24 October, 2009

Tolstoy as a liberal humanist

My comment on the liberal vs tragic humanism post got too long to be a comment so...here it is.

Elliot's post on liberal/tragic humanism reminded me of some recent perusing of Tolstoy for the Aesthetics class I'm teaching. (Don't worry, a literary giant writing on the value of art might not sound relevant...but it is.)

First let me just say that I think Tolstoy can be read as a humanist, despite his frequent use of religious language. Tolstoy uses "religion" to mean 'shared values,' and "Christian" to mean 'shared values of love for all men'...SO if we understand that, we can see how Tolstoy means to talk about the progress of man, not the vindication of certain church's views. I guess what I think is interesting here is that Tolstoy provides us with an example of a person who doesn't fail to understand "that irrationality and myth making is an abiding, necessary, and often very meaningful part of our natures" (mostly because he doesn't fully reject them), but who does harbor an implausibly utopian vision of human nature.

Tolstoy talks about art as, at its best, realizing and revealing the shared values of a culture: it is a vehicle for moving a culture forward into a new age. Art does this, not so much by showing us new ideas, but by clarifying for us what our shared values are now, so we can grow up and move on, so we can build on these values for a new future.

Sure, this is a pretty romantic vision of art - but of course Tolstoy thinks only a few artists ever succeed in doing something like this (Picasso? Bob Dylan?). Whether he's right about the vehicle for human progress is not the relevant point though. The salience his views have for our discussion is that he exhibits an impressive faith in humanity for growth from within; a real belief that human progress comes out of our own struggle, it's not dictated or planned from above.

Why does his picture still seem foolishly utopian then? I think this liberal/tragic humanist distinction picks out the very problem my students quickly recognized: Tolstoy assumes that whatever shared values the ideal artist picks out as representative of her society are GOOD values...and with each growth into a new age of civilization, these values improve. Tolstoy has left behind the idea that history progresses because of some heavenly plan, but kept the belief that progress, not regress, characterizes the movement from one age to another.

I don't think I can agree that human nature is fundamentally only odious...but I'm not sure that is what Elliot or tragic humanists are suggesting. Regardless, what Tolstoy is missing is intuitively clear: human nature, and widely shared human values, are not always morally good or good for us. Thus, the movement of history is not always progression. Whether the periods of regression are part of the downfall of man or part of the larger story of ultimate betterment of the human condition remains to be seen.

No comments: