Favorite Undergrad Papers: Ivan Ilyich, the Loving Stoic

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My professor for this class was really into Russian authors like Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, and one of the stories he had us read was the short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Tolstoy. If you are already familiar with that story, then this research paper will be the most comprehensible to you, but if you like literature, philosophy, and language, you may enjoy it anyway. Spoiler Alert: Ivan dies. Also, I have brief retrospective comments below the paper.

Timothy Fowler

Dr. Steven Gregg

Writing About Literature

22 April 2016

Ivan Ilyich, the Loving Stoic

“Death, like birth, is a mystery of nature” (Aurelius 27), but unlike birth, it is a mystery full of transfixing terror. The start of life is delightful; the end of life is dreadful, but to each is allotted both a birth and a death. Nevertheless, the Stoics maintain that death need not be terrible, and they encourage each person to live his life in view of death; for that is the key to virtue and fulfillment. Ivan Ilyich, by his death, illustrates much of the Stoic position on the meaning of life in view of death. In fact, his transformation by the end of the story is nothing short of a Stoic enlightenment, but with one crucial modification: that true joy and virtue stem from a deep, genuine love for other people.

Like most of Tolstoy’s stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich addresses universal questions using particular characters and circumstances. Maryann Felps, an English teacher at the high school level, draws from this story a number of practical life lessons for her students to ponder. In her article reflecting on these life lessons, she observes that “the question is not ‘Are we going to die?’ The question is, ‘How shall we live?’” (Felps 52). This broad question of right living is particularly important, as it sets the stage for addressing the fundamental questions of virtue and human existence that Ivan deliberates throughout the story.

David Shepherd, however, argues that in considering these fundamental questions Ivan himself does not fundamentally change. Despite undergoing a legitimate deathbed conversion, his worldview at death is no different than in life. From the start, Shepherd rightly admits that “this line of argument sounds unsustainable” (Shepherd 403), but he does present some strong supporting evidence, especially concerning the use of the word “correct” in the story. He notes how this word represents the cold social decorum Ivan clings to in life and how this same word is used to describe the facial expression on his corpse, indicating that he has not really changed. Ivan’s empathy for his family in the end does not come from a fundamental change inside of him; empathy is merely the “decent” or “correct” way for him to react given the circumstances.

In contrast to Shepherd, Temira Pachmuss believes that Ivan does change. As death approaches, Ivan realizes the falseness and wrongness of his worldview. He observes his family, friends, and doctors lying to him and clinging to decency, and he despises them for it. His illness makes him a victim of his former worldview and exposes its worthlessness. Once smug and selfish—a genteel hedonist—Ivan at last repents on his deathbed and discovers that love is the “ultimate reality” (Pachmuss 82).

Pachmuss’s argument is much easier to sustain than Shepherd’s, but all three authors miss a critical aspect of Ivan’s conversion. The lesson learned here is not merely about making “one’s decisions carefully” or nurturing a genuine care for the unfortunate, as Felps writes (Felps 53). Nor is it correct that his conversion is just an external reaction to changing circumstances and lacks any fundamental shift on the inside, as Shepherd argues. Pachmuss comes much closer to the truth, with her reflections on love and her brief mention of Stoicism, but she downplays the significance of the Stoic connections.

The conversion Ivan experiences can be called a sort of Stoic enlightenment. Throughout his life, he has practiced certain principles of Stoicism but has neglected vital principles as well. His conversion consists firstly of his discovering the necessity of these missing principles and restoring them to himself. The second element in his conversion is the spontaneous awakening of love within him (and this is where Pachmuss is most correct in her line of argument). In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the philosophy advocated resembles classical Stoicism, but it is modified or even fulfilled by the additional element of love.

Before exploring Ivan’s relationship to classical Stoicism, it is necessary to review particular elements of that philosophy pertaining to this story. The Encheiridion by Epictetus is most helpful for this, since it is a succinct handbook of Stoicism. Epictetus encourages people not to genuinely invest their emotions in others. It is permissible to sympathize with someone’s grief “verbally, and even to moan with him if the occasion arises” but one must not “moan inwardly” (Epictetus 16). Interactions with others should be purely external and customary but should not—indeed cannot—actually affect one’s soul, and thus there is a necessary emotional distance between one person and another.

This emotional distance is furthermore related to the Stoic idea that each person has particular duties or obligations in life that he must strictly observe. Marcus Aurelius writes, “Perform the task at hand with precise and genuine dignity, sympathy, independence, and justice, making yourself free from all other preoccupations . . . rid yourself of all aimless thoughts, of all emotional opposition to the dictates of reason” (Aurelius 13). In accordance with this rule of thought, the characters in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, behave in a cold, calculating way, ever mindful of their duty to behave according to the dictates of decency, and thus they remove much of their personal or emotional interest in the persons around them.

High society in this story is characterized by people so laughably obsessed with being decent and proper that it often reads like a satire. For example, Ivan’s “so-called friends” attend the funeral, not out of grief or respect for the man, but because it is “necessary for them to fulfill the very boring obligations of decency” (Tolstoy 40). At the funeral, Pyotr presses Praskovya’s hand and sighs only because he knows “he had to” (43). Praskovya forgoes warning Pyotr about the pouf he is about to sit on only because it is “inconsistent with her position” (43). Pyotr, “for decency’s sake,” speaks poorly of the government, and then Praskovya apparently sets about finding a respectable way to dismiss Pyotr from the room (45). Every word and deed is performed with emotional reserve and a mind for social correctness.

These are the sort of the people Ivan Ilyich aspires to emulate throughout his life. A “decent” man himself who behaves with “dignity” and “precision,” Ivan is ever mindful of his various duties (47, 48). Like a Stoic, he strips away whatever he deems extraneous, “separating his duties from his private life” and “pushing away from himself all circumstances not concerned with service” (49, 50). Even when he gets married, his chief concern regarding his marriage is to “fulfill [his] duty, that is, to lead a decent life approved of by society” (52). Hence, he develops an attitude toward marriage that removes much of his personal investment in it by demanding from his marriage only the most minimal functions, the chief of which is “that decency of external forms . . . defined by public opinion” (52). His goal in family activity becomes to free himself from all that is unpleasant by “giving them a character of harmlessness and decency” (53). This is reminiscent of Aurelius’ words that the inner attitude one should adopt is one which “converts any obstacle into material for its own action, as fire does when it overpowers what is thrown upon it” (Aurelius 25).

One last evidence of his Stoic attitude is that “the main interest and attraction” of his work was the knowledge that he had tremendous “power to crush” many people but treated them in “a simple, friendly way” (Tolstoy 49). This is reminiscent of Seneca’s writings in On Mercy, where he encourages the king who has great power for crushing his subjects to nonetheless be merciful. Seneca believes mercy is the king’s most excellent faculty and that “he alone has a firm, well-founded greatness whom all know to be not only above them but also for them” (Seneca 132). Ivan seems to aspire to this kind of Stoic greatness as he revels in the consciousness of his power and “the possibility of softening it” (Tolstoy 50).

Ivan Ilyich is portrayed as being quite Stoic in his attitude toward life. Above all, he is concerned with his duty to decency, and as a result of this duty, he distances his person and his emotions from many of the people and circumstances in his life, even to the point of estranging his own wife.

If this is the case, then it seems Stoicism is portrayed negatively in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. However, the philosophy described above, though supported by quotes from famous Stoics, is not true Stoicism. It is a caricature of Stoicism, because it is missing some vital elements contained in other passages. Thus, what is portrayed negatively in this story is not Stoicism per se, but rather the caricature of Stoicism that Ivan and other high-society people practice. What Ivan learns on his deathbed is the importance of the missing elements.

Again, before exploring Ivan’s discovery of these missing elements, it is necessary to review the teachings of Stoicism in more depth. First of all, an essential doctrine of Stoicism is that human existence can be divided into two categories: things that are out of our control, which are called “externals,” and things that are in our power, which are called “internals,” (Epictetus 11). Internals consist of “opinions . . . impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is of our own doing” (11). Externals, on the other hand, include everything that exists outside of oneself, such as one’s job, one’s family, or one’s body.*1A Stoic would not consider the physical body to be a component of the self; rather, the self is located in the soul. Stoics teach that Nature has perfectly arranged all that is external, but it is the task of each individual to order his internals so that they are in agreement with what Nature has already ordered on the outside.

Second, there is a hierarchy of duties within Stoicism (which Cicero writes about at length in On Duties). The ultimate duty is one’s duty to the whole of Nature. Each person has a “life task” assigned to him by Nature, and he must obey Nature meticulously in the achievement of that task as it unfolds throughout his life. The penultimate duty is that which one owes to himself, namely to arrange his internals and put his soul in order. All else—all things external—are insignificant by comparison to these two chief duties of man, which is why one must not be too emotionally invested in other people (since they are externals). True virtue and contentment, according to the Stoics, are found in the ordering of one’s soul so that one can obey the whole of Nature.

Lastly, Stoics such as Aurelius and Epictetus are emphatic that the life of virtue requires one to live his life under the perspective of death. The reason for this is not difficult to grasp. After all, death is an external; it is something beyond one’s control. Moreover, death shows a man how powerless he really is. Death is the external that reveals how numerous are the other externals and at the same time exposes their transience by threatening to take them all away. When a man is confronted with such a myriad of things he is powerless to preserve since they are external to him, he has no other option but to turn his attention to what remains—that which is internal to him, namely his soul. Focused now upon his soul, he can at last put things in order and attain true virtue in the whole scheme of Nature, which is why Stoics teach that death is so important to the life of virtue.

This is a more complete description of classical Stoicism, and it is clear how Ivan falls short of it. Yes, like a good Stoic, he is concerned with his duties, but he neglects his duty to himself and does not properly understand his personal insignificance compared to the whole of Nature. His death, however, has the very effect upon him that Aurelius and Epictetus would desire. It leads him to “review his whole life” and attain “the knowledge of his own reality, that is, his meaning within the whole creation scheme” (Pachmuss 82-83).

The Stoic nature of his conversion is most evident in Chapter 11, where he sees that his whole life has not been right. For he realizes then “that those barely noticeable impulses he had felt to fight against what highly placed people considered good, barely noticeable impulses which he had immediately driven away—that they might have been the real thing, and all the rest might have been not right” (Tolstoy 88). So it is his inner impulses, and not the externals, that are the “real thing”—the thing that truly matters when it comes to living his life as he ought.

As for his insignificance by comparison to the whole of Nature, this comes into play as he ponders a syllogism from Kieswetter’s logic. The syllogism goes, “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal” (70). Ivan accepts that this is true for Caius but cannot grasp how it could be true of himself because Caius represents “man in general,” whereas Ivan considers himself “quite separate from all other beings” (70). He cannot fathom how the syllogism applies to himself because he sees himself as something extraordinary and above the common man, to whom alone he relegates the syllogism.

Indeed, this is the problem his friends face as well. They simply cannot fathom that death could ever come upon them in particular as it does upon people in general. Pyotr, afraid of death, consoles himself with the thought that “death was an occurrence proper only to Ivan Ilyich, but not at all to him” and moreover “that it should and could not happen to him” (45). Felps notes that her high school students bear the same attitude toward death: that it is something that could never happen to them (Felps 52). Ironically, then, the notion that one is too uncommon to die is a belief common to all. Felps’ students are healed of this misconception as they study The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but Ivan’s colleagues are not so teachable. Pyotr sees on the face of Ivan’s corpse a “reproach or reminder to the living,” which he dismisses as being “of no concern to him” (Tolstoy 42).

On the other hand, Ivan cannot avoid the reproach of death and is forced to grapple with his insignificance. Death unveils for him the transience of all things, including himself, and enables him to finally perform the supreme duty of putting his own soul in order. In Stoic fashion, he is then able to free himself from the fear of death by contentedly receiving the externals Nature has arranged for him.

His final word to his family is “forgo” (90). The narrator claims this is just a slip of the tongue, but it is tempting to think there is great significance behind Tolstoy’s choice of that word. “Forgo” translates the Russian “пропусти” (propusti), which is the imperative form of a word that means roughly “to allow something to pass.” This word is very Stoic. By letting someone pass away, one is trusting Nature’s perfect arrangement of the externals. Accidentally, then, by some slip of the tongue, Ivan communicates to his family a bit of Stoic doctrine, that they should “forgo” and just let him die if that is what Nature desires.

When Pyotr beholds Ivan’s corpse, he sees “the expression that what needed to be done had been done, and done rightly,” (42). Shepherd agues that this shows Ivan’s worldview has not fundamentally changed since things done “rightly” or “correctly” is a staple of his high-society worldview. However, when one considers the Stoic elements of his conversion, it is clear that Ivan has changed. On his deathbed he did in fact do “what needed to be done.” His foremost Stoical duty was to put his soul in order and this he did. “Rightly” or “correctly,” then, refers not to his actions or to his social decorum, but rather to his having taken his internals into his power and made them virtuous at last.

Although in life Ivan is a caricature of a Stoic, chasing after all manner of external pleasures and duties, yet he dies a true Stoic who knows which duties matter most of all. This is a significant change indeed, and the story is aptly titled after his death, since it is his death which brings about his Stoic enlightenment.

By the end of the story, though, the thematic development grows beyond the realm of classical Stoicism, and Ivan grows into something much more than a mere Stoic. Tolstoy adds a new philosophical ingredient to the story that the classical Stoics did not consider. He modifies, or perhaps fulfills, Stoicism through the integration of love (and this is where Pachmuss is most correct in her treatment of the story).

On his deathbed, having corrected his soul, Ivan turns his attention away from himself and toward his family. It says “he asked himself what was ‘right,’ and grew still, listening” (90). He sees his son and feels sorry for him. Then his wife comes. He sees her “despairing expression” and “unwiped tears” and feels sorry for her too (which is signifiant, considering how cold and distant he has been to her in the past, hating her very kiss). Amid his pondering the question of virtue, he suddenly beholds his family as if the answer lies with them. Then, diverging from the Stoic mindset, he invests his emotions in them, feeling sorry for them, moaning with them both outwardly and inwardly.

It suddenly becomes clear “that what was tormenting him and would not be resolved was suddenly all resolved at once, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides. He was sorry for them” (91). The implication is that his torment over the question of virtue and the meaning of life is settled through feeling sorry for his family.

Death’s approach has long terrified him. He has grappled to escape death, but now all of a sudden, he wishes to hasten it. Compassion for his family resolves his torment and then emboldens him to accept his death, that he might spare them the agony of watching him die. As this final enlightenment dawns on him, he cries out, “‘So that’s it! . . . What joy!’” (91).

Hence, Ivan finds true joy and virtue, not merely in the Stoic arrangement of his soul, but more importantly in a deep, genuine love for his family. True love is the crucial ingredient that fulfills the yearning of the Stoics. True love is what ultimately puts one’s soul in perfect order. Like a Stoic, he contemplates the importance of his inner impulses as an answer to the question of virtue, but he is not fulfilled to the utmost until love enters his soul.

Pachmuss puts it quite well: “Love is ultimate reality—this is Tolstoy’s conclusion. As opposed to the primitive man, the ‘civilized’ individual becomes a part of the harmonious whole only through death, or, during life, through love. Without love, Ivan Ilyich’s life was empty and meaningless. With the discovery of love, Ivan Ilyich felt that his death was reduced to insignificance. He was allowed to become a part of the unity of the whole, an experience he described with the words: ‘Death is all over. It is no more’” (Pachmuss 82).

In conclusion, when facing death, the crucial question is not “Are we going to die?” (since death comes to all men, no matter how uncommon they are), but rather, “How shall we live?” (Felps 52). Sadly, this question often goes unnoticed until death unveils its importance. Ivan Ilyich chased many external pleasures and duties, but when death finally came upon him, he realized that virtue and joy reside within, not without. Like a Stoic, he realized his soul needed to be put in order, but unlike a Stoic, he needed love in order to do this. Love is the highest duty (if it can be called a duty; perhaps “calling” is the better word). Love brings about true joy, virtue, and enlightenment. Though he lived wrongly, he died rightly, with true love in his heart.

If that is so, then when Pyotr beheld the face of Ivan’s corpse, perhaps what he truly saw was a look of love upon Ivan’s face. Calloused and uncomprehending, Pyotr mistook the extraordinary contentment of a loving Stoic for something more mundane and businesslike as having done what needed to be done. Let the reader not be so dull. Let the reader not dismiss so flippantly Ivan’s reminder for the living that true life consists of true love. Instead, let Felps’ closing words be true for all of Tolstoy’s readers, that “we, too, are redeemed by Ivan’s life” (56).

Works Cited

Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Cicero. On Duties. Ed. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Epictetus. The Handbook (The Encheiridion). Trans. Nicholas P. White. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Felps, Maryann. “How to Live? What We Can Learn from Ivan Ilych’s Death.” The English Journal 102.1 (2012): 52–56. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2016.

Pachmuss, Temira. “The Theme of Love and Death in Tolstoy’s the Death of Ivan Ilyich.” American Slavic and East European Review 20.1 (1961): 72–83. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2016.

Seneca. “On Mercy.” Moral and Political Essays. Ed. John M. Cooper and J.F. Procopé. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. 119-57. Print.

Shepherd, David. “Conversion, Reversion and Subversion in Tolstoi’s ‘The Death of Ivan Il’ich’”. The Slavonic and East European Review 71.3 (1993): 401–416. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2016.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.


In Retrospect:

It’s always a fun challenge as a Christian to write research papers like this, where I have to wear a couple different hats and neither one is resting on Scripture. I’m amazed at the things pagan thinkers come up with through the common grace conscience that God gives them. There is much I can affirm! They come so close to the truth in a lot of ways, and God uses that to restrain their sin, bear witness to him, and judge their unbelief. Yet they are still so far in the ways that matter the most. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).

Fun paper to write! I had some of the most fun with this one. Good thing the Russo Brothers didn’t take after Tolstoy when they titled Infinity War.

Check back in a week or two for another Favorite Undergrad Paper! I think the next one I share will be one of my exegesis papers.

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