Tag: Morson

10 Tostolyan Conclusions

These conclusions, which paraphrase Tolstoys thought or draw dotted lines from his thought to the present, are offered not as so many truths but as prompts for dialogue.

1. We live in a world of uncertainty. Assured prediction is impossible. History and individual lives contain contingent events that might just as well not have happened. No account that tries to think contingency away can be adequate.

2. There can never be a social science, in the sense that nineteenth-century physics is a science.

3. We need not only knowledge but also wisdom. Wisdom cannot be formalized or expressed adequately in a set of rules. If it could, it would not be wisdom at all. Wisdom is acquired by attentive reflection on experience in all its complexity.

4. Because the world is uncertain, presentness matters. The present moment is not an automatic derivative of the past. In human life, more than one thing can happen at any given moment. Theories that assume otherwise mislead.

5. Because presentness is real, alertness matters. The more uncertain a situation, the greater the value of alertness.

6. Numerous biases distort our perceptions of our lives. We must understand these biases to minimize their effect.

7. The idea that truth lies in the extreme is not only false but also dangerous. Even extraordinary moments are largely the product of what happens at ordinary ones.

8. The road of excess leads to the chamber of horrors.

9. True life takes place when we are doing nothing especially dramatic. The more drama, the worse the life.

10. Plot is an index of error.

Anna Karenina In Our Time
Gary Saul Morson
From the section One Hundred Sixty-Three Tostolyan Conclusions

Moral Newtonianism

Unlike apothegms and tragedies, detective stories presume that a rational method exists. The genre believes in social science. It embodies the same set of assumptions that have led so many thinkers since the seventeenth century to assume that what Newton accomplished in astronomy will soon be accomplished with human beings. Governed by natural laws no less than any star or planet, we must be as knowable to rational investigators. “Moral Newtonianism,” as Elie Halévy famously called this assumption, is above all the belief in method guaranteeing answers.

Morson, Gary. The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

Rationalism Bias and Tragedy

“Because modern Western culture typically presumes to have grasped a world amenable to rational and scientific investigation, tragedy retains special power to shock. It reminds us that there is no more reason to presume that the universe fits human reason than to regard the Earth as its center. Behind rationalism lies an unnoticed anthropomorphism. Tragedy narrates how, despite our supreme confidence, our predictions prove mistaken. What we never imagined takes place. Surprise will always persist, not because we are temporarily ignorant of its laws but because the universe is essentially surprising.”

Morson, Gary. The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

Ivan Ilych’s life was the most simple and most ordinary and therefore the most terrible.

The self that dies is radically separate, not only from the material world but also from other selves. My consciousness is essentially private; I cannot directly experience the mind of another. I may know everything public about another conscious being, but I cannot experience being that other. Knowing from direct experience is one thing, and knowing about, from an outside perspective, is quite another. Mortality therefore entails unspeakable loneliness.

Itself a narrativized apothegm, Tolstoy’s novella contains several of his most-cited lines. Ivan Ilych has lived as if his public role exhausted his identity, but in his mortal illness he discovers the private self, inaccessible from the outside, that he has overlooked. He senses with horror that his role will go on but his “I” will die.

None of us can really grasp this fact, but for Ivan Ilych it is all the more terrible because he is losing the self just as he realizes he has it. He has thought of himself as his “place” (mesto), a word that means not only physical location but also job (position) and social role (place in society). He has assiduously avoided doing anything “inappropriate” (literally, out of place). But the self is not a place, and so he has missed it until, when dying, he recognizes that besides what is here and now, there is something else.

What Ivan Ilych takes to be the glory of his life, his amazing ability to “fit in” with others, depends on a “virtuoso” erasure of self. But as he will learn, nothing can be worse than success in such a venture. That is the meaning of the frequently cited apothegm that begins Chapter 2: Ivan Ilych’s life was the most simple and most ordinary and therefore the most terrible. (GSW, 255)

Morson, Gary. The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

Aristides the Just

Plutarch recounts how Aristides the Just would help the illiterate record their votes for the person to be ostracized from Athens each year. Someone once asked him to write down “Aristides.” Since the man was illiterate, Aristides could have written down anything, but performed the task honestly. When he asked why the man wanted to ostracize Aristides, he replied: “Simply because: I am sick and tired of hearing him called ‘the Just.’ ”

An aside from an article on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, “The Idiot” savant by Gary Saul Morson