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anna karenina

In Plato’s Republic, we find that there is one ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ state based on justice, one kind of healthy, just soul, but there are many degenerate forms of state and soul (Rep.,445c). Because justice is the state of balance and virtue in which a soul, or a state, lives according to the Good, according to Truth, according to reality, it is necessarily of one kind, as the Good is of one kind. It is Good.

This does not preclude a good kind of variety, however; if one contrasts it to degenerate forms of state and soul, one understands that there are many images, or appearances, or imitations, of the Good, but there is only one Good. The nature of evil is to be a supplementation, in a sense, a falling away from perfection; thus it is legion. Perfection, like Euclid’s circle, has a unity and a simplicity, a one-ness that is not boring, but rather infinite.

anna kareninaOddly enough, Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with a pithy, arresting, and eerily similar line to that found in the Republic: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Did Tolstoy write a novel-version of the Republic?  

Tolstoy’s novel about a woman falling into degeneration and finally, madness and suicide, intertwines a number of families and individuals in the Russian aristocracy of the 1800s. Anna Karenina is the wife of a high-ranking political man, Karenin; her brother, Stiva, is a philanderer married to a good woman; Levin is somewhat a philosopher and a loner, but marries the good Princess Kitty; and Count Vronsky is the seducer, whose life is destroyed along with his lover, Anna Karenina.

The major characters in the novel correspond more or less to the parts of Plato’s soul and state. The Republic first of all, is a proportional analogy of the soul; the explication of the ideal state is in a similar ratio to the nature of the soul. In this state, the philosopher rules; in the soul, the reason. The next part of the state, a little lower, is the guardspeople who defend; in the soul, this is the spirit, or will; the third and lowest part is the tradespeople, who are those who are drawn to things and produce the lower necessities of life; in the soul, these are the desires, the appetites. The appetites are insatiable and so must be guided by the philosophers, who are is supported by the guards; in the soul, it is reason, or the will, that controls the appetites. If the appetite is allowed to become satiated, it will become too powerful and destroy the state, or the soul. Justice, the highest virtue, is the complete picture of a healthy state or soul. The parts are doing their tasks well and in concert, in a unity of reciprocation and harmony that allows the state and the soul to be, simply, Good: i.e., to live in accordance with order and reality. Thus happy states and happy souls are, in their justice and accordance with the Good, alike. The degenerate ones are degenerate for a legion of reasons—just as families, which one could call mini-states, are proportional to both the larger state, the human community, and the soul.

Human beings need to live in community, in an ethos that teaches us; yet these same communities, or families, can also turn and become destructive, like the swine that turn and tear one another to pieces. Plato knew this and seems to have agonized over the practical impossibility of the philosopher-king: he or she will be either corrupted or crucified, because all too often the mob, the desires, the appetites revolt.

anna_karenina_by_alexandramihailova-d6qc4xnAnna Karenina revolts. Married to a man whom Tolstoy carefully creates as inexorable, logical, cold reason, her appetites get the better of her after she encounters the handsome and equally passionate Count Vronsky. The novel, of course, could be read as pulp-fiction crossed with a Harlequin romance, but the two lovers are intermixed with other characters, who both color them and contrast with them. And Anna herself is not simplistic. She knows her duty to her husband and son, and makes a very reasonable, philosophical case to her cuckolded sister-in-law about forgiveness and the permanence of marriage. Yet her own family leaves much to be desired. Cold reason, removed from the particulars of another human being, living alongside youth and passion with tremendous wealth and little real education, is already a degeneration of Plato’s ideal state. His philosopher was not simply isolated reason, but a person with charm, social charisma, warmth, wisdom in daily life, courage, and spirit. Karenin has none of these things: He is a moral and logical machine, which makes him such a good bureaucrat. The appetites and the reason are in separate spheres, and there is no guard, no ‘spirited will’ between them. Anna’s satiation of appetite with Vronsky creates a flabby, gorged false-family which has no place in the ‘image’ of the ethos needed—the degenerate aristocratic society of 1800s Russia, in which largely only a copy of true moral culture remains and which cannot, at any rate, provide proper justice for Anna. She cannot survive and thus self-destructs.

The other main character is Levin, a young man who tends to isolate himself from high society, who does not enter into the false mores of the time, and who learns from the peasants on his estate away from Petersburg and Moscow. He listens to the simple people, and dreams and agonizes over what is the Good, what is his destiny. He loves, but in a measured and thoughtful way; he leads his estate, but receptively, and as a servant (akin to Plato’s philosopher-king), not as a selfish, power-hungry, unjust man. He is the image of the just man, the true philosopher. His bride, Kitty, is supportive of him and excels in areas in which he does not: taking care of the sick, and living in the moment. Between them—though they struggle at points—there is a spirited will for the good, and so they complement each other, and Levin learns, finally, happiness. Their family has justice, because it follows the order of truth; it is, in the end, virtuous.

The Karenin family and Stiva’s family are those unhappy families which are their own versions of unhappiness, because they have failed the Good, degenerated from it, in one of the legion of ways in which it can happen. These families are also images of the state: The disjunct in Russia at this time between the ruling classes and the working classes, down to the very difference in language (French versus Russian) foreshadowed the Revolution, the self-destruction of Russia.

And Levin’s family? Was there no philosopher to save Russia? “The Owl flies at dusk” means that too often philosophy is only turned to when night is falling, when it is too late. And Plato, after the death of his teacher Socrates, had no illusion that his Athenians would suddenly turn to him or any other true philosopher and ask for the Truth. We know what usually happens to prophets, true philosophers, to anyone who brings the Truth to those who are called into question by it.

captain of a shipPlato’s metaphor of the ship is apt here: The ship’s captain, the will, must depend on the navigator, who looks beyond this world to the stars for direction. Unfortunately, the appetites, the masses, the sailors, deride the captain for looking to the navigator for he is, they say, “a star-gazing booby who is useless in practical matters.” The captain is overrun by them, and the navigator is isolated and ignored.

Levin, symbolically perhaps, chooses to live out in the Russian countryside, and avoids society. Knowing, as we do, that his Russia was heading inexorably for rupture, we hope and wonder if Levin’s family, the just and good family, survives. More often, though, in revolution, nothing survives. The philosopher must stay in a kind of isolation; it is perhaps because of his isolation, like Levin, that he has been able to become a philosopher, far away from the corruption of the world. He can, and must, set his sights higher on a just death, a judgment and an influence that is not of this world.

It is only a tragedy is one is focused on the appetites that are more bound to this world; it is a heroic epic of the highest kind if one is focused on the mountains beyond the sea. I speak here both of Plato’s Republic as well as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 

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1 reply to this post
  1. I confess to not having gotten much from Anna Karenina when I read it a couple of summers ago, but armed with the fresh, and insightful new perspective of thi piece, I think I shall have to revisit it.

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