Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Shall We Do?

Extract taken from Chapter XVI, What To Do, by Leo Tolstoy:

I belong to the class of those people, who, by diver’s tricks, take from the toiling masses the necessaries of life, and who have acquired for themselves these inexhaustible rubles, and who lead these unfortunates astray. I desire to aid people, and therefore it is clear that, first of all, I must cease to rob them as I am doing. But I, by the most complicated, and cunning, and evil practices, which have been heaped up for centuries, have acquired for myself the position of an owner of the inexhaustible ruble, that is to say, one in which, never working myself, I can make hundreds and thousands of people toil for me – which also I do; and I imagine that I pity people, and I wish to assist them. I sit on a man's neck, I weigh him down, and I demand that he shall carry me; and without descending from his shoulders I assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him, and that I desire to ameliorate his condition by all possible means, only not by getting off of him.

Surely this is simple enough. If I want to help the poor, that is, to make the poor no longer poor, I must not produce poor people. And I give, at my own selection, to poor men who have gone astray from the path of life, a ruble, or ten rubles, or a hundred; and I grasp hundreds from people who have not yet left the path, and thereby I render them poor also, and demoralize them to boot.

This is very simple; but it was horribly hard for me to understand this fully without compromises and reservations, which might serve to justify my position; but it sufficed for me to confess my guilt, and every thing which had before seemed to me strange and complicated, and lacking in cleanness, became perfectly comprehensible and simple. But the chief point was, that my way of life, arising from this interpretation, became simple, clear and pleasant, instead of perplexed, inexplicable and full of torture as before.

Who am I, that I should desire to help others? I desire to help people; and I, rising at twelve o'clock after a game of cards with four candles, weak, exhausted, demanding the aid of hundreds of people, - I go to the aid of whom? Of people who rise at five o'clock, who sleep on planks, who nourish themselves on bread and cabbage, who know how to plough, to reap, to wield the axe, to chop, to harness, to sew, - of people who in strength and endurance, and skill and abstemiousness, are a hundred times superior to me,--and I go to their succour! What except shame could I feel, when I entered into communion with these people? The very weakest of them, a drunkard, an inhabitant of the Rzhanoff house, the one whom they call "the idler," is a hundred-fold more industrious than I; (his balance, so to speak, that is to say, the relation of what he takes from people and that which they give him, stands on a thousand times better footing than my balance, if I take into consideration what I take from people and what I give to them.)

And these are the people to whose assistance I go. I go to help the poor. But who is the poor man? There is no one poorer than myself. I am a thoroughly enervated, good-for-nothing parasite, who can only exist under the most special conditions, who can only exist when thousands of people toil at the preservation of this life which is utterly useless to every one. And I, that plant-louse, which devours the foliage of trees, wish to help the tree in its growth and health, and I wish to heal it.

I have passed my whole life in this manner: I eat, I talk and I listen; I eat, I write or read, that is to say, I talk and listen again; I eat, I play, I eat, again I talk and listen, I eat, and again I go to bed; and so each day I can do nothing else, and I understand how to do nothing else. And in order that I may be able to do this, it is necessary that the porter, the peasant, the cook, male or female, the footman, the coachman, and the laundress, should toil from morning till night; I will not refer to the labours of the people which are necessary in order that coachman, cooks, male and female, footman, and the rest should have those implements and articles with which, and over which, they toil for my, sake; axes, tubs, brushes, household utensils, furniture, wax, blacking, kerosene, hay, wood, and beef. And all these people work hard all day long and every day, so that I may be able to talk and eat and sleep. And I, this cripple of a man, have imagined that I could help others, and those the very people who support me!

It is not remarkable that I could not help any one, and that I felt ashamed; but the remarkable point is that such an absurd idea could have occurred to me. The woman who served the sick old man, helped him; the mistress of the house, who cut a slice from the bread which she had won from the soil, helped the beggar; Semyon, who gave three kopeks which he had earned, helped the beggar, because those three kopeks actually represented his labour: but I served no one, I toiled for no one, and I was well aware that my money did not represent my labour.

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