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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 49-66

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Moral Certainty in Tolstoy * - [PDF]

Peter Caws


One of the utilitarian functions of literature is to enlarge the domain of our experience. Actual episodes, played out in "real time," with all the preparation, uncertainty, movement, waiting, adjustment and fatigue that they involve, are massive entries in the book of a life, and the number any of us can undergo (or afford to undergo) is limited. With a novel, however, we can race through from inception to denouement, with all the appropriate emotions, in an evening--in the case of Tolstoy a rather long evening, say in St. Petersburg at midsummer when it might stretch into the following day. What happens in the novel might have happened to us (as Aristotle says of poetry, it describes a kind of thing that might happen), but, fortunately or unfortunately for us, it didn't.

In this use literature exploits the function of language that I call "theory construction," the other main exponent of which is science. Scientific theories enable us to simulate and test physical or sometimes social objects and events, changing the variables and doing other "thought experiments" so as to anticipate and avoid (or more efficiently seek) the consequences of real actions. If in theory the bridge collapses then in practice we'd better not build it until the design has been modified. Literature has these capacities too, but with some differences. In the scientific case the ideal is to have laws that are experimentally confirmed, perhaps in the laboratory, and to base explanations and predictions upon them, but the laws of complex human behavior are not easy to establish, in or out of laboratories (whatever form these might be thought of as taking), and in any case the literary interest of making fictional actions conform to them exactly would be minimal. [End Page 49] Also scientific explanation characteristically deals with only one aspect of the phenomenon under study, abstracting it from all the rest, whereas literary representation renders phenomena with some degree of fullness.

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that these differences of degree do not prevent us from thinking of literature and science as belonging on the same continuum, widely separated as they may be, as exercising similar powers of the imagination and as sparing us in comparable ways the risk of tentative and uncertain action in the real world. A special case of the kind of vicarious experience literature, and especially fiction, offers is the confrontation of moral difficulties. There but for the grace of God, we think, as awful temptations or perplexities or responsibilities overwhelm the characters. What would we have done? What ought they to have done? What ought one to do?

"What ought I to do?" was one of the four questions that Kant thought philosophically fundamental. It was also the one to which he offered a categorical answer, although not a particularly helpful answer. In fact it seems odd to ask the question out of context, as though there were a sort of floating state of obligation accompanying the "I think" in all its manifestations (to adapt a formula from another Kantian text), independently of the practical conditions in which it may find itself. Yet just such an uneasy sense of non-specific moral requirement is a familiar ingredient of modern life, especially in the Christian West. Pietists like Kant have been especially liable to it. Tolstoy is another obvious case. In this article I want to look at the problem of moral perplexity in the three major novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection, and to consider Tolstoy's solution to it as an exercise in a theory of literature as (among other things) a source of vicarious moral experience.

In each of these novels there is one leading character--Pierre Bezuhov, Levin, and Nekhlyudov respectively--who bears an obvious relation to the novelist himself. Their trademark is on the one hand a kind of perplexed serenity, a state of calm surprise, sometimes bewildered, sometimes amused, at the oddity or outrage of the ways of the world--and...


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