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Activity Wall Discussion #2 (Due 10/21, Follow-Up 10/24)


(Initial comments by October 21st; follow-up comments by October 24th)

Core Reading:  Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich

After completing Unit 2, please post your comments on the following philosophical issues on the P2PU Activity Wall for this study group:

  • Explain the philosophical consequences of the attitude that death is the end of a person by theorizing about personal identity.
  • Describe how physicalism affects one’s notion of personhood during life and after death.
  • Discuss how Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich propounds specific attitudes about death that are often associated with existentialism.

Post your initial comments on the P2PU Activity Wall by midnight (Eastern time) on October 21st Then, between October 21st and October 24th please make certain to read the comments of other study group members and post a few follow-up comments that engage your colleagues’ comments. Please make sure to reply to the initial posts by midnight (Eastern time) on October 24th.


Task Discussion

  • C. Redwing, Ph.D.   Oct. 27, 2011, 1:57 p.m.

    Greetings friends: 

    As we are trying to cover an enormous amount of information and primary text readings in this study group, I thought it would be best to help generate some initial comments on the Unit II materials. 

    I was hoping that by the end of this weekend (10/30) everyone would be able to at least read Tolstoy's work and then we can discuss how Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich propounds specific attitudes about death that are often associated with existentialism. 

    Remember that the basic notion of existentialism is that "existence preceeds essence" and that we are fundamentally born without a nature (neither stained by original sin nor destined for salvation). 

    Rather, life is, in essence, what you make of it.  Does this attitude apply to death as well? 

    To complicate the story even more, remember that Tolstoy converted to Christianity, even if his ideas were a bit unique.  So, what precisely is Tolstoy's view of death as seen in The Death of Ivan Ilyich?

  • Teresa   Oct. 30, 2011, 7:45 p.m.
    In Reply To:   C. Redwing, Ph.D.   Oct. 27, 2011, 1:57 p.m.

    Existentialism . . .life is in essense what you make of it.  In The Death of Ivan Illyich, Tolstoy propounds attitudes of existentialism by Ivans suffering at his end.  Once he has accepted that he indeed is dying his life passes in review. "What if my whole life has been wrong?". "But if that is so and I am leaving this life with the conciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it . . .what then?".  Ivans suffering was as strong emotionally as it was physically.  He struggled with the belief that he could not save himself.   He questioned whether all he had lived for was falsehood and deception hiding life and death from him.  A few days before he died he received communion from a priest at the request of his wife.  There was a brief moment that he wanted to live, rethinking the possibility of surgery to turn his impending end around.  "To live, I want to live". 

    Ivan spent his last days experiencing the sensation of being thrust into a black hole, a process he wanted to rush but did not have control over.  He wanted the suffering to end, both physically and emotionally.  This made me consider the existentialist view because my understanding of existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individuals person as a free and responsible agent determining ones own development through acts of free will.  This basically means that we are not controlled but are in control. Ivan spent his life controlling all that happened to him, attaining his place in society, for example.  And now at his death he had absolutely no control.

    Tolstoys view of death in The Death of Ivan Illyich is one that represents salvation.  Though Ivan did not lead a godly life he was saved by the "light" at his end. In his last hours he sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.  There was no fear because there was no death.  In place of death there was light. This is very much a christian view.  The thought and hope of salvation guides most christians throughout their earthly experience.

    Existentialism . . ."existence preceeds essence".  Does this attitude apply to death as well as life?  I have seen believers in salvation fear death and die afraid and then non believers die very peaceful deaths.   I would have expected that people living their lives expecting salvation at their end to die more peacefully.  I think it has more to do with whether or not a person is "ready" to die intellectually.  So many are ready to die physically tired of enduring the pain, some are ready to go spiritually into the light and be with god, and the lucky ones are the ones who are ready, physically, spiritually and intellectually.


  • C. Redwing, Ph.D.   Nov. 1, 2011, 3:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Teresa   Oct. 30, 2011, 7:45 p.m.

    Theresa: Thank you very much for these thoughtful comments. This existential notion, that we make of life what we choose, does seemingly require a radically different approach to death.

    In the Christian paradigm (also represented in Tolstoy's work), humans descend (or are expelled from the Garden and forced) into the physical world.  This physical world is not “free” of constrictions; rather it is full of them.  To begin with, human life is bound by time, extension, causality and mortality.  Existentialism, at this point, would have to agree.  But where Existentialism seems content (or authentic from its viewpoint) is at this level of constriction.  Outside of recognizing the requirements of temporality, physical extension, causality and mortality, Existentialism suggests that life (within this matrix) is what you make of it.  This is at once, terrifying, dreadful and lonely, and honest and liberating.  We sure can see this in Tolstoy’s work. 

    But the other great Western paradigm, monotheism (represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam), contends that we are not existentially free but that existence is bound by another layer of reality—the divine.  Thus, time becomes a mechanism (an instrument) by which we pass through various phases in life to arrive at a relationship with God.  Extension, that is to say the physical dimensions as we know them, are certainly restricting for humans but for the divine represent an opportunity to “speak more directly” to humans; namely, through miracles, which are suspensions of the physical laws of nature.  Causality, cause and effect, is a mechanism whereby the divine judges us, it is the opportunity for divine justice and the ultimate judgment in which the good are rewarded and the unjust are punished (or at least “not favored” in the case of Judaism, which does not have the “damnation” paradigm of either Christianity or Islam).  Mortality is an opportunity to recognize the fragility of our human form, and its temporary nature, and to embrace God.  In this way, as William Lynch suggests in “Christ and Apollo” mortality becomes “the discovered weakness (how clear and finite it is)” and thus “becomes a gate to the infinite”—namely a relationship with God.  This “bridge or gate,” mortality itself, is the thing which introduces to us the possibility of the immortality of the soul (via a relationship with God).  I think that you are right to suggest that this tendency is also present in Tolstoy’s work.

    Thus, in the end, it seems that we have Tolstoy contending with two incredibly powerful ways of understanding death—philosophical existentialism and monotheism (in this case, Christianity).