Monday, May 26, 2008

Tolstoy on Wealth and Justice

From Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), a dialogue on wealth and justice between three aristocratic Russians. It takes place in a barn at the end of a day of hunting. The characters are Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, a married playboy; Levin, an intellectual with socialist inclinations and brother-in-law of Oblonsky; and Vassenka Veslovsky, a new acquaintance of the other two men.

The text is from Literature Network.

Malthus was a well-known capitalist, who had made his money by speculation in railway shares. Stepan Arkadyevitch described what grouse moors this Malthus had bought in the Tver province, and how they were preserved, and of the carriages and dogcarts in which the shooting party had been driven, and the luncheon pavilion that had been rigged up at the marsh.

"I don't understand you," said Levin, sitting up in the hay; "how is it such people don't disgust you? I can understand a lunch with Lafitte is all very pleasant, but don't you dislike just that very sumptuousness? All these people, just like our spirit monopolists in old days, get their money in a way that gains them the contempt of everyone. They don't care for their contempt, and then they use their dishonest gains to buy off the contempt they have deserved."

"Perfectly true!" chimed in Vassenka Veslovsky. "Perfectly! Oblonsky, of course, goes out of bonhomie, but other people say: 'Well, Oblonsky stays with them.'..."

"Not a bit of it." Levin could hear that Oblonsky was smiling as he spoke. "I simply don't consider him more dishonest than any other wealthy merchant or nobleman. They've all made their money alike--by their work and their intelligence."

"Oh, by what work? Do you call it work to get hold of concessions and speculate with them?"

"Of course it's work. Work in this sense, that if it were not for him and others like him, there would have been no railways."

"But that's not work, like the work of a peasant or a learned profession."

"Granted, but it's work in the sense that his activity produces a result--the railways. But of course you think the railways useless."

"No, that's another question; I am prepared to admit that they're useful. But all profit that is out of proportion to the labor expended is dishonest."

"But who is to define what is proportionate?"

"Making profit by dishonest means, by trickery," said Levin, conscious that he could not draw a distinct line between honesty and dishonesty. "Such as banking, for instance," he went on. "It's an evil--the amassing of huge fortunes without labor, just the same thing as with the spirit monopolies, it's only the form that's changed. Le roi est mort, vive le roi. No sooner were the spirit monopolies abolished than the railways came up, and banking companies; that, too, is profit without work."

"Yes, that may all be very true and clever.... Lie down, Krak!" Stepan Arkadyevitch called to his dog, who was scratching and turning over all the hay. He was obviously convinced of the correctness of his position, and so talked serenely and without haste. "But you have not drawn the line between honest and dishonest work. That I receive a bigger salary than my chief clerk, though he knows more about the work than I do--that's dishonest, I suppose?"

"I can't say."

"Well, but I can tell you: your receiving some five thousand, let's say, for your work on the land, while our host, the peasant here, however hard he works, can never get more than fifty roubles, is just as dishonest as my earning more than my chief clerk, and Malthus getting more than a station-master. No, quite the contrary; I see that society takes up a sort of antagonistic attitude to these people, which is utterly baseless, and I fancy there's envy at the bottom of it...."

"No, that's unfair," said Veslovsky; "how could envy come in? There is something not nice about that sort of business."

"You say," Levin went on, "that it's unjust for me to receive five thousand, while the peasant has fifty; that's true. It is unfair, and I feel it, but..."

"It really is. Why is it we spend our time riding, drinking, shooting, doing nothing, while they are forever at work?" said Vassenka Veslovsky, obviously for the first time in his life reflecting on the question, and consequently considering it with perfect sincerity.

"Yes, you feel it, but you don't give him your property," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, intentionally, as it seemed, provoking Levin.

There had arisen of late something like a secret antagonism between the two brothers-in-law; as though, since they had married sisters, a kind of rivalry had sprung up between them as to which was ordering his life best, and now this hostility showed itself in the conversation, as it began to take a personal note.

"I don't give it away, because no one demands that from me, and if I wanted to, I could not give it away," answered Levin, "and have no one to give it to."

"Give it to this peasant, he would not refuse it."

"Yes, but how am I to give it up? Am I to go to him and make a deed of conveyance?"

"I don't know; but if you are convinced that you have no right..."

"I'm not at all convinced. On the contrary, I feel I have no right to give it up, that I have duties both to the land and to my family."

"No, excuse me, but if you consider this inequality is unjust, why is it you don't act accordingly?..."

"Well, I do act negatively on that idea, so far as not trying to increase the difference of position existing between him and me."

"No, excuse me, that's a paradox."

"Yes, there's something of a sophistry about that," Veslovsky agreed. "Ah! our host; so you're not asleep yet?" he said to the peasant who came into the barn, opening the creaking door. "How is it you're not asleep?"

"No, how's one to sleep! I thought our gentlemen would be asleep, but I heard them chattering. I want to get a hook from here. She won't bite?" he added, stepping cautiously with his bare feet.

"And where are you going to sleep?"

"We are going out for the night with the beasts."

"Ah, what a night!" said Veslovsky, looking out at the edge of the hut and the unharnessed wagonette that could be seen in the faint light of the evening glow in the great frame of the open doors. "But listen, there are women's voices singing, and, on my word, not badly too. Who's that singing, my friend?"

"That's the maids from hard by here."

"Let's go, let's have a walk! We shan't go to sleep, you know. Oblonsky, come along!"

"If one could only do both, lie here and go," answered Oblonsky, stretching. "It's capital lying here."

"Well, I shall go by myself," said Veslovsky, getting up eagerly, and putting on his shoes and stockings. "Good-bye, gentlemen. If it's fun, I'll fetch you. You've treated me to some good sport, and I won't forget you."

"He really is a capital fellow, isn't he?" said Stepan Arkadyevitch, when Veslovsky had gone out and the peasant had closed the door after him.

"Yes, capital," answered Levin, still thinking of the subject of their conversation just before. It seemed to him that he had clearly expressed his thoughts and feelings to the best of his capacity, and yet both of them, straightforward men and not fools, had said with one voice that he was comforting himself with sophistries. This disconcerted him.

"It's just this, my dear boy. One must do one of two things: either admit that the existing order of society is just, and then stick up for one's rights in it; or acknowledge that you are enjoying unjust privileges, as I do, and then enjoy them and be satisfied."

"No, if it were unjust, you could not enjoy these advantages and be satisfied--at least I could not. The great thing for me is to feel that I'm not to blame."

"What do you say, why not go after all?" said Stepan Arkadyevitch, evidently weary of the strain of thought. "We shan't go to sleep, you know. Come, let's go!"

Levin did not answer. What they had said in the conversation, that he acted justly only in a negative sense, absorbed his thoughts. "Can it be that it's only possible to be just negatively?" he was asking himself.

No comments: