Tolstoi: The Effects of the Influence We Grant to Society

In a previous post, I discussed some of Leo Tolstoi’s thoughts on government and human nature based on his book The Kingdom of God is Within You. That book led me to read a novelization of those concepts in Resurrection. This novel will pull you in quickly, and then punch you between the eyes with stories and logic that must be considered.

The story centers around a formerly idealistic young man who experiences a dramatic change (for the worse) over a course of three years and then ten years later is placed face-to-face with the consequences of his actions. Tolstoi describes the initial character of Nekhlyudov, starting with how idealism (what is eternally real, not temporally real) is a discovery of how wonderful life can be and how it is a determination to pursue that life in its ideal.

“During that summer at his aunts’ Nekhlyudov experienced that rapturous state of exaltation when a young man discovers for himself, without any outside recommendation, all the beauty and significance of life, and the importance of the task allotted in life to every man; when he sees the endless perfectibility of himself and the whole universe; and devotes himself not only hopefully, but in complete confidence to attaining the perfections he dreams of.”

What does Tolstoi mean that one “discovers for himself, without any outside recommendation”? Human beings have a profound ability to reason and believe and find truth. When we are depending on faith in God, the wonders of nature, our own reason, and great books/thoughts, most individuals will come to very similar and correct ideas aobut life.  What a difference it would make if we see the world and others as Tolstoi describes that the idealist (one who acts based on eternal truths) sees it: as something completely perfectible in work, word, deed, and act…it changes everything. For Nekhlyudov, time with nature and family was what brought out this perspective.

In the story, Tolstoi then proceeds to teach us the process through which the way see the world changes from an idealistic to a pragmatic view:
1. One begins to care for own enjoyment only.
2. Life loses its mystery and everything depends on relative circumstances
3. We lose communion with nature and “thinkers” and start to depend on social status and affairs of what others think (especially experts and those already accepted by society).
4. In Nekhlyadov’s case, women became a “familiar means of enjoyment,” instead of a mystery and enchanting. Relationships with the opposite sex become strictly physical with gratification as a goal.  
5. Spending money without thought of why, how, whom and the underlying philosophy of spending and consuming.
6. “Then (prior to the change) he had regarded his spiritual being as his real self; now his healthy virile animal self was the real I.” This is likely the fundamental actor here. Once we change how we see ourselves, how we see everything else changes. What brings about the change in the way we see ourselves? Tolstoy gives the answer:

Nekhlyudov came to trust this virile “animal self”  because

“he had ceased to put his faith in his own conscience and had taken to trusting others. And he had ceased to trust himself and begun to believe in others because life was too difficult if one believed one’s own conscience; believing in oneself, every question had to be decided, never to the advantage of one’s animal self, which seeks easy gratification, but in almost every case against it. But to believe in others (and their sense of right and wrong) meant that there was nothing to decide: everything had been decided already, and always in favor of the animal “I” and against the spiritual. Moreover, when he trusted his own conscience, he was always laying himself open to criticism, whereas now, trusting others, he received the approval of those around him.”

Slowly the opinion of the world begins to matter more than our opinion and this leads to a shift in allegiances, from God and that spiritual self that is so intimately tied to Him, to an allegiance to others, and eventually to evil. This is at first difficult for Nekhlyudov, however he began to smoke and drink, which dulled his sense of right and wrong and there by “forgot the uncomfortable feeling and even experienced great relief.”

Why do we grant society such influence over us? Why do we give more weight to what others think than to our own reason and conscience? Tolstoi argues that human beings make better decisions trusting in their conscience, studying others’ ideas and spending time in true reality (nature) instead of in the false reality of concrete, computers, TV, and movies? Do you agree that if we trust our inner selves more we make better decisions or does the opinion from others, whether through acquaintance or from media, entertainment, etc.,  help us make better decisions?

2 Replies to “Tolstoi: The Effects of the Influence We Grant to Society”

  1. Others’ opinions may expand our understanding, but inevitably, our world and perceptions are created by what WE accept and live as truth rather than what others deem is reality and truth.

  2. Janet,

    Thanks for the comment.

    What process do we go through to find the truth we accept and live? Tolstoi’s argument is that society will try to tell us at anytime what to think and how to act. His take is that any “reality” or “realism” or “practicality” is a crock, because it is based what is acceptable to society, not what is developed by an individual, trusting in God, herself, and nature; hence it is not anywhere close to being real.

    Thus realism is a false construct and idealism is the only true realism.

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