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How Then Should We Live? Some Literary, Stage, and Screen Answers

Walter G. Moss: What I like about the Russian writers’ fiction is not so much that they tell me how to live, but that they struggle with this and other important questions and therefore encourage readers to so struggle.
Al Pacino in "Danny Collins"

Al Pacino in "Danny Collins"

One of the things I love about great Russian literature is that writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Pasternak (author of Doctor Zhivago) deal with the big questions of life, the most important ones like “How should one live?” Or to a lesser extent,“What is the meaning of death?” “Is there a God?” “What are my responsibilities toward other humans?” Because of these writers’ depth, they became great favorites of some of our most valued spiritual thinkers such as the activist-for-the-poor Dorothy Day and monk-author-poet Thomas Merton.

In E. F. Schumacher’s final book, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), he commented on how difficult it was for humans to learn how to live properly.

Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time; even when fully grown, they do not move and act with the sure-footedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want but above all of what they want.

Questions like "What should I do?" or "What must I do to be saved?" are strange questions because they relate to ends, not simply to means. No technical answer will do, such as "Tell me precisely what you want and I shall tell you how to get it." The whole point is that I do not know what I want. Maybe all I want is to be happy. But the answer "Tell me what you need for happiness, and I shall then be able to advise you what to do"—this answer, again, will not do, because I do not know what I need for happiness. Perhaps someone says: "For happiness you need wisdom”— but what is wisdom? Or: "For happiness you need the truth that makes you free"— but what is the truth that makes us free? Who will tell me where I can find it? Who can guide me to it or at least point out the direction in which I have to proceed?

What I like about the Russian writers’ fiction is not so much that they tell me how to live, but that they struggle with this and other important questions and therefore encourage readers to so struggle.

What I like about the Russian writers’ fiction is not so much that they tell me how to live, but that they struggle with this and other important questions and therefore encourage readers to so struggle.

In his Crime and Punishment, for example, Dostoevsky has his main character Raskolnikov adopt mistaken ideas and cut himself off from ordinary people and from his religious roots. He reasons that some people, Napoleon for example, were not bound by traditional ethics, and he tries to be such a superior individual. He reasons that he can kill an old woman pawnbroker and put her money to good use. But after he does so, along with her half-sister, he is tormented with guilt and finally confesses to the police and is sent to Siberia, where, with the help of a loving woman, Sonia, he cast aside his false pride and rationalism. (This novel and other fiction by Russia’s great nineteenth-century writers are available for free downloading in various formats at gutenberg.org,)

In The Brothers Karamazov the brother Ivan struggles with the question of the “existence of God.” With his rationalistic approach to life, he contrasts with his brothers, the more sensual Dmitri and the humble religious believer Alyosha. Ivan rejects God because he cannot accept any such being who allows innocent suffering, especially that of little children. This passage has become one of the most famous dealing with the question of God’s existence, and in the agnostic Albert Camus’s The Rebelhe devotes his chapter “The Rejection of Salvation” to Ivan’s stance.

In Tolstoy’s two greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he has two of his main male characters, Pierre and Levin respectively, search for life’s meaning and how to live it well. Seven years ago on the LA Progressive site, I wrote that “Levin’s seeking for a meaningful life has always seemed important to me. For what is more significant in our lives than leading them well? And there are no easy answers regarding how to do so.” Other individuals, such as modern writer Wendell Berry, have also found the searches of Pierre and Levin meaningful.

While writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy was then himself at a loss as to life’s meaning and desperately searching (as he described in My Confession) for an answer. In 1875, at a mere age 47, he wrote to a friend that he felt old age had begun for him. He defined this as an “inner spiritual condition in which nothing from the outer world has any interest, in which there are no desires and one sees nothing but death ahead of one.” Even though at this stage he could not envision anything after death but nothingness, he was strongly tempted to end his own life. His fear of death and his mental anguish seemed greater evils than death itself.

By 1881, Tolstoy had existed the dark tunnel he had found himself in during the late 1870s, and for the last three decades of his life he preached pacifism and a religious approach to life based on his own unique interpretation of Jesus and other religious thinkers such as Buddah. Although continuing to write fiction, he also wrote many non-fiction works such as What Shall We Do Then? (1886), which begins with Jesus being asked that question in scripture (Luke 3:10).

One of the best fictional works Tolstoy wrote in his final decades was the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Obsessed with his career, getting ahead, and material goods, Ivan is not a good father or husband, or sensitive or caring about the needs of others. But then he gets fatally ill, apparently from cancer, and realizes that he has not long to live. The question then occurs to him: "What if my whole life has been wrong?" What if “he had not spent his life as he should have done”? He realizes that “his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false.” Only on his deathbed does Ivan repent that he had led a wasted life and try to make amends to his wife and son.

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A great enthusiast of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Dorothy Day also loved Chekhov’s works and appreciated his quest for life’s meaning. In a December 1961 column she wrote, “This last month I have been reading a lot of Chekhov. . . . [The] question which Chekhov brings out in all his stories is “What is to be done?” What is life for? Chekhov’s conclusion is that we are here to work, to serve our brother.”

The writer Maxim Gorky depicted Chekhov as one who through his writings chided his fellow citizens as if saying, “You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.” And Chekhov himself, a few years before his early death at age 44, said that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, ‘Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!’”

Although Day loved Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, an even more ardent enthusiast of it, and much more of Pasternak’s writings, was her friend the monk Thomas Merton. Living through tragic revolutionary conditions in Russia, the good Russian doctor realizes, wrote Merton, that the only way to do it is through humility, love, and “finding ourselves in others.”

Of course, the great Russian writers are not the only ones whose works encourage us to think about how to live, and fiction is not the only literary genre to do so. For example, more than five years ago on this site, I mentioned how a “college poetry course “stimulated my thinking about what kind of life I wanted to lead.” And about ten years ago, in an article subtitled “Unsolicited Advice To Young College Students,” I wrote at length on Arthur Miller’s famous play Death of a Salesman (1949) and quoted son Biff Loman speaking about his father, the salesman Willy Loman, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong,” and “he never knew who he was.”

Another more recent play comparable to Death of a Salesman is Fences by the prominent African-American dramatist August Wilson. In both a stage and film version Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbageman, who like Willy Loman has not lived well, failing to be an enlightened, loving, and empathetic husband and father.

Although there are many films that could be mentioned that provide stimulating material for reflection about how best to live, here I’ll mention only two. The first is the one that won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2016, the Iranian film The Salesman, and the 2019 film Danny Collins (both available on Amazon Prime). The director of the Iranian film was influenced by Miller’s famous play about a salesman, and his main male character, like Willy Loman, lacks some principal values and fails to live wisely.

Danny Collins, starring Al Pacino in the title role, is about an old pop star, who realizes that for decades, he has failed to live wisely. Like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, he comes to think that “the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false.”And like Ivan, only with much more time to redeem himself (with luck, multiple years), he attempts to do so.

Although with a supporting cast of Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale, and Jennifer Garner, Danny Collins features some good acting, the film does not match the artistry of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. Nevertheless, it encourages reflection; it is an updated morality tale. All of Danny’s luxurious life style--wealth, fame, opulent home and an attractive young woman to share it with (he has been divorced three times)--does not bring him happiness. In fact, he has a bad cocaine habit, no relationship with his son Tom (Cannavale) and granddaughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), and he realizes that his songwriting talent has remained dormant for decades.

Most of the film then deals with his attempts to renounce his worst past habits; establish loving relationships with hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Bening) and his son’s family, including daughter-in-law Samantha (Garner) and granddaughter Hope; and rekindle his creative songwriting ability

Danny thus answers the question “How Then Should We Live?” in a way similar to the other artistic works we have examined--live differently than before and in a loving, less self-absorbed fashion. But why does it take so many of us--like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov or Danny Collins--so long to discover a better way to live? And why do some like Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Loman never learn a better way?

Decades ago E. F. Schumacher insisted that a main problem was that our education, often primarily designed for career preparation, did not adequately equip us to answer such questions. In my “Unsolicited Advice To Young College Students” I encouraged students to pay more attention to such questions. Now more than a half century after my college years, I still think the question “How Then Should We Live?” is of utmost importance.

But if our formal education does not adequately enable us to answer that most important question, what does? Philosophers like Aristotle can help. So too can artistic works like those mentioned above. First, however, we must share Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and be humble truth-seekers. In our media-saturated world, often “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” that is no easy task.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss