Leo Tolstoy Smacks Christopher Hitchens ~ BitterSweetLife

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Leo Tolstoy Smacks Christopher Hitchens

Vociferous, published atheist Christopher Hitchens knows a good book when he reads one. Or when he skims one. Or when he sees a good-looking cover. Or something.

I recently noticed that Mary Graber has taken Hitchens to task, gently pointing out that "Best-selling atheist authors are capitalizing on a wave of ignorance and stupidity." As evidence, she offers a paragraph from Hitchens' God is Not Great:

"We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books."

Sounds good, except that Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were each overtly theistic. Since I just finished Leo Tolstoy's 820-page masterpiece, Anna Karenina, I thought I'd dish up a few quotes. Incidentally, the "serious ethical dilemmas" that Hitchens mentions do exist in Tolstoy--they just center on the emptiness of materialism, the folly of people who abandon themselves wholly to "reason," and the irrepressible need for faith in the human heart. But check for yourselves.

Late in the book, Tolstoy comments on how easy it is to bury God since God is dead never existed in the first place:
“Lord, have mercy, forgive us, help us!” he repeated words that somehow suddenly came to his lips. And he, an unbeliever, repeated these words not just with his lips. Now, in that moment, he knew that neither all his doubts, nor the impossibility he knew in himself of believing by means of reason, hindered him in the least from addressing God. It all blew off his soul like dust. To whom was he to turn if not to Him in whose hands he felt himself, his soul and his love to be? - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 709
A little later, Tolstoy weighs in on how completely atheism fills the God-shaped malleable vacuum in the human heart:
The question for him consisted in the following: “If I do not accept the answers that Christianity gives to the questions of my life, then which answers do I accept?” And nowhere in the whole arsenal of his convictions was he able to find, not only any answers, but anything resembling an answer. He was in the position of a man looking for food in a toymaker’s or a gunsmith’s shop. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 786
And finally, Tolstoy conveys the remarkable existential clout that accompanies the atheistic answer non-answer to life's first order questions:
“In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is – me.” This was a tormenting untruth, but it was the sole, the latest result of age-long labors of human thought in that direction. This was the latest belief on which all researches of the human mind in almost all fields was built. This was the reigning conviction, and out of all other explanations it was precisely this one that Levin, himself not knowing when or how, had involuntarily adopted as being at any rate the most clear. But it was not only untrue, it was the cruel mockery of some evil power, evil and offensive, which it was impossible to submit to. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 798

Sarcastic note from Tolstoy to Hitchens: Oops.

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R. Sherman said...

It is not possible to understand any Western literature without having a complete understanding of the Bible. All good works of literature merely retell all or parts of the story of innocence-sin-judgment-sacrifice-mercy-
salvation in one form or the other.


Anonymous said...

You have completely (and I hope not deliberately, I think you were sorely misled by Graber) missed Hitchens' point. He was not using Tolstoy to back up his case against god, he was saying that literature is a better medium for the discussion & exploration of moral themes. Rather than be dependent on an ancient text that does not and cannot guide us on the moral dilemmas which have arisen since the writing of the bible. For example (and there are countless examples), there is no reference to cloning in the bible (help us oh lord, says the Christian, for we have no morals without you).
I suppose I shouldnt be so hard on you as clearly you have not read Hitchens' book, talk about 'a wave of ignorance and stupidity'.

oops indeed

Ariel said...

Hey anonymous, I don't think I missed Hitchens' point. In the paragraph I quoted, he explains how atheists are not immune to the "lure of wonder and mystery and awe" in great prose.

My point is simply as stated. If what Hitchens says is true, than one of two things has to give: his atheism or the Christianity that enthralled Tolstoy. Since dead men don't typically change their minds, Hitchens is left out in the cold. If he had actually read Tolstoy, he would have known better. The wonder and awe in Tolstoy is the wonder and awe of God.

As to the usefulness of the Bible--the job of a believer in Jesus is to bring the timeless word of God to bear on culture in a timely way. So no need for paralysis.

Feel free to use a name next time.

Anonymous said...

The suggestion that Hitchens, or anyone who picks up a book on a regular basis, is/was not aware of Tolstoy's insistence on Christianity is absurd.

Hitchens said that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky handled ethical dilemmas better than scripture. That's it. He expressed approval for their mode of exploration, i.e. art, not their conclusions.

The problems of nihilism, sensuality, purposelessness, etc. are intimately detailed and convincingly explored by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky's fiction. A reader does not have to slavishly accept their conclusion to value the discussion.

-not the same anonymous as above.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife