Compassion and Self-Deception: The Unity of Love and Truthfulness in Leo Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich'
Pope (Stephen J.)
Source: The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Vol. 19 (1999), pp. 115-129
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. This essay examines "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich" in light of the moral status of self-deception, particularly as defended on grounds of compassion. It argues that Tolstoy's powerful depiction of the interconnection of love and truthfulness reveals the spiritual and moral dangers of self-deception and particularly its destructive consequences for interpersonal love and friendship.
  2. From the time of Plato, philosophers have regarded self-deception as a grave moral evil that ought to be overcome. Recently, however, a number of morally concerned authors have promoted a more positive assessment of self-deception.
    • Behavioral ecologists have argued that self-deception is pervasive within societies because people who are more self-deceived tend to have lower anxiety levels, and therefore greater social success, than people who are less self-deceived.
    • An openness to the positive effects of self-deception was exhibited earlier this century in Eugene O'Neill's The Ice Man Cometh1. "The lies of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober," proclaims Larry.
    • Psychologist Daniel Goleman endorses "vital lies" which mute our awareness of threatening matters in order to reduce our anxiety. He endorses "optimal equilibrium between denial and truth."
    • Philosopher Mike W. Martin similarly argues that self-deception, while not always innocuous, can be noble when it is motivated by altruism and generates benefits like self-esteem, vitality, and peace.
  3. Rather than directing specific criticisms at these authors, I will examine "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich" as a basis for identifying dangers in the moral legitimization of self-deception. I draw upon this story as a fruitful avenue for thinking about self-deception, but do not intend to argue that it is primarily about self-deception. This paper is a modest attempt by a non-specialist to examine narrowly only one short work from a massive corpus, so it cannot be taken as offering a comprehensive treatment of Tolstoy's view on this (or any other) matter.
  4. This having been said, I believe that even on its own "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich" yields important insights into the problem of self-deception and its relation to love. My thesis is that, by depicting ways in which lies undermine love, Tolstoy challenges the "optimal equilibrium" position by placing on it a very strong burden of proof. Tolstoy helpfully reveals the extensive negative effects of habits of self-deception as amplified throughout social groups over time, in contrast to the excessively narrow time and space frameworks employed by justifications from benevolence and from beneficence. He also brilliantly portrays ways in which self-deception operates on a pre-reflective level to influence the individual's attitudes and judgments, and thereby points up the need for vigilance in this regard.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: See Wikipedia: The Iceman Cometh.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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