Blog Post

Tolstoy, Max Weber, Love and War

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Wikipedia ( I , II ) and Flickr ( I )

Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature) has just released a podcast of my conversation with Robert Harrison about Tolstoy and Max Weber. These two names—one, perhaps the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, the other, the father of modern sociology—rarely appear in one sentence. They should.

During the winter quarter, I taught a seminar at Stanford called "Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Social Thought of Its Time." We looked at Tolstoy's great, perhaps the greatest, novel as a kind of an upside-down Noah's Ark transporting us from the optimistic shores of the nineteenth century onto the shores of the twentieth—an age shrouded in grand illusions but serving up wars, revolutions, the gulags, the holocausts, as well as the prospect for the total annihilation of humanity... Yes, I sigh, stay tuned...

Like all great works, Tolstoy's was in dialogue with contemporary master thinkers, and I structured the course in such a way that after immersing ourselves in the novel for three weeks, after following all the love and the heart break, the ball rooms and the salons, the barnyards and the races, the meadows and the railroad tracks, after figuring out how Tolstoy could produce a hybrid of Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert, after grasping the consequences of the Crimean War and the Great Reforms in Russia, we could start re-reading the novel yet again.

Week after week, we paused over a section to catch the echoes of Plato (on love), Freud (on dreams and the unconscious), Marx (political economy), John Stuart Mill (women's emancipation), Nietzsche (ethics, truth, and power), Emile Durkheim (community and religion) and, as a culmination, the response of a thinker who was one of the keenest readers of Tolstoy and one who put together systematically all of these aspects of the modern condition together—Max Weber.

Weber knew Russian (he learned it to follow the events of the Russian 1905 revolution), and thought that on the small chance that a new world religion might arise in the modern world, it could only happen in Russia. No doubt, his reading of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had a lot to do with it. But it must also have been the sociological sophistication of Tolstoy's genius, that drew him deeply to his work. Speaking to his students after the end of the Great War, the father of sociology conceded that social science cannot answer Tolstoy's killer question "what is a good life," even though this is, in Weber's eyes, "the most important question for sociology." What it can instead accomplish, Weber insisted, is to "help sort it all out." For two weeks, Weber guided us in the seminar, as we tried to sort out Tolstoy's conundrum.


Ivan Kramskoy, "Reading" (1863)

What, then, is a good life? Tolstoy thought he had figured it out. As we know, in the course of writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a conversion, and the novel, written over four years, served him during this time as a kind of a diary. Especially the last part of Anna Karenina, Book Eight, resonates with what Tolstoy understood as his conversion a turn to what came to be known as Tolstoyanism, or in Russian, tolstovstvo. Donning the mantle of a prophet, the author of Anna Karenina felt inspired to re-write the New Testament. His new Gospel (and he referred to it as "my Gospel") affirmed without compromise a distilled, rationalized Christian ethic of love (love thy neighbor as you would yourself, turn the other cheek); what it denounced was modern civilization, in particular, the modern state and society that he saw as vehicles for spreading carnality and violence, be it under the guise of the cult of romance, the veneration of the arts, emancipation or women, general progress, nationalism, communism, or other modern ideology.

This is why the main emphasis in Anna Karenina falls on the vehicle—the locomotive, the key symbol, the metaphor and the allegory for, not progress, but the perdition awaiting modern man. The novel's love story, by comparison, the tragic romance of Anna and Vronsky, is just a honey trap. As inevitably as carnal love fades away and disappears altogether, its other side—aggression, violence and war—comes to the fore. Weber's thought resonates with Tolstoy's. "The more sublimated it is," Weber wrote about the erotic relationship of the modern sophisticated sort, "the more brutal." And before you stop to catch your breath, he goes on to define erotic love as "the most intimate coercion of the soul of the less brutal partner."


Max Weber (1917)

According to Marian Weber's biography of her late husband, Weber was planning a book on Tolstoy, and I believe that his famous 1916 long essay ("Zwischenbetrachungen" or "Reflections") may have been, apart from other things, a sketching out of his own dialogue with the prophet and last author of Anna Karenina. His several references to Tolstoy's work, the essay's structure, and its very title—Reflections on Stages and Directions of Religious Rejection of the World—compel us to read Tolstoy and Weber together.

My friend and Stanford colleague Professor Robert Harrison, who has been running Stanford's radio show, has been asking me to do a show on Tolstoy for a few years now. Over the last few years, we've had coffees and lunches and talked about the subject. Finally, the stars aligned perfectly: I had just finished the course, Robert had an opening in his schedule. We pounced. You can now hear this conversation as a podcast on iTunes or directly on the Entitled Opinions website: Grisha Freidin on Leo Toslstoy.

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.