Berlin on Tolstoy as strange martyr

Tolstoy is remembered one of the great figures of the 19th century.    Sir Kenneth Clark thought he might have been the greatest.

And Isaiah Berlin wanted to get to the root of Tolstoy’s thought.  Berlin wrote grand essays about various aspects of Tolstoy’s work and thought  – and this passage, I think, captures the pathos of the great artist

Tolstoy is incapable of suppressing, or falsifying, or explaining away by reference to dialectical or other “deeper” levels of thought, any truth when it presents itself to him, no matter what this entails, no matter where it leads, how much it destroys of what he most passionately wants to believe. Everyone knows that Tolstoy placed truth highest of all the virtues. Others have said this too, and have celebrated her no less memorably. But Tolstoy is one of the few who have truly earned that rare right, for he sacrificed all he had upon her altar .happiness, friendship, love, peace, moral and intellectual certainty, and in the end, his life. And all she gave him in return was doubt, insecurity, self-contempt and insoluble contradictions.

In this sense, although he would have repudiated this violently, he is a martyr and a hero – perhaps the most richly gifted of all – in the tradition of the European enlightenment. This seems a paradox; but then his entire life bears witness to the proposition to the denial of which his last years were dedicated: that the truth is seldom wholly simple or clear, or as obvious as it may sometimes seem to the eye of the common observer.

And yet, the 20th century is full of rash ànd highly destructive behavior in the pursuit of certainty. that seems just a bit odd, don’t you think?

 

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