logic. his insights are woven into embodied characters; they are part of the backdrop to a magnificient, wrenching, uplifting, destructive, ecstatic, apalling story. Tolstoy captures the beauty of people even as he slyly mocks them. This is seen also in his characterization of Pierre, whose smile, in the phase where he is most sensitive to human beauty, is repeatedly described as mocking.

In both cases, their use of aphoristic remarks on human psychology are put to the purpose of bringing their readers back to life. Nietzsche is a splash of cold water to the face, waking the reader form a faint or a stupor. Nietzsche puts the reader on edge, makes him prickle with a sense of foreboding, and makes him wary of initial impressions. All of this cultivates the rigorous scientific skepticism that Nietzsche urges his readers to turn inwards. Tolstoy, on the other hand, despite his mocking tone, accepts these small hypocrisies as simply part of what it means to be human (not “all too human”): they are an ineliminable part of the fabric of his novel precisely because they are an ineliminable part of the fabric of human life. If anything, they humanize his characters and make them more sympathetic, whereas Nietzsche’s make all of humanity unsympathetic. They contribute to War & Peace‘s general effect: a coursing warmth akin to that that accompanies the return of feeling to frozen flesh.

The forms of War & Peace and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the latter in conjunction with Nietzsche’s other works) are interestingly similar. Tolstoy said of War & Peace that it is not a novel, and to a great extent it is not, though it has many elements of a novel. It is also partially a tract in the philosophy of history, though of course it is not strictly that, either. Neither is it merely a historical document, though parts of it come close. It is at each point unprecedented mixture of all three, because that’s what Tolstoy needed to accomplish his task. The philosophy is exemplified in every detail of the plot, and the plot is firmly situated within the history. Each part is incomprehensible without the others. Taken together, a coherent and cohesive picture of human life emerges.

Much the same is broadly true of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, though the component parts are different. Nietzsche’s philosophy is incomprehensible until applied to life; Zarathustra is a living embodiment of that philosophy. The story needs the philosophy just as much as the philosophy needs the story. Zarathustra’s actions and speeches, and the varying responses to these, show in context how one struggles with Nietzsche, where one goes wrong in interpreting his work, what traps must be avoided or overcome, and so on. (The full story of this can be found, again, in Higgins’ Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.) The end result, like in Tolstoy, is a picture of human life, and above all a beautiful picture, for all of Zarathustra’s foibles and follies, which are numerous.

To see this in the case of Tolstoy, it is enough to look at this characterization of Pierre: “Pierre did not see people separately, but saw their movement” (pg. 1018, Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). This is one of the most powerful sentences in the book, but it is empty without the picture of history advanced up to that point, and still not fully comprehensible without the systematization of that account in the epilogue. It’s been too long since I last read Thus Spoke Zarathustra for me to be able to find an example that can be quickly summarized, but I also don’t think that anyone could seriously challenge the position, which is even more obvious in Nietzsche’s case than in Tolstoy’s.

The quoted summary of Pierre (or, rather, of one of the many temporal slices of Pierre that are unified into the whole Pierre in the course of the book) gets to the heart of the disagreement between Tolstoy and Nietzsche. Nietzsche fiercely criticizes the herd instinct and sees great individuals as set apart from it. Tolstoy sees people as fundamentally a part of a shifting mass without which nothing gets accomplished. Tolstoy does not argue that people are necessarily driven by a herd instinct—he sees this moving mass as composed of a multitude of individuals with an individual will—but he does note the occasional presence of such an instinct in this mass (for instance, the character who frequents two groups of people and struggles to remember which opinions he must hold in each company). To set oneself apart from this mass is to remove oneself from events, to be reduced to a mere commentator. He defines having power as effectively being such a commentator, thereby stripping power of its causal efficacy. Tolstoy does not challenge the value of Nietzsche’s vision. Rather, on his picture, that vision simply becomes impossible to realize, for Nietzsche requires setting oneself apart from the herd, but to do that, in Tolstoy’s account, is not to define oneself as an individual, but to become an inefficacious commentator on individuals. Nietzsche, under Tolstoy’s picture, tries to have his cake and eat it: he wants efficacy under precisely those conditions where efficacy is impossible.

Tolstoy’s purpose in writing War & Peace was obviously not to challenge Nietzsche’s vision (which did not exist at the time), and Nietzsche’s project was not a response to Tolstoy. Independently, the two produced works arising out of roughly the same time period, responding to similar concerns in different ways. As such, each provides a sharp challenge to the other. My sympathies, as might be expected, lie primarily with Nietzsche, but the beauty and elegance with which Tolstoy lays out his vision, incompatible with Nietzsche’s, ensures that I cannot leave Nietzsche’s vision unchallenged and unopposed.

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