All Things are Possible  \  Part I


The habit of logical thinking kills imagination. Man is convinced that the only way to truth is through logic, and that any departure from this way leads to error and absurdity. The nearer we approach the ultimate questions of existence, in our departure from logicality, the more deadly becomes the state of error we fall into. The Ariadne ball has become all unwound long ago, and man is at the end of the tether. But he does not know, he holds the end of the thread firmly, and marks time with energy on the same spot, imagining his progress, and little realising the ridiculous situation into which he has fallen. How should he realise, considering the innumerable precautions he has taken to prevent himself from losing the logical way? He had better have stayed at home. Once he set out, once he decided to be a Theseus and kill the Minotaur, he should have given himself up, forfeited the old attachment, and been ready never to escape from the labyrinth. True, he would have risked losing Ariadne: and this is why long journeys should be undertaken only after family connections have become a burden. Such being the case, a man deliberately cuts the thread which binds him to hearth and home, so that he may have a legitimate excuse to his conscience for not going back. Philosophy must have nothing in common with logic; philosophy is an art which aims at breaking the logical continuity of argument and bringing man out on the shoreless sea of imagination, the fantastic tides where everything is equally possible and impossible. Certainly it is difficult, given sedentary habits of life, to be a good philosopher. The fact that the fate of philosophy has ever lain in the hands of professors can only be explained by the reluctance of the envious gods to give omniscience to mortals. Whilst stay-at-home persons are searching for truth, the apple will stay on the tree. The business must be undertaken by homeless adventurers, born nomads, to whom ubi bene ibi patria. It seems to me that but for his family and his domesticity, Count Tolstoy, who lives to such a ripe old age, might have told us a great many important and interesting things... Or, perhaps, had he not married, like Nietzsche he would have gone mad. "If you turn to the right, you will marry, if to the left, you will be killed." A true philosopher never chooses the middle course; he needs no riches, he does not know what to do with money. But whether he turns to the right or to the left, nothing pleasant awaits him.


Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar. Culture is an age-long development, and sudden grafting of it upon a race rarely succeeds. To us in Russia, civilisation came suddenly, whilst we were still savages. At once she took upon herself the responsibilities of a tamer of wild animals, first working with decoys and baits, and later, when she felt her power, with threats. We quickly submitted. In a short time we were swallowing in enormous doses those poisons which Europe had been gradually accustoming herself to, gradually assimilating through centuries. Thanks to which, the transplanting of civilisation into Russia turns out to be no mild affair. A Russian had only to catch a whiff of European atmosphere, and his head began to swim. He interpreted in his own way, savage-like, whatever he heard of western success. Hearing about railways, agricultural machines, schools, municipalities, his imagination painted miracles: universal happiness, boundless freedom, paradise, wings, etc. And the more impossible his dreams, the more eager he was to believe them real. How disillusioned with Europe the westerner Herzen became, after living for years on end abroad! Yet, with all his acuteness, it did not occur to him that Europe was not in the least to blame for his disillusionment. Europe had dropped miracles ages ago; she contented herself with ideals. It is we in Russia who will go on confusing miracles with ideals, as if the two were identical, whereas they have nothing to do with each other. As a matter of fact, just because Europe had ceased to believe in miracles, and realised that all human problems resolve down to mere arrangements here on earth, ideas and ideals had been invented. But the Russian bear crept out of his hole and strolled to Europe for the elixir of life, the flying carpet, the seven-leagued shoes, and so on, thinking in all his naïveté that railways and electricity were signs which clearly proved that the old nurse never told a lie in her fairy tales... All this happened just at the moment when Europe had finally made away with alchemy and astrology, and started on the positive researches resulting in chemistry and astronomy.


The first assumption of all metaphysics is, that by dialectic development of any concept a whole system can be evolved. Of course the initial concept, the a priori, is generally unsound, so there is no need to mention the deductions. But since it is very difficult in the realm of abstract thought to distinguish a lie from truth, metaphysical systems often have a very convincing appearance. The chief defect only appears incidentally, when the taste for dialectic play becomes blunted in man, as it did in Turgenev towards the end of his life, so that he realises the uselessness of philosophical systems. It is related that a famous mathematician, after hearing a musical symphony to the end, inquired, "What does it prove?" Of course, it proves nothing, except that the mathematician had no taste for music. And to him who has no taste for dialectics, metaphysics can prove nothing, either. Therefore, those who are interested in the success of metaphysics must always encourage the opinion that a taste for dialectics is a high distinction in a man, proving the loftiness of his soul.


Man is used to having convictions, so there we are. We can none of us do without our hangers-on, though we despise them at the bottom of our souls.


Socrates and Plato tried to determine under the shifting change of appearance the immutable, unchanging reality. In the Platonic "ideas" the attempt was incarnated. The visible reality, never true to itself, assuming numberless varying forms, this is not the genuine reality. That which is real must be constant. Hence the ideas of objects are real, and the objects themselves are fictitious. Thus the root of the Platonic philosophy appears to be a fundamental defect in human reasoning a defect regarded as the highest merit. It is difficult for the philosopher to get a good grasp of this agitated, capricious life, and so he decides that it is not life at all, but a figment. Dialectics is supreme only over general concepts and the general concepts are promoted to an ideal. Since Plato and Socrates, only such philosophers have succeeded largely who have taught that the unchangeable is preferable to the changeable, the eternal to the temporal. The ordinary individual, who lives unconsciously, never reckoning his spiritual credit against his spiritual debit, naturally regards the philosopher as his legitimate book-keeper, keeper of the soul's accounts. Already in Greece the Athenian youth watched with passionate interest the dexterity which Socrates displayed in his endeavour to restore by means of dialectics the lost "ultimate foundations" of human conduct.

Now in book-keeping, as we are aware, not a single farthing must disappear untraceably. Socrates was trying to come up to expectations. The balance between man's spiritual assets and liabilities was with him ideally established. Perhaps in this lies the secret of that strange attraction he exerted even over such volatile and unsteady natures as that of Alcibiades, drawing the young men to him so that they were attached to him with all their soul. Alcibiades had long since lost all count of his spiritual estate, and therefore from time to time he had need to recourse to Socrates, who by speeches and dissertations could bring order into chaos and harmony into the spiritual confusion of his young friend. Alcibiades turned to Socrates to be relieved. Of course, he sought relief in order that he might begin again his riotous living: rest is so sweet to a tired man. But to conclude that because Alcibiades exhausted himself, and because rest is sweet, therefore all men must rest, this is absurd. Yet Socrates dictated this conclusion, in all his ideas. He wished that all men should rest, rest through eternity, that they should see their highest fulfillment in this resting.

It is easier to judge of Socrates since we have Count Tolstoy with us. Probably the physiognomist Topir would say of Tolstoy as he said of Socrates, that there are many evil propensities lurking in him. Topir is not here to speak, but Tolstoy has told us himself how wicked he found his own nature, how he had to struggle with it. Tolstoy is not naturally overcourageous; by long effort he has trained himself to be bold. How afraid of death he was in his youth. And how cleverly he could conceal that fear. Later on, in mature age, it was still the fear of death which inspired him to write his confession. He was conquering that fear, and with it all other fears. For he felt that, since fear is very difficult to master in oneself, man must be a much higher being when he has learned not to be afraid any more. Meanwhile, who knows? Perhaps "cowardice," that miserable, despicable, much-abused weakness of the underworld, is not such a vice after all. Perhaps it is even a virtue. Think of Dostoevsky and his heroes, think of Hamlet. If the underworld man in us were afraid of nothing, if Hamlet was naturally a gladiator, then we should have neither tragic poetry nor philosophy.

It is a platitude, that fear of death has been the inspiration of philosophers. Numberless quotations could be drawn from ancient and modern writers, if they were necessary. Maybe the poetic daemon of Socrates, which made him wise, was only fear personified. Or perhaps it was his dark dreams. That which troubled him by day did not quit him by night. Even after the sentence of death Socrates dreamed that he ought to engage in the arts, so in order not to provoke the gods he began to compose verses, at the age of seventy. Tolstoy also at the age of fifty began to perform good deeds, to which performance he had previously given not the slightest attention. If it were our custom nowadays to express ourselves mythologically, we should no doubt hear Tolstoy telling us about his daemon or his dreams. Instead he squares his accounts with science and morality, in place of gods or demons. Many a present-day Alcibiades, who laves all the week in the muddy waters of life, comes on Sundays to cleanse himself in the pure stream of Tolstovian ideas. Book-keeping is satisfied with this modest success, and assumes that if it commands universal attention one day in the week, then obviously it is the sum and essence of life, beyond which man needs nothing. On the same grounds the keepers of public baths could argue that, since so many people come to them on Saturdays, therefore cleanliness is the highest ambition of man, and during the week no one should stir at all, lest he sweat or soil himself.


In an old French writer, a contemporary of Pascal, I came across the following remarkable words: "L’homme est si miserable que l’inconstance avec laquelle il abandonne ses desseins est, en quelque sorte, sa plus grande vertu: parce qu’il temoigne par là qu’il a encore en lui quelque reste de grandeur qui le porte à se dégouter de choses qui ne méritent pas son amour et son estime." [Man is so wretched a creature that the incosistency with which he abandons his designs is, in a sense, his greatest virtue: in this he manifests that there are still in him some remains of grandeur which prompts him to develop a distaste for things that do not deserve his love and respect. - A.K.] What a long way modern thought has travelled from even the possibility of such an assumption. To consider inconstancy the finest human virtue! Surely in order to get somewhere in life it is necessary to give the whole self, one's whole energy to the service of some one particular purpose. In order to be a virtuoso, a master of one's art and one's instrument, it is necessary with a truly angelic or asinine patience to try over and over again, dozens, hundreds, thousands of times, different ways of expressing one's ideas or moods, sparing neither labour, nor time, nor health. Everything else must take a second place. The first must be occupied by "the Art." Goncharov, in his novel Obryv, cleverly relates how a cellist struggled all day, like a fish against the ice, sawing and sawing away, so that later on, in the evening, he might play super-excellently well. And that is the general idea. Objectionable, tedious, irritating labour, - this is the condition of genius, which no doubt explains the reason why men so rarely achieve anything. Genius must submit to cultivate an ass within itself - the condition being so humiliating that man will seldom take up the job. The majority prefer talent, that medium which lies between genius and mediocrity. And many a time, towards the end of life, does the genius repent of his choice. "It would be better not to startle the world, but to live at one with it," says Ibsen in his last drama. Genius is a wretched, blind maniac, whose eccentricities are condoned because of what is got from him. And still we all bow to persevering talent, to the only god in whom we moderns believe, and the eulogy of inconstancy will awake very little sympathy in our hearts. Probably we shall not even regard it seriously.


We very often express in a categorical form a judgment of which we do not feel assured, we even lay stress on its absolute validity. We want to see what opposition it will arouse, and this can be achieved only by stating our assumption not as a tentative suggestion, which no one will consider, but as an irrefutable, all-important truth. The greater the value an assumption has for us, the more carefully do we conceal any suggestion of its improbability.


Literature deals with the most difficult and important problems of existence, and therefore, littérateurs consider themselves the most important of people. A bank clerk, who is always handing money out, might just as well consider himself a millionaire. The high estimate placed upon unexplained, unsolved questions ought really to discredit writers in our eyes. And yet these literary men are so clever, so cunning at stating their own case and revealing the high importance of their mission, that in the long run they convince everybody, themselves most of all. This last event is surely owing to their own limited intelligence. The Roman augurs had subtler, more versatile minds. In order to deceive others, they had no need to deceive themselves. In their own set they were not afraid to talk about their secrets, even to make fun of them, being fully confident that they could easily vindicate themselves before outsiders, in case of necessity, and pull a solemn face befitting the occasion. But our writers of to-day, before they can lay their improbable assertions before the public, must inevitably try to be convinced in their own minds. Otherwise they cannot begin.


"The writer is writing away, the reader is reading away" - the writer doesn't care what the reader is after, the reader doesn't care what the writer is about. Such a state of things hurt Schedrin very much [Saltykov-Shchedrin, 1826–1889, satirist - A.K.]. He would have liked it different; no sooner has the writer said a word, than the reader at once scales the wall. This was his ideal. But the reader is by no means so naïve as all that. He prefers to rest easy, and insists that the writer shall climb the wall for him. So those authors succeed with the public who write "with their heart's blood." Conventional tournaments, even the most brilliant, do not attract the masses any more than the connoisseurs. People rush to see a fight of gladiators where awaits them a scent of real, hot, smoking blood, where they are going to see real, not pretended victims.

Thus many writers, like gladiators, shed their blood to gratify that modern Caesar, the mob. "Salve, Caesar, morituri te salutant!"


Anton Chekhov tells the truth neither out of love or respect for the truth, nor yet because, in the Kantian manner, a high duty bids him never to tell a lie, even to escape death. Neither has he the impulse which so often pushes young and fiery souls into rashness: that desire to stand erect, to keep the head high. On the contrary, Chekhov always walks with a stoop, his head bent down, never fixing his eyes on the heavens, since he will read no signs there. If he tells the truth, it is because the most reeking lie no longer intoxicates him, even though he swallow it not in the modest doses that idealism offers, but in immoderate quantities, thousand-gallon-barrel gulps. He would taste the bitterness, but it would not make his head turn, as it does Schiller's, or Dostoevsky's, or even Socrates’, whose head, as we know, could stand any quantity of wine, but went spinning with the most commonplace lie.


Noblesse Oblige.—The moment of obligation, compulsion, duty, that moment described by Kant as the essential, almost the only predicate of moral concepts, serves chiefly to indicate that Kant was modest in himself and in his attitude towards all whom he addressed, perceiving in all men beings subject to the ennobling effect of morality. Noblesse oblige is a motto not for the aristocracy, which recognises in its privileges its own instant duties, but for the self-made, wealthy parvenus who pant for an illustrious title. They have been accustomed to telling lies, to playing poltroon, swindling, and meanness, and the necessity for speaking the truth impartially, for bravely facing danger, for freely giving of their fortunes scares them beyond measure. Therefore it is necessary that they should repeat it to themselves and to their children, in whose veins the lying, sneaking blood still runs, hourly, lest they forget: "You must not tell lies, you must be open, magnanimous." It is silly, it is incomprehensible - but "noblesse oblige."


Homo homini lupus is one of the most steadfast maxims of eternal morality. In each of our neighbours we fear a wolf. "This fellow is evil-minded, if he is not restrained by law he will ruin us" - so we think every time a man gets out of the rut of sanctified tradition.

The fear is just. We are so poor, so weak, so easily ruined and destroyed! How can we help being afraid! And yet, behind danger and menace there is usually hidden something significant, which merits our close and sympathetic attention. But fear's eyes are big. We see danger, danger only, we build up a fabric of morality inside which as in a fortress we sit out of danger all our lives. Only poets have undertaken to praise dangerous people - Don Juans, Fausts, Tannhaüsers. But nobody takes the poets seriously. Common-sense values a commercial traveller or a don much more highly than a Byron, a Goethe, or a Molière.


The possibilities which open out before mankind are sufficiently limited. It is impossible to see everything, impossible to know everything, impossible to rise too high above the earth, impossible to penetrate too deeply down. What has been is hidden away, what will be we cannot anticipate, and we know for certain that we shall never grow wings. Regularity, immutably regular succession of phenomena puts a term to our efforts, drives us into a regular, narrow, hardbeaten road of everyday life. But even on this road we may not wander from side to side. We must watch our feet, consider each step, since the moment we are off our guard disaster is upon us. Another life is conceivable, however: life in which the word disaster does not exist, where responsibility for one's actions, even if it be not completely abolished, at least has not such a deadly and accidental weight, and where, on the other hand, there is no "regularity," but rather an infinite number of possibilities. In such a life the sense of fear - most disgraceful to us - disappears. There the virtues are not the same as ours. Fearlessness in face of danger, liberality, even lavishness are considered virtues with us, but they are respected without any grounds.

Socrates was quite right when he argued that not all courage, but only the courage which measures beforehand the risks and the chances of victory, is fully justifiable. To the same extent those economical, careful people who condemn lavishness are in the right. Fearlessness and lavishness do not suit mortal men, rather it becomes them to tremble and to count every penny, seeing what a state of poverty and impotence they exist in. That is why these two virtues are so rarely met with, and when they are met, why they arouse such superstitious reverence in the crowd. "This man fears nothing and spares nothing: he is probably not a man, but a demi-god, perhaps even a god." Socrates did not believe in gods, so he wanted to justify virtue by reason. Kant also did not believe in God, and therefore he derived his morals from "Law." But if there is God, and all men are the children of God, then we should be afraid of nothing and spare nothing. And then the man who madly dissipates his own life and fortunes, and the lives and fortunes of others, is more right than the calculating philosophers who vainly seek to regulate mankind on earth.


Moral people are the most revengeful of mankind, they employ their morality as the best and most subtle weapon of vengeance. They are not satisfied with simply despising and condemning their neighbour themselves, they want the condemnation to be universal and supreme: that is, that all men should rise as one against the condemned, and that even the offender's own conscience shall be against him. Then only are they fully satisfied and reassured. Nothing on earth but morality could lead to such wonderful results.


Inveterate wickedness. —Heretics were often most bitterly persecuted for their least digression from accepted belief. It was just their obstinacy in trifles that irritated the righteous to madness. "Why can they not yield on so trifling a matter? They cannot possibly have serious cause for opposition. They only want to grieve us, to spite us." So the hatred mounted up, piles of faggots and torture machines appeared against obdurate wickedness.


I do not know where I came across the remark, whether in Tolstoy or Turgenev, that those who have been subjected to trial in the courts of justice always acquire a particularly noble expression of face. Although logic does so earnestly recommend caution in the forming of contradictory conclusions, come what may I shall for once risk a deduction: a noble expression of face is a sign that a man has been under trial—but certainly not a trial for political crime—for theft or bribe-taking.


The most important and significant revelations come into the world naked, without a wordy garment. To find words for them is a delicate, difficult business, a whole art. Stupidities and banalities, on the contrary, appear at once in ready-made apparel, gaudy even if shabby. So that they are ready straight away to be presented to the public.


A strange impatience has taken possession of Russian writers lately. They are all running a race after the "ultimate words." They have no doubt that the ultimate words will be attained. The question is, who will lay hold of them first.


The appearance of Socrates on the philosophic horizon is hailed by historians as the greatest event. Morals were beginning to work loose, Athens was threatened with ruin. Socrates’ mission was to put an end to the violent oscillation in moral judgments which extreme individualism on the one hand and the relativism of the sophists on the other had set up. The great teacher did all he could. He gave up his usual occupations and his family life, he took no thought for the morrow, he taught, taught, taught—simple people or eminent, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned. Notwithstanding, he did not save the country. Under Pericles, Athens flourished without wisdom, or at least independently of Socratic wisdom. After Pericles, in spite of the fact that the Socratic teaching found such a genius as Plato to continue it, Athens steadily declined, and Aristotle is already master to the son of Philip of Macedon. Whence it is obvious that the wisdom of Socrates had not saved the country, and as this had been its chief object, it had failed in its object, and therefore was not worthy of the exaggerated respect it received. It is necessary to find some justification for philosophy other than country-saving. This would be the easiest thing in the world. But altogether we must give up the favourite device of the philosophers, of looking to find in the well-being of society the raison d’être of philosophy. At the best, the trick was a risky one. As a rule, wisdom goes one way, society the other. They are artificially connected. It is public orators who have trained both the philosophers and the masses to regard as worthy of attention only those considerations which have absolutely everything on their side: social utility, morality, even metaphysical wisdom... Why so much? Is it not sufficient if some new project will prove useful? Why try to get the sanction of morality and metaphysics? Nay, once the laws of morality are autonomous, and once ideas are allowed to stand above the empirical needs of mankind, it is impossible to balance ideas and morality with social requirements, or even with the salvation of the country from ruin. Pereat mundus, fiat philosophia. If Athens was ruined because of philosophy, philosophy is not impugned. So the autonomous thinker should hold. But de facto, a thinker does not like quarrelling with his country.


When a writer has to express an idea whose foundation he has not been able to establish, and which yet is dear to his heart, so that he earnestly wishes to secure its general acceptance, as a rule he interrupts his exposition, as if to take breath, and makes a small, or at times a serious digression, during which he proves the invalidity of this or that proposition, often without any reference to his real theme. Having triumphantly exposed one or more absurdities, and thus acquired the aplomb of a solid expert, he returns to his proper task, calculating that now he will inspire his reader with greater confidence. His calculation is perfectly justified. The reader is afraid to attack such a skilled dialectician, and prefers to agree rather than to risk himself in argument. Not even the greatest intellects, particularly in philosophy, disdain such stratagems. The idealists, for example, before expounding their theories, turn and rend materialism. The materialists, we remember, at one time did the same with the idealists, and achieved a vast success.

Orphus system

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