Bryan Caplan  

Tolstoy, Hypocrisy, and Puritanism

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This summer I'm reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace for the third time.  It's the greatest novel of history's most patiently observant novelist, and every reading unearths further greatness.  This time, I was struck by this passage exploring puritanism and hypocrisy.

Pierre no longer suffered from moments of despair, melancholy, and loathing for life as he had done. But the same malady that had manifested itself in acute attacks in former days was driven inwards and never now left him for an instant. "What for? What's the use? What is it is going on in the world?" he asked himself in perplexity several times a day, instinctively beginning to sound the hidden significance in the phenomena of life. But knowing by experience that there was no answer to these questions, he made haste to try and turn away from them, took up a book, or hurried off to the club, or to Apollon Nikolaevitch's to chat over the scandals of the town.

"Elena Vassilyevna, who has never cared for anything but her own body, and is one of the stupidest women in the world," Pierre thought, "is regarded by people as the acme of wit and refinement, and is the object of their homage. Napoleon Bonaparte was despised by every one while he was really great, and since he became a pitiful buffoon the Emperor Francis seeks to offer him his daughter in an illegal marriage. The Spaniards, through their Catholic Church, return thanks to God for their victory over the French on the 14th of June, and the French, through the same Catholic Church, return thanks to God for their victory over the Spaniards on the same 14th of June. My masonic brothers swear in blood that they are ready to sacrifice all for their neighbour, but they don't give as much as one rouble to the collections for the poor, and they intrigue between Astraea and the manna-seekers, and are in a ferment about the authentic Scottish rug, and an act, of which the man who wrote it did not know the meaning and no one has any need. We all profess the Christian law of forgiveness of sins and love for one's neighbour--the law, in honour of which we have raised forty times forty churches in Moscow--but yesterday we knouted to death a deserter; and the minister of that same law of love and forgiveness, the priest, gave the soldier the cross to kiss before his punishment."

Such were Pierre's reflections, and all this universal deception recognised by all, used as he was to seeing it, was always astounding him, as though it were something new. "I understand this deceit and tangle of cross-purposes," he thought, "but now am I to tell them all I understand? I have tried and always found that they understood it as I did, at the bottom of their hearts, but were only trying not to see it. So I suppose it must be so! But me--what refuge is there for me?" thought Pierre.

He suffered from an unlucky faculty--common to many men, especially Russians--the faculty of seeing and believing in the possibility of good and truth, and at the same time seeing too clearly the evil and falsity of life to be capable of taking a serious part in it. Every sphere of activity was in his eyes connected with evil and deception. Whatever he tried to be, whatever he took up, evil and falsity drove him back again and cut him off from every field of energy. And meanwhile he had to live, he had to be occupied. It was too awful to lie under the burden of those insoluble problems of life, and he abandoned himself to the first distraction that offered, simply to forget them. He visited every possible society, drank a great deal, went in for buying pictures, building, and above all reading.

Truly, read the whole thing.

COMMENTS (4 to date)
ED writes:

Every time someone quotes Tolstoy I regret that I was forced (in Soviet school) to read him at an age when I really didn't give a damn - just wanted to get it over with. And now I'm fascinated by excerpts in English. Irony.

That tendency for people to think together, to fall together into a unified myth or point of view, makes sense from a survival-of-the-whole-group standpoint — if there is some feature of the larger environment to which the whole group can succeed in adapting if so unified. This becomes more clear in the Resource-Patterns Model of Life which I push.

Steve Bacharach writes:

Late in every school year, I show my high school calculus students Tolstoy's reflections on his theory of history near the end of "War and Peace" and how he analogizes that to the limiting principles of calculus. "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" are definitely two of my favorite novels and I'm glad I got to them in my 20's and not earlier as ED points out.

A Country Farmer writes:

I just finished Tolstoy's "A Confession and Other Religious Writings" and he tears into puritans amazingly and ends with a thought-provoking look at "real" religion (spoiler: love).

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