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A Final Word On Ethics As Based In Tolstoy's Literature

“Father Sergius” from The Death Of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy




My last comments on this collection of Tolstoy's stories:

"Father Sergius" is a rather long story, some 11,000 words. It concerns a long span of years in the life of a Russian prince, Stepan Kasatsky. A bright student with every social advantage, Kasatsky becomes an officer in a regiment of well-placed young lads. He’s a goal-setter despite his elevated social status and one of his goals is marriage to a young Countess Korotkov. Predictably, he succeeds in winning the countess’ love. A few days prior to the marriage, the young countess lets slip that she has had an affair with the Tsar. This leaves Kasatsky so shaken that he breaks off the marriage and enters a monastery.

In this phase of Stepan's life, things come easily, too – at least on the surface of it. But he becomes bored and enters a life of seclusion. Here, Sergius, as he is now known, begins to face the demons he has hoped Church life would spare him: fame, social connections – and women. As the story rolls on, he faces a number of temptations of the fleshly sort, but he remains tortured by his overwhelming attraction to women.

Sergius/Kasatsky grows impulsive and quits his hermitage and his responsibilities as a man of the cloth. A footloose mendicant, he seeks the counsel of an old friend, Pashenka, a woman. Pashenka has had an unfortunate turn in her life, too, and is now making do by teaching music to children. When prompted, she admits that she’s pretty much given up on the Church (she sees herself as a bad person because of her misfortunes) and only takes Communion because of her children.


so to the (promised) ethics of this story:


While music means little to Pashenka, she uses it to cultivate, educate, and inspire children. She takes no great pride in her work with the kids, but she continues to do it – for her family. This becomes an epiphany for Sergius: he sees that work for others, in which no overdose of personal pride is involved, is the highest form of service to humankind.

Tolstoy tells his tale in the context of Church doctrine. But perhaps the larger, secular lesson is that he depicts it in terms of non-attachment. That is, when one has no great attachment to things, to people, to habits or customs, but decides to incorporate things, people, habits, etc. into his life anyway in order to perhaps alleviate a few of life’s burdens, then this person is living from a high level of ethics. While such an ethical base can be articulated in a general sense, its nature is as specific as the people and conditions involved.

Also, Tolstoy is depicting a modern adage of behavioral psychology, i.e., one can only be held accountable for one’s actions, not one’s thoughts. While actions can certainly be based in recurring thought, such thoughts are often conflicted. When one chooses between conflicted urges, one will only bear responsibility for the choice made.


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