Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 6)

How should we live?  That’s the question every generation in every country in every age must face.  How should we live or, to put it a little differently, how can we live a good life?  Aristotle once said “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  We could replace the word “happiness” and use “the good life” instead.  Then we’d have a definition that says “the good life is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  But that still doesn’t answer the question how should we live?  What kind of activity are we talking about?  And what virtues (or in today’s terms “whose values”) are we to follow?  Aristotle says people have various opinions about what what they want out of life but “both the common run of people and cultivated men call it happiness, and understand by ‘being happy’ the same as ‘living well’ and ‘doing well.’”

That’s one framework for understanding Anna Karenina.  All the characters in this novel want to be happy.  But they can’t even agree on what happiness is, much less how to get there.  And they can’t agree whether happiness is best sought in the city or in the country; in an urban or in a pastoral setting.  Tolstoy has a deep understanding of human psychology and shows us several paths people take in their quest for happiness.  The Great Books approach is similar to the path Sergey and others tried.  They wanted to read and discuss the best that has been thought and said throughout history.  They tried to find happiness by pondering ideas and sharing them with others.  Religion is another path.  Tolstoy portrays the Countess Lidia using religion in a harmful way, as a crutch or an excuse for her own misfortunes in life.  But he also shows the positive side of religion in Varenka, whose life is a kind of spiritual dedication of service to others.  Art is another path.  For some people the search for happiness and the search for beauty are pretty much the same thing.  Mikhailov takes this path.  Vronsky tries art for a little while, then abandons it when it ceases to make him happy.  Social activism is the chosen path for others.  Levin’s brother Nikolay tries, and fails, to find happiness in his plans for restructuring the social order of Russia.  Living in harmony with nature has appealed to many people, including the American writer Henry David Thoreau.  Some of the peasants in this novel seem to have found happiness in nature.  Other characters have not.  Dolly is disappointed when living the country life as a grown woman does not recapture the happiness she had as a child.  But she does find a different kind of happiness in country life by focusing her attention on her own children.  Sport also promises a certain amount of happiness and several men in the story get a great deal of pleasure from horse racing and hunting.        

Tolstoy is well aware of all these approaches to the ongoing human project of finding and holding on to happiness.  There are lots of ways people can find pleasure in life but happiness is elusive.  Tolstoy’s theme seems to be this.  There are many pathways to pleasure but, as the Bible says, the greatest of these is love.  What all these characters are really searching for, whether in great books, religion, art, social activism, nature or sports, can only be found in love.  Sergey has his books, but something is missing.  He considers marrying Varenka, then misses his chance to share his life with hers when he backs out at the last moment.  Countess Lidia has her religion.  What she really wants is a husband who will love her.  Mikhailov has his art, but art’s abstract beauty means more to him than his real flesh-and-blood wife.  Anna and Vronsky want love so badly they’re willing to destroy the lives of others, and even their own, to find it.  Maybe they’re asking more from love than love is able to give them.  But of all these characters it’s Levin and Kitty who seem to be on the right path.  Love is not what either one of them pictured it to be.  For that very reason, Tolstoy apparently thinks that’s the real deal; love is a shared life.      


Post a Comment

<< Home