Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why Tolstoy is better than self-help gurus

So Pierre has had an education abroad, he returns espousing the ideals of the French Revolution, he even initially admires Napoleon. Then his father dies and he inherits his fortune and nobility title. He joins the Free Masons, practises philanthropy, and unsuccessfully attempts to release his serfs from their bondage. Suffering from delusions of grandeur, he dabbles in the occult and gets in his head the notion that Napoleon is the Antichrist and that he’s destined to kill him. Instead he’s wrongly arrested for arson, but he survives captivity and returns to his estates.

How does Pierre feel at the end of such a complicated search for meaning and peace throughout his life?

He felt like a man who, after straining his eyes to see into the far distance, finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.

War and Peace is a rare great novel where the characters seem to have a happy ending. They marry, their fortunes increase through their own labour, they have loving children, they have loyal friends. Tolstoy’s solution for a good, happy life is remarkably simple: learn to appreciate the things around you, what you have and the traditions you come from. Instead of foreign ideas, learn to love your country. Instead of sweeping revolutions that leave everything in ruins, change and improve things gradually, according to everyday needs. After such a complex novel about the human soul, Tolstoy’s moral philosophy comes down to what could be the final line of a Paulo Coelho self-help novel. What did Madonna say about one of his books? The Alchemist is a beautiful book about magic, dreams and the treasures we seek elsewhere and then find on our doorstep.” Finding the treasure on the doorstep. That’s exactly what Pierre does, after searching for it everywhere else to no avail.

Why is it that great novelists are often excellent at writing about the problems and evils of society, and at exposing its hypocrisies, contradictions, stupidities, injustices, but when it’s time to picture an ideal, good, happy, moral life they can’t advance anything but banalities and clichés?

Mind you, Tolstoy’s guide for a good life is in no way a naïve philosophy. It’s very close to what several of the finest Greek philosophers taught in ancient times. When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel, the great conqueror asked him if he wanted anything, and Diogenes replied, “Yes, step aside because you’re blocking the sun.” Diogenes’ philosophy rejected possession of worldly goods and he taught his followers to live without concern for what others thought of them. His philosophy later influenced stoicism.

Epictetus, the slave who became a Stoic philosopher, had a similar outlook of life:

Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.


He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

One of his followers later collected many of his maxims in the book Enchiridion.

The Epicurean school wasn’t very different. In the words of Epicurus:

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.


If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.


Of all the things which wisdom provides to make life entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.

Epicureanism has a bad reputation nowadays. Many think it’s a philosophical system devoted to pleasure, so it’s often mistaken with Hedonism. But what many don’t realize is that Epicurus’ way of achieving pleasure was to abstain from worldly desires, by being thankful for what we have instead of longing for more. “The summit of pleasure is the elimination of all that gives pain.” If you wish nothing, you suffer no pain, and thus you achieve pleasure.

Perhaps the ancient Greek philosophers were just over-glorified self-help gurus, but the path to a good life doesn’t stray far from adherence to these precepts. These things are self-evident and valuable truths to most people, I think: be honest, be thankful for what you have, love yourself for what you are, seek support in friends and family.

Of course knowing what a good life is, is much easier than having the strength to live one. In defence of philosophers like Diogenes and Epicurus, what we know of their lives shows that not only were they able to talk the talk but walk the walk. Nor do I think writers are hypocrites if they’re unable to live according to the principles they espouse in their writings. When I’m reminded that Sartre, the philosopher who placed freeeeeeeedoooooooom! at the centre of his system, was also whitewashing dictator Stalin’s mass murders in order not to demoralize the French proletariat, I’m more amused than indignant. It’s such an ordinary moral failing. But of course he’d do such a thing. It’s so human of him. The fact that most writers are, once we bother to learn about their personal lives, despicable people only shows that the problem isn’t knowing what goodness is but having the conviction to live it.

The precepts of the ancient Greeks concerned things are within our immediate control: we can choose to be honest, if we’re willing to pay the price of total honesty all the time, every time; we can surround ourselves with friends, if we know how to esteem them, and relatives, if we can stand them; we can abstain from desire, if we have the willpower to do so. If we can be complete saints, living a good, happy life is a relatively easy affair. We don’t need writers who tell us what a good, happy life is because we all instinctively know what that is. What literature exists for is to capture our extraordinary and infinite ability to be unhappy.

What makes the apparently blissful ending of War and Peace so enjoyable is that it’s preceded by a long, destructive war and considerable misery. It’s not a God-given happy ending, a reward to the characters for all their suffering. They’ve built their own happiness through their actions and choices. It’s not a gift bestowed upon them. It’s the result of much living and searching, meditation, mistakes, and failed experiments in living. Nor does the text show that it’s the end for them, that now they’re in a stasis of bliss. The 1100 pages before them showed the lives of people being disrupted by events outside their control, indeed that is one of the main themes of the novel, and so the reader is left with the bittersweet impression that their newfound happiness is just an interlude, until the next war, the next cataclysm, the next crisis, the next death in the family. Indeed the novel ends with fissures showing up in Pierre and Nikolai’s friendship. Why? Because people don’t just live by friendship, they also give importance to ideas like honour and duty, because people with differences will always clash. Because people are dynamic and live in a flux, and no one can live every instant in harmony with the world and others. Because life is complicated and messy.

That’s the fundamental difference between Tolstoy and the self-help guru. In the novel there’s no illusion of happiness being a permanent state, Tolstoy doesn’t pretend to have discovered a key for happiness, which has eluded everyone else for millennia but him. (1) Many self-help gurus think they hold this key, as if through some design of fate these few select people have been chosen, from the billions who have walked on this planet, since the beginning of history, to have a unique insight into the matter; and not just that, but the majority of the population, through some masochistic drive, refuses to drink from their wisdom, because happiness is something we’re not in a constant pursuit of. And yet ignore them is what we do, most of us anyway. I always take comfort in the fact that Paulo Coelho has only sold 140 million copies so far. The Little Prince has sold 200 million, and being a children’s book, it manages to speak more about the texture of life.

The only lives these people have improved selling their silly brand of new age mysticism, have been their own lives at the expense of gullible people whose only crime is to think happiness comes with a user’s guide. Great novelists don’t know less than they do about happiness, in fact they know more, they know what a lovely, fragile thing it is, how it seldom blesses us with its presence, how hard it is to attain it, how easy to lose it, how it’s an integral but unequal part of us, how it moves at a different pace than our wishes, how it refuses integrating with our other needs, how finding it is a matter of knowing how to articulate it with many other elements, to form a delicate compromise between disparate parts, and it’s never a finished process. This is what great novelists teach us, if teaching is what they do, about happiness.

By the way, it’s my 50th post on St. Orberose. Hurrah!

1) That is, until Tolstoy had a crisis of faith, became a Christian self-help anarchist guru, and started writing pamphlets about the Gospels and God. But let’s pretend that didn’t happen.


  1. First!
    Sorry about that. I don't know what came over me.
    Regarding Epicurus and how people misunderstand what he means by a life of enjoyment and luxury, Nietzsche wrote:
    "A little garden, some figs, a piece of cheese, plus three or four good friends - that was the sum of Epicurus' luxury".

    1. Eh, that's quite accurate. What book is that from?

  2. Congratulations on 50 posts Miguel!

    You raise some really important points here. I have always been astonished at the extent that so many people spend so much time devouring and parroting not just self help gurus but an entire host of pop and superficial psychology and philosophy while ignoring the wisdom of the ages! Though I would add that among the great thinkers, there is a huge divergence in opinions and points of view.

    I have not gotten to Tolstoy yet but I really need to read him soon.

    1. Thanks!

      Read Tolstoy, he's amazing! I'm ordering Anna Karenina next month.

      Happiness is one of the most difficult topics of human life, it will always be divisive. Personally I like the teachings of the ancient Greeks, their spartan approach to life, being thankful for what we have and not wanting too much. I think learning to live in moderation is essential. But that's a radical proposition in our capitalist, I fear, when everyone wants to be a millionaire.

  3. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy plunges directly into the same "what is happiness" problems, from the famous first sentence on to the end. You will be able to revisit these interesting "self help" ideas. Perhaps no other writer could develop the idea is such a complex fashion. And he does it within an elegant, perfectly balanced, symbolically rich but in some sense ordinary novel. I mean, in War and Peace Tolstoy sometimes fights against the form; in AK he perfectly inhabits it.

    1. Anna Karenina will be my primary September reading. I'm anxious for more Tolstoy :)