What Constitutes a Good Life? Let’s Consult Dostoyevsky, Sophocles, and Tolstoy

The vision of a Good Life is a topic that attracts all of mankind to contemplate and to opine—indeed, the argument can certainly be had that the one trait that unifies and distinguishes man from other Earth dwellers is this disposition to reflect upon what constitutes a proper and fulfilling way to live. Naturally, the questions that arise are two-fold: what is a Good Life and, bluntly, am I living a Good Life? These are lofty questions in which many of the greatest minds in human history have felt compelled to answer, and the fortuitous position of the contemporary person is that he or she is able to survey all that has been said before them. The passage of time can endorse one doctrine as more favorable than another, often hindsight bias will be at play, but if we do not look upon history and its developments to proclaim one thought as more plausible than another then there may be little use in appreciating history at all. There is the inclination to listen to modern frameworks of thought at the expense of ancient—giving the former precedence because they speak of a world that we can envision and in many respects still do inhabit while the ancient world presents a society that requires the contemporary thinker to step outside of his or her world and enter theirs, consider their customs and rationale behind them, and accept the conditions of their times when debating the merit of their assertions. It is often this barrier of inaccessibility that prohibits the mind that is unfamiliar with ancient texts to dismiss them with expedience—and in truth many can be eager to build this barrier and return to their comfort zone in which the modern intellectual speaks directly to them.

However, if we can refrain from making this error, if we can attack the gap in believability head on with a humility that allows us to imagine places and times different from our own, then a plethora of doors open yielding the fundamental point that all of these texts and speeches fall under the same umbrella of the human story—a story that began, relatively speaking, with the ancients asking the question of why they were here and the moderns ending, to this point, asking the very same question. In short, it makes little sense to discriminate against texts from one era over another—and, in fact, if the onus is to provide a universal vision of the Good Life then it is nearly imperative to draw from different ends of the human timeline. Thusly, the vision of the Good Life that will be presented herein will primarily focus on Sophocles’ Antigone, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s passage “The Russian Monk” from The Brothers Karamazov in large part because these pieces are fresh on the mind but additionally because all three of these texts speak to the importance of peace of mind due to having lived a good life prior to the time of death that I would venture to suggest is the chief component of the Good Life.

In all three of these pieces, we are presented with characters on the precipice of death: Antigone, Ivan Ilyich, and Father Zossima. Antigone is unable to live with the indignity of an unburied brother, and comes to the conclusion that providing her brother with a proper burial is worth the risk of death by the State. “I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime,” she matter-of-factly tells her sister Ismene, and for much of the play she shows minimal fear of death—showcasing a conviction in what she believes to be right that is second to none (Sophocles 1). Ivan Ilyich passes due to the injury to his appendix, and Father Zossima goes of natural causes. As will be illustrated, all of these pieces indirectly acknowledge that peace of mind at the time of departure will determine whether one has lived a Good Life and therefore what a Good Life will have looked like. For if one is able to both look back upon the summation of one’s life with fondness and feel content in their final moments, then this must be the best indicator of whether a life was lived well. And of the three characters that will be examined in some depth shortly, it is only Father Zossima that truly reaches this point—actually giving credence to many of the Stoic thinkers that a Good Life is one to most assuredly strive for although it is rarely attained.

So Antigone’s devotion to her brother is admirable, and the Chorus in the play says as much. “Glorious, therefore, and with praise … mistress of thine own fate … as no other of mortal kind hath passed” (Sophocles 1). This is a chilling depiction of Antigone’s power over the situation: not only is she in the right in regards to dying on principle, but in taking this action she is able to die on her own terms. Given that the exact time of death is usually impossible to predict, and this is indeed one of the aspects that makes it most frightening, seizing control over the how, why, and when has a beautiful appeal to it. Antigone may be leaving the world of the living prematurely, but nonetheless the degree of control that she has is remarkably seductive—and if this is where the play ended for Antigone then it could be argued that she lived a most Good Life.

However, as the fate of her action grows closer Antigone begins to waiver and succumbs to fearing the worst aspect of death: the problem of not knowing what happens afterwards. “Ah me unhappy! who have no home on the earth or in the shades, no home with the living or with the dead,” is one of her parting lines, and one that reveals that although she made the only decision that she morally could, there is no guarantee that she will be reunited with the dead—there is no guarantee that she won’t die a nomad and eternally remain a nomad (Sophocles 1). The takeaway here is that, although we can die for a perfect cause, if we are unable to suspend the fear of our uncertainty surrounding what happens when we die, then the lasting impression is unhappiness. So, in the case of Antigone, her reason for dying is good and she may have lived a life characterized by piety, but if we depart unhappy because we fear what happens after the final act then it is hard to maintain that a vision of the Good Life would allow for this. It must be accepted that death and its uncertainties are part of the deal, and this has to simply be embraced rather than fought.

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Alternatively Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is not in the favorable position of dying for a noble reason—his life is taken from him somewhat prematurely (not to the extent of Antigone, but still early nonetheless) due to a freak accident. In fact, there is nothing particularly commendable about Ilyich at all: he has lived his days chasing the accolades bestowed by the bourgeoisie class, marrying because it was “ … something pleasant for himself … and at the same time he did what highly placed people considered right,” and then proceeded to fence himself off from his wife and children thereafter (Tolstoy 13). Of course, Tolstoy is illuminating that it is unwise to live a life whose validation is reliant upon the approval of others, especially in the materialistic sense, but in regards to the Good Life Tolstoy explores whether repentance in one’s final moments can make up for a life lived unwell. And Tolstoy appears sympathetic to this notion: “Just then … it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it ought, but that it could still be rectified,” which prompts Ilyich to ask for forgiveness from his wife and son before dying painlessly, fearlessly, joyfully (Tolstoy 52).

Unfortunately, while this act of repentance may deliver serenity at the end, a serenity that proved elusive to Antigone which has been argued prohibited her from completing the process of having lived a Good Life, it is naive to think that this serenity alone is enough to constitute having lived a Good Life. It is certainly preferable that Ilyich finds peace in the end, it is truly humble, perceptive, and necessary for someone like his son, but it cannot erase that he lived inadequately, that by all accounts he wasn’t around for his children, that he chased paper and endorsements until the accident cut his life short. Part of the recipe to the Good Life has to include the process of developing nobility and moral rectitude: the hardening of the Stoic, the ascetic journey of the Cynic, the debates, teachings, and seminars of the likes of Socrates and Aristotle. Ilyich was not detrimental to society but he did not improve the welfare of his family, friends, or humanity at large—he did not live brotherly in a way that will be explored shortly—and if one falls completely short in this regard then it is inconceivable to maintain they lived a Good Life; he did the right thing at the end and this served he, his wife, and his son well, but, this withstanding, he died a lonely man who had no relationship with his daughter and a wife that was more eager to learn how much money she could acquire after his death than to dually celebrate and mourn the death of her departed husband.

So thus far the cases of Antigone and Ilyich have been explored: Antigone lived well but died unwell and inversely Ilyich lived unwell and died well. Preferential status surely has to be given to the former case because how one has lived is more reflective of one’s character than how they pass, but nevertheless both fail to complete the process of living and dying well which in turn completes the process of living a Good Life. Father Zossima is the man that stands alone as having come the closest to achieving the Good Life. He strays from the path of virtue in his youth, but unlike Ilyich he decides to repent not when he is weak and when it is most advantageous for himself but rather when he is in the greatest position of power—when he has the means to kill a man due to his unchecked pride and temper. Zossima reflects upon the words of his brother who died an early death: “Mother … we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they know it, the world would be a paradise at once” (Dostoyevsky 112). In accord, Zossima sees the truth in his brother’s words and proceeds to live in a way that will make life on Earth just a little more Heaven-like, not all men will live thusly and therefore life on Earth will never equate to paradise, but in “taking yourself and making yourself responsible for all men’s sins,” salvation is attainable and one will simply make the world a better place than if they refrained from living with such a mindset (Dostoyevsky 130).

There are questions regarding the particularities of Zossima’s choice to become a monk—namely the charge that monks “have secluded themselves within the walls of their monasteries for their own salvation and have forgotten the brotherly service of humanity!”—and, in fairness to the critics, Dostoyevsky through Zossima is unable to offer the most convincing rebuttal (Dostoyevsky 128). Yes, monks abandon materialism and the perils it causes, and Zossima does council monks and townsfolk alike on numerous occasions in The Brothers Karamazov to show them the ethical approach to a conundrum, but the charge that they do not always contribute to the betterment of mankind, leech rather than produce while working poor go hungry is one that the monk struggles to fully shake and may in fact make the callings of a social worker or a volunteer at a communal complimentary potluck dinner more proactive and consequently superior to the monk’s. But, this drawback aside, Zossima lives fully to serve others, and he was able to do this by shedding his pride and taking ownership for the sins of all of mankind. In his desire to alleviate the pain of others and provide them with salvation, he achieves it, and is able to die peacefully because of this.

In conclusion, the Good Life surely must be comprised of a life that is lived well and, due to living well, one is able to die peacefully. And to live well, it must be acknowledged, is to serve the betterment of others, to love and hold dear those close to us, but also to extend this love to those we do not know as well—an extension of sympathy that bonds all of mankind together. The studies are out there that reveal that living in such a way makes our beneficiaries happier and makes ourselves happier, so therefore the idea that we can live too selflessly at the expense of giving ourselves the attention we deserve—a theory that sometimes is espoused in modern times (lo, the idea that we are not selfish-enough beings in these times!)—appears to run counter to how we ought to live. Nonjudgment in regards to the suffering of others allows for these principles to flourish—as exemplified in these texts by Zossima and Gerasim. But equally, as pertains to the laws that govern our lives, these ought to be judged and challenged when they are unfit—and the consequence of this challenge taken to its logical end may be death by principle a la Antigone. The subjective nature of how individuals perceive the world makes prescribing any universal mandates seemingly quite unfeasible at times, and humans—ancient and modern alike—are predisposed to dissent on specifics. But it is imperative that we do not submit to defeat because interpretations may differ, in fact there are ways to maximize satisfaction for the self and for others that constitutes a Good Life, and as complex as we sometimes make it out to be the Good Life is grounded in an unspoken commiseration—one we yearn for and ought to extend to our fellow participants.

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