Bill Schardt and David Large
some striking parallels between Wittgenstein's life and that of Tolstoy. Both
were born into extremely rich families, yet both subsequently gave their
property away, and tried to live simple and humble lives. Both valued manual
labour as something spiritually uplifting. Both underwent some sort of
religious conversion to a form of Christianity. Yet neither, despite their
evident high-mindedness, seems to have treated other people particularly
Tolstoy's religious writings, such as the Gospel in Brief and A Confession,
clearly had an enormous influence on Wittgenstein especially at the time he was
writing the Tractatus. Strange then that so few commentators have even
acknowledged, let alone attempted to account for, Tolstoy's influence on
Wittgenstein's philosophy. It is therefore especially worth considering the
extent to which the Gospel in Brief specifically influenced the outlook of the
Tractatus. Indeed, as his friend and correspondent, Paul Engelmann put it, out
of all Tolstoy's writings Wittgenstein had an especially high regard for the
Gospel in Brief. Yet it often appears to be simply assumed that the Gospel in
Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein. Why this might be so is never
clearly explained. That the book does not seem to be readily available or very
well known in the English-speaking world may partly explain why its influence
on Wittgenstein may have been neglected. But in this article we attempt to
explain the impact of the Gospel in Brief upon Wittgenstein's philosophy
(especially the later passages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), and his
general view of ethics.
Gospel in Brief was not published in Tolstoy's lifetime, it clearly comes from
the period of his religious and moral writings between 1879 and 1902. It is a
fusion of the four Gospels, the purpose of which is to seek an answer to the
problem of how we should live. It is both philosophical and practical, rather than
theological and spiritual, in its intention. Tolstoy believed that the
existence of God could neither be proved nor disproved and that the meaning of
life lay beyond the limits of our minds. ( And compare this with Wittgenstein's
conception of absolute or ethical value as expressed in his 1929/30 Lecture on
Ethics (Philosophical Review, 1965.) Tolstoy further believed that the Church
itself, as a body, interfered with one's ability to live a peaceful, everyday
life, free from significant pain and suffering. This too can only have appealed
to a restless soul such as Wittgenstein.
Book in the Shop
Wittgenstein came by his copy of the Gospel in Brief, and the importance he
came to attach to it, is almost a parable in itself. At the time in question
Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army at the start of the First World
War. These circumstances were very different from those of Edwardian England
let alone the blissful solitude of a Norwegian fjord. Wittgenstein discovered a
small bookshop in Tarnow, a town then under Austrian rule but now in southern
Poland. It is said that the shop had only one book (Tolstoy's) and that
Wittgenstein bought the book because it was the only one they had. Some have
suggested that he saw this as a sign, though we shall leave that supposition
there. In any case, he started reading the Gospel in Brief on September 1st
1914 and subsequently carried it with him at all times, memorising passages of
it by heart. He became known to his comrades as the man with the gospels,
constantly recommending the book to anyone who was troubled. Wittgenstein
himself said that the book essentially kept him alive.
fairly sure that at this time Wittgenstein underwent some kind of religious
conversion, though not in the conventional sense. The Russellian logicist
emerged as a man with strong spiritual if not actually ascetic leanings. It is
less certain, however, that this experience changed the way he treated ethics
in the Tractatus. It is rather that reading the Gospel in Brief led
Wittgenstein to add a new element to the Tractatus and indeed to his already
formed conception of ethics. That additional element is usually referred to as
the mystical. Wittgenstein would still have, we would argue, dealt with the
subject of ethics, as transcendental, by passing over it in silence.
Furthermore, Wittgenstein had already been influenced by Schopenhauer,
especially his conception of the will, and that while his sense of the
transcendental or other-worldly may have been deepened by the influence of
Tolstoy's work, it was not originated by it.
According to Tolstoy
Tolstoy, then aged 51, had become very depressed, and in order to find a
solution to his problems he studied Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in some depth.
He came to believe that he had found the answer to his problem, that is, the
problem of how we should live, in the teachings of Jesus, but that these had to
be sifted out from the accumulated dogma of the churches. To this end he
formed, from all four gospels, a single account of the life and teachings of
Jesus. In the Gospel in Brief (which is extracted from a larger work) Tolstoy
omitted the accounts of Christ's birth and genealogy, the miracles, and the
resurrection. He also left out most of the material about John the Baptist. He
removed all the supernatural events and everything he found difficult to
believe or which he regarded as irrelevant. His concern was how we should live
and how Jesus' life could help explain that to us. He thus omitted all the key
points that make Jesus necessarily different from us, in other words, all that
requires faith in the divinity of Jesus. In short, Tolstoy portrays for us
Christ 'without the Christianity'.
is supposed to be the pure teachings of Jesus, or as much as can be recovered
or reconstructed after so many centuries. It is true that most of the account
is very familiar to anyone who has read the gospels in the Bible. It is,
however, evident that Tolstoy, as well as removing material from the accounts,
went so far as to add a certain amount. This is, presumably, an attempt to
insert material that he believed should have been there; material that was
perhaps omitted by oversight or even excised at a later date. Tolstoy must have
felt that he had come to understand the character of Jesus well enough to know
what he must have taught, even when it is not explicitly recorded. This would
be as a consequence of his understanding Jesus' answer to the question of how
we should live. The additions are done very elegantly, so that it is hard to
tell where Jesus ends and Tolstoy begins. The effect on the reader is to
exaggerate the ascetic aspects of Jesus teachings so that the balance is
shifted from the theological to the philosophical. Explicitly in his introduction
and implicitly in the text Tolstoy is very critical of organised religion and
the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Indeed, in 1901 he was
excommunicated for his unorthodox views and activities.
that he discovered to his astonishment that the whole of Jesus' teaching is
summed up in the Lord's Prayer, (which is conventional Christianity) and each
of the twelve chapters takes its title from a phrase of the prayer. In the
chapter entitled 'Thy Kingdom Come', Tolstoy attributes five commandments to
Jesus. Not all of these are stated as such in the Bible, and not all of them
are implicit in the original text. Tolstoy's commandments are:
i) Do not be
angry, but be at peace with all men.
ii) Do not
seek delight in sexual gratification.
iii) Do not
swear anything to anyone.
iv) Do not
oppose evil, do not judge, and do not go to law.
v) Do not
make any distinction among men as to nationality, and love strangers like your
to believe that complete sexual abstinence too should be practised. Most
Christians would regard this as rather extreme. (It does however concur with
several reports of Wittgenstein's life.) The third of these commandments,
against the swearing of oaths (for example in court) is, although ignored by
most churches, clearly stated in the Bible. The Quakers, however, do take the
same view on oaths as Tolstoy's Jesus. Another parallel occurs where Jesus says
do not oppose evil. Both Tolstoy and the Quakers take this to mean 'do not use evil
means to oppose evil' and this view leads them to adopt pacifist views.
and the Nature of Ethics
the Tractatus will not find any moral injunctions of the sort present in the
Gospel in Brief there. In considering the possibility of an ethical law
ethical law of the form, 'Thou shalt ... [do such and such]', is laid down,
one's first thought is, 'And what if I do not do it?'. - Tractatus 6.422
He goes on
to say that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual
sense, but asserts that there must be some kind of ethical reward and
punishment lying in the action itself.
then a paradox. While Wittgenstein asserts that nothing can be said about
ethics, the Gospel in Brief says a great deal about how life should be lived,
and, furthermore, what it says seems to have had a powerful influence on
Wittgenstein. The solution to this problem lies in the distinction between
saying and showing, as expressed in the Tractatus; because although there are
no ethical propositions - the Gospel cannot say anything about how we should
live - yet Wittgenstein must have believed that it did show the way to
statement 'It is wrong to kill' can be said, in the minimalist sense that it
can be spoken, but in 'Tractarian' terms it cannot be said in the sense that it
expresses a particular moral imperative. People say things like this all the
time, and other people understand them. It is, however, possible that someone
may disagree with this statement, and there is ultimately no way of resolving
the dispute by reference to states of affairs or facts about the world. This is
because the statement does not express a fact, and this is what is meant when
Wittgenstein asserts that ethics cannot be put into words. If I say it is wrong
to kill, do I, thereby, show that it is wrong to kill? In some cases I do and,
in some cases I do not. There is no way of proving that it is wrong.
as: 'I am my world' (Tractatus 5.63), and 'For what the solipsist means is
quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest' (Tractatus
5.62), provide a key to Wittgenstein's view. In these he directs us to the actual
experience of living. The person whose moral outlook, i.e. their way of living,
is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by
logical arguments or matters of fact. They have, rather, been shown, the way
that they should live.
however, be aware that the Tractatus appears to disagree with itself. The
philosopher Caleb Thompson takes other remarks in the the work as implying that
coming to see meaning in life is just a matter of living.
We feel that
even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of
life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left,
and this itself is the answer. -
of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. -
Wittgenstein, someone who realises that there cannot be scientific answers to
the problems of life will then find that these problems vanish. But can he
really mean that? Surely it was not as easy as that for Wittgenstein himself
and cannot be as easy as that for anyone else.
understood in the light of the Gospel in Brief this interpretation presents
only part of what Wittgenstein was saying: the person looking for the meaning of
life will stop looking to science as they will appreciate that they are looking
in the wrong place! As the answers are not ones science is able to give, they
cannot, in Tractarian terms, be said. It is in this sense only that they may be
said to have vanished.
is also committed to a notion of the ethical in which ethical notions are
expressed, and in which we may receive responses to our wonderings about the
problems of life. This notion of the ethical is the same as that displayed by
Tolstoy through the figure of Christ in the Gospel in Brief. To disregard this
work's influence is to miss this further point, vital to the understanding of
Wittgenstein's thinking about ethics. The very same notion indeed recurs some
ten years later in his notebooks and in the Lecture on Ethics.
ethical teaching of the Gospel in Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein.
He felt deeply that what it showed (if not said) was right. Here indeed was the
answer to the question of how we should live. An effect such as this is
personal; the book need not change the life of everyone who reads it. Perhaps
Wittgenstein is the only person to have been affected by it in this way. In any
case, an argument with someone who was unmoved by the book could not come to any
conclusion over its efficacy. The ethical import of the book is not a question
of what the book says. If this is correct, it takes us some way towards a
developed understanding of the distinction between saying and showing.
Impossibility of Ethical Facts
Tractatus opens with the statement that 'The world is everything that is the
case'. This is immediately followed by the comment that 'The world is the
totality of facts, not of things'. Wittgenstein is referring to the
philosophical use of the word 'fact' whereupon a fact is to be thought of as
the worldly correlate of a true proposition. A proposition, in turn is a 'truth
functional' item, i.e. it must be either true or false. At the time he wrote
the Tractatus Wittgenstein believed that the world could be completely
described by a finite number of such true propositions. This implies that that
which cannot be described by the propositions is not in the world. Hence at
Tractatus 6.41 Wittgenstein states that the sense of the world must lie outside
the world. In the world no value exists, for if it did it would have no
argument means that there cannot be ethical facts because the rightness or
wrongness of an action cannot be determined by any examination of the world.
Hence the truth or falsity of a statement such as 'it is wrong to murder people
', cannot be determined in this way. Ethical or moral statements are not
propositions; they are not truth functional in the way that real propositions
must be. As ethics is not propositional it cannot, therefore, be put into
words. It is, instead, transcendental (Tractatus 6.421), and as such must be
passed over in silence (Tractatus 7). Propositions can express nothing that is
higher than themselves, i.e. nothing beyond states of affairs of the world
(whether true or false), and so there can be no propositions of ethics.
1929/30 Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein used the metaphor that if a man could
write a book on ethics that really was a book on ethics, this book would with
an explosion destroy all the other books in the world. In a more restrained
mood, we may say that a book that showed, in a logically rigorous fashion, that
from any particular state of affairs in the world it followed that there was a
particular right course of action that must be followed by a moral individual,
would make physical, if not material, that which could only previously have
been conceived of as transcendental. For it to be possible to write such a
book, there would have to be propositions in ethics.
not mean that Wittgenstein regarded ethics as unimportant. On the contrary,
almost all the really important things, things of value, cannot be said, though
Wittgenstein intimates that at least some of them may be shown. In his preface
to the Tractatus he suggests that when he has achieved his aim of saying what
can be said at all, very little will have been achieved.
his philosophy, Wittgenstein could not put the ethical position expressed in
the Gospel in Brief into the Tractatus as propositions, let alone statements of
fact. The thoughts contained therein when stated as putative facts could not
have been true. He did, however, do the only thing he could do and showed how
the ethical position of the Gospel in Brief was possible. In so doing he
allowed us to have an answer to the question of how we should live our lives.
As he wrote later:
What is good
is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.
Wittgenstein, Notebook, 1929.