Life and death are theories society has grappled with since the dawn of time. There is hardly a person alive that does not wonder what happens to the body and soul after death. This sample sociology essay explores the thought of life and death through the use of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King as thinkers and writers.
Life and death
What is “it” that constitutes life and death? Everyone knows what it’s like to be alive, but what is it like to be… dead. These are some of the questions that just about everyone considers at different points in their life, albeit to different extents. Some individuals consider these questions at such an advanced level that they reach conclusive and decisive beliefs and “answers” to these questions. In effect, these people are the ones that gather together and have the power to move societies. Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King are some examples of these kinds of advanced social thinkers. In this book The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy exemplifies his advanced thinking.
The message about life and death that Tolstoy is trying to convey is there is much more to life than the regular routines and practices we mindlessly perform every day. He argues that there is a much greater power and beauty to this thing we call “life”. This paper analyzes the message of Leo Tolstoy as shown through his works and the works of others, its influence on other great leaders and its relevance to the contemporary person. Life and death, religious and philosophical issues are extremely complicated issues that need a specific level of sophistication to understand. Leo Tolstoy happens to be capable of such critical analysis.
Leo Tolstoy’s views on life and death
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian writer that underwent an “awakening” around the 1870’s and, in turn, became a power social influence (Leo). Tolstoy is best known for his works War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Each of these novels contains insight into the mind of Tolstoy. War and Peace, being one of the more famous novels notable for its size, contains the story of the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleon era in graphic detail. Although that may be the material and actual plot of the story, the story is more of a pool of philosophical thinking from the mind of Tolstoy. He is quoted saying:
“not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle” (War). Immediately, one may consider “this ‘big book’ titled War and Peace be a story of two sides fighting a war. If its not a book then it’s a poem. If its not a poem it is a historical description of something that happened.”
But, as is the theme and the message Tolstoy is trying to convey, there is a much greater meaning and purpose for life than the routines we put in place and live by. Such a deep realization and understanding, Tolstoy continues his expression through his other work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story of a wealthy Russian man that lives his life successfully. One day, while working on home improvement, Ivan Ilyich suffers an accident which results in an injury in his hip and a ringing in his ears. Doctors are perplexed as they are unable to diagnose precisely what is wrong with Ivan. As the injury, in fact, worsens, it is determined by Ivan and those around him that he is indeed dying. Knowing that death is inevitable, Ivan begins to lose his sanity as he looks back at his life with pity and regret. As Ivan becomes maddened with the idea of his death and its injustice, he implicitly drives away those who love him most. It is only at the end of the novella when Ivan is minutes away from death that he is able to let go of the attachment to his materialistic and “prestigious” life.
“’It is finished!’ said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more!’ He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died” (Magarshack).
Ivan showed fear of death because all that he knew was life. As sad as the truth may be, death in their time is inevitable. Faced by this ultimatum, Ivan loses his mind and spends every moment from his injury onward grieving and pitying himself. As with War and Peace, there is a physical, materialistic part to the story, as well as a deeper, more philosophical meaning implicitly conveyed through the story. The philosophical question Tolstoy poses to the reader
“Is this how you want your life to be; to conclude? Do you want to be a self-obsessed person as you helplessly approach your death?” As we can see, there are much greater messages that can be taken from the story and Tolstoy’s works as a whole.
There are statements in the novel much like this one:
“So that on the whole Ivan Ilyich’s life proceeded as he felt it should – pleasantly and properly”.
It is understandable that for Ivan Ilyich, a high-court judge in 19th century Russia is living a fantastic lifestyle. He is well paid, well respected, and highly important. So involved in his materialistic addiction, he is forced to come to the realization that the lifestyle that he earned is going to be taken from him without a doubt. His materialistic obsession drives him mad as he grieves over himself and achievement. As a direct result, he neglects his wife and misses the opportunity to appreciate life for its greatest pleasures. And what are these pleasures?
Death and love
One of the greatest pleasures was directly in front of him the entire time. Love is traditionally defined as an intense feeling of deep affection. Love occurs when two individuals develop a strong bond through deep emotion and care for each other. It is through love that some of the greatest achievements of history have been made. Tolstoy, understanding the true power of love, attempts to share his knowledge with society in his works such as this sample in War and Peace:
This time he never found himself doing what he had done before – squirming with a sickening sense of shame as he went over the things he had said; he didn’t keep saying to himself:
‘Oh, why didn’t I say that?’ or ‘Why, oh why did I say, “I love you”?’
Quite the reverse: he found himself going over in his imagination every word Natasha had spoken and everything he had said, along with all the details of every look and smile, without wanting to add anything, or take anything away, but just wanting to hear it over and over again. This time there wasn’t a shadow of doubt about the rightness or wrongness of death or what he had started. Only one terrible anxiety sometimes assailed his mind… The whole meaning of life, for him and the whole world, seemed to be contained in his love and the possibility of being loved in return. Sometimes it seemed as if everybody was preoccupied by nothing but his future happiness. (Tolstoy).
Understanding is key
Understanding that the feelings and emotions in the book come from Tolstoy himself, we see his deep understanding of love. And it is through his “love” for the people of his society that he writes these masterpieces of world literature.
Society’s Views of Life and Love
Love is just one of the few pleasures of life. Other pleasures can be found in hard work followed by leisure, sport and physical activity, collection and hobbies. There are also pleasures found directly in nature such as sitting on the top of a mountain on a crisp spring morning and taking a deep breath of fresh mountain air. There are many things in this life that make it a calm and peaceful experience. It is only when manmade constructions come into play that the state of nature is broken and damages begin to arise. It is manmade automobiles that eject gasoline byproduct into the atmosphere by populations in mass. It is manmade boats that carried men with manmade guns to Africa to enslave other men with different skin color to the Americas in order to work as slaves for the production and consumption of the developed societies. It is through man made government systems that corruption is allowed to take place. Finally, it is only by stepping back, outside of these systems, and taking life for what it really is.
Life is fairly simple to understand. The center of our solar system is created by the formation of the sun in a nebula (Birth). Orbiting the sun are 8 planets, one of them being Earth. The Earth is formed and energy from the sun spontaneously creates microbiological life such as algae in a sea. Life, a naturally occurring and powered operating unit, undergoes cell replication and allows different, more advanced systems of life to develop. As a result billions of years later, we have the development of intelligent life such as mammals, reptiles, birds, insects and fish. Each of these categories of species need more than energy from the sun to survive. Therefore, they use the resources available to them to meet their survival standards in order to survive as long as possible. As human bypass all other species exponentially through the use of tools and an advanced mental capacity. Now the “human’s” goal is the same as ever; survival. To meet this requirement of survival, people educate themselves and work to earn money to meet our living standards. For some, their need for survival is justification to override other, different, people’s very same need for survival. Unfortunately for many people around the world, guns and boats provide a means for a period of rigorous slavery and violation of human rights to survival.
Although slavery and worldwide exploitation was horrendous, it was nonetheless a major reason for the advancement of our species as a whole. Slavery is traditionally defined as free labor; and in a world before mass production capabilities, it is the perfect solution to achieve the potential of the advanced European powers that set out to colonize the world. Clearly wrong in and within it, both slave masters and slaves begin to realize the errors in their practices and remedy the situation only after a brutal civil war. The rights of people may have prevailed in the United States, but countries around the world continued to be exploited by the British. And although slavery was abolished at the conclusion of the Civil War, segregation and discrimination became systematically in place. However, using the power of love, two tremendous leaders were able to lead their people to liberation.
The British formally colonized the country of India in 1858. Not only was the territory under rule of the British crown, but its people were severely exploited for their and their land’s resources. Although they were not “slaves”, the institution of money and currency trading made it so the people were hardly paid for their efforts. A law student in England, Mohandas Gandhi became familiar with reasoning and analytical thinking. He travels to South America where he is thrown off of a train car because of his skin tone. Humiliated and impassioned, Gandhi returns to India and begins a movement to liberate his people from the control of the corrupt and exploitive. Understanding the power of love, it is not surprising he succeeded and India became independent in 1947. In his book Tolstoy and Gandhi, Men of Peace, Martin Green describes the similarities and influence between Leo Tolstoy and Martin Green. “Tolstoy and Gandhi’s faith was essentially antihumanist. They saw humanism as the self-indulgent world view of the ruling classes of great empires” (Green). Most people are humanist because they live in a system that works for them and everything is fine. Then there are those that are exploited to feed this system, such as slaves from Africa and the people of India. Then there are those in the class with power, such as Thomas Jefferson and Mohandas Gandhi, and see the errors of their ways. They can be tremendously helpful in defending and liberating those that cannot defend themselves. The same is evident in the liberation story of Martin Luther King Jr.
Slavery was abolished at the conclusion of the civil war, but that was not the last of human rights abuses. What proceeded after the war was a period of systematically instituted segregation and discrimination as determined by the famous U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson determined the term and practice of “separate but equal” was okay. Of course this was not okay, as the separated facilities, practice and institutions were in fact not equal. Having had enough, many people rose together to make an impact on their society. Of the many people that attempted to make an impact, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to make the most. MLK made the most impact because he understood the power of deep affection and non-violent means of achieving objectives. Through his powerful words and effective strategy, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to eliminate the corruption from his system and free his people from injustice and exploitation.
In conclusion, Tolstoy attempts to convey his complex yet factual understanding of what life is and the purpose of it to his society at large. His message is clear and simple: enjoy life for what it really is and not for the materialistic and ritualistic practices that immediately exist. Inside this deep message is one of life’s greatest pleasures, love. Deep affection is an emotion that has driven people to some of history’s greatest achievements. This is evident in the stories of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Having this complex understanding of what life really is, one can achieve anything they put their mind to, provided that it is justified and does not infringe on the rights of others.
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