On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior

Chapter Seven
The Death of Ivan Ilych
By Leo Tolstoy

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

~1 Corinthians 13:13

How exactly do we love our neighbor as ourselves?  Chapter Seven of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue of love with examples drawn from Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych.  The discussion today distinguishes attributes that are frequently either misunderstood or confused.  Continue reading “Love”

Leo Tolstoy: Modern (1828–1910)


Chapter 17

“Alexey Alexandrovitch,” said Vronsky, feeling that a statement of the position was coming, “I can’t speak, I can’t understand. Spare me! However hard it is for you, believe me, it is more terrible for me.”
He would have risen; but Alexey Alexandrovitch took him by the hand and said:
“I beg you to hear me out; it is necessary. I must explain my feelings, the feelings that have guided me and will guide me, so that you may not be in error regarding me. You know I had resolved on a divorce, and had even begun to take proceedings. I won’t conceal from you that in beginning this I was in uncertainty, I was in misery; I will confess that I was pursued by a desire to revenge myself on you and on her. When I got the telegram, I came here with the same feelings; I will say more, I longed for her death. But . . .” He paused, pondering whether to disclose or not to disclose his feeling to him. “But I saw her and forgave her. And the happiness of forgiveness has revealed to me my duty. I forgive completely. I would offer the other cheek, I would give my cloak if my coat be taken. I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness!”
Tears stood in his eyes, and the luminous, serene look in them impressed Vronsky.
“This is my position: you can trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of the world, I will not abandon her, and I will never utter a word of reproach to you,” Alexey Alexandrovitch went on. “My duty is clearly marked for me; I ought to be with her, and I will be. If she wishes to see you, I will let you know, but now I suppose it would be better for you to go away.”
He got up, and sobs cut short his words. Vronsky too was getting up, and in a stooping, not yet erect posture, looked up at him from under his brows. He did not understand Alexey Alexandrovitch’s feeling, but he felt that it was something higher and even unattainable for him with his view of life.

In his essay “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy tells the story of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting a student’s sketch. “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit,” the student marveled, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy comments: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness take place.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Can we really fix ourselves? Can we really see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done? Tolstoy suggests we can, even though the road will be long and arduous. He is Orthodox enough to see that humans are sinners in need of mercy, but not Orthodox enough to get to the root of the problem.

The prophet does not plunge deeply enough into the human heart.

Tolstoy was Christian enough to see that evil exists but not holy or self-aware enough to know the depths to which a nation or a man could go. His romance is, therefore, more true to life than most of Hollywood’s chick flicks, but just as dangerous. Tolstoy can imagine an Anna, but not a Lenin. Many millions of Russians would die after the prophet’s failure to see how bad things could really get.


How can the small details of one’s life tip the balance between good and evil?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

On Unfaithfulness

Amy Obrist

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is commonly understood as an adultery novel. Dolly Oblonsky suffers tremendously throughout on account of her husband Stiva’s affair. Kitty and Levin alternately experience deep jealousy and fear of betrayal, each when the other interacts with flirtatious members of Russia’s high society. Anna herself is one of the most notorious fallen women in literature, seduced by Alexei Vronsky but herself becoming the primary target of society’s wrath.

Unfaithfulness is all around; it is only a serious transgression when social conventions governing it are not observed.

Yet while marital infidelity—or the fear of it—is intricately woven into each thread of the plot, it is first and foremost a symbol of other kinds of unfaithfulness. Falseness, deception, and lies are endemic to Russian high society. Worse than being an unfaithful husband, Stiva deceives himself by justifying his unfaithfulness. Similarly, he justifies the graft by which he obtains his government position and his spendthrift squandering of his wife’s fortune. He maintains the external image of the perfect society man and follows all the rules of liberal society perfectly—but has no inner life or true self.

If this is the case for Stiva, it also is true for a character the reader may not be ready to judge so hastily, Alexei Karenin. Laying aside Anna’s unfaithfulness, it is essential to examine Karenin as Tolstoy presents him. As Dolly welcomes her sister-in-law, perfect society woman and wife of the statesman, a hint is given that something is amiss in Dolly’s recollection that “as far as she could remember her impression of the Karenins’ house in Petersburg, she had not liked it; there was something false in the whole shape of their family life.” She smoothes over this memory as Anna ironically persuades Dolly to stay in her marriage.

Karenin is a politician at the height of his career, living an ordered, proper life in which each minute of his day is accounted for. For him, life is about duty. He moves in a social circle known widely as “the conscience of St. Petersburg.” Anna tells herself “he is a good man, truthful, kind and remarkable in his sphere.”

Yet here Anna is trying to convince herself. Karenin meets her with a “mocking smile”; she feels a vague dissatisfaction, an “old, familiar feeling, similar to that state of pretence she experienced in her relations with her husband; but previously she had not noticed it.”

Moreover, his associations with his religious friend, Lydia Ivanovna, now bother Anna for their hypocrisy. “All this was there before, but why didn’t I notice it before? . . . In fact it’s ridiculous: her goal is virtue, she is a Christian, yet she’s angry all the time, and they’re all her enemies, and they’re all enemies on account of Christianity and virtue.”

The hypocrisy and self-deceit endemic to society life drive the plot about Kitty Oblonsky and Konstantin Levin too. Kitty refuses Levin’s proposal—although she is certain of his love—because she expects Count Vronsky, an elite society man, to propose to her after the upcoming ball; the narrator hints that this preference is problematic: “It was as if there was some falseness—not in him, he was very simple and nice—but in herself, while with Levin she felt completely simple and clear.” Although her father would prefer the simple, serious Levin as a son-in-law, Kitty’s mother, Princess Oblonsky, seeks a “brilliant match” for her daughter. Her mother deceives Kitty into preferring Vronsky despite feeling awkwardness about him, a sure sign of self-betrayal in Tolstoy’s code.

Anna is different from others in her milieu. Kitty observes of Anna “that there was in her some other, higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” Kitty later goes further, finding something “alien, demonic, and enchanting” in Anna. Yet Kitty does not yet understand herself or that she has been deceived by the hypocrisy and false values around her. For Kitty to find something otherworldly or alien in Anna and to first call it good and then evil suggests she does not yet understand her own relation to society. However, she points out that Anna is different.

Of what does Anna’s difference consist? It takes her a long time to understand this herself. Already a fallen women—but still able to maintain appearances in society—she compares herself with her friend Betsy, exclaiming, “How I wish I knew others as I know myself,” and asking herself, “Am I worse than others or better? Worse, I think.” Later, when she’s cast out from this society irrevocably and barred from seeing her son, Anna articulates her disgust with the pervasive hypocrisy around her, saying of Lydia, “She’s worse than I am. At least I don’t lie.” Anna’s special quality is her willingness to look into herself and not deceive about what she finds there.

Anna Karenina is no worse than others. True, she never seems fully to comprehend herself in relation to society. Her misfortune is that she understands the falsehood of high society but is bound tragically to this world by circumstance.

Amy Obrist, PhD, is an assistant professor of Russian and German Language and chair of the Modern Languages Department at Biola University.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).


Why Literature Matters by Glenn C. Arbery


What do you want to be when you grow up?  We spend our childhood answering the wrong question.

It’s not what, but who.

When graduating high school senior are making final preparations for their journey to college, among the countless things they think about is their course of study and choice of a major.  Now it’s decision time.

Today the litmus test of almost every considered major is now this: What kind of job will it get me and how much money will I make?

All of this isn’t entirely the fault of aspiring bright minds or hopeful parents.  The cost of college education has sky-rocketed and many hearts, young and old are filled with the dread of debt which verily must be paid.  The education process has become less about questions and more about answers.  After all – who needs to think that hard when Google is in the palm of your hand?

It’s easier to let someone else do your thinking for you. We say, “Don’t bother me with the details, just give me the bottom line”, and our age of fast information shortens our already limited attention span.

It is in this spirit I offer you Glenn C. Arbery’s fine book ‘Why Literature Matters.”

Our understanding of liberal arts goes all the way back to the first century BC, when Marcus Terrentius Varro wrote an encyclopedia, Disciplinarum libri IX (Nine Books of Disciplines); seven of the disciplines he discussed in it became our liberal arts: grammar, dialectic (or logic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture.  Of these, the so-called hard sciences are certainly in the forefront with literature and art lost in the dust of the stampeding herd.

In our age of technology worship, we gravitate to that which can be arithmetically computed wherein hard and predictable answers prevail.  The problem of course, is that life bears little resemblance to that golden ring.  Science, for all its bluster is a poor tutor for life’s real questions.  As H. L. Mencken said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

In his speech The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson said this

 “Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

In The American Scholar, Emerson calls us out of the fog, and describes what he calls “Man Thinking”. America was only sixty years old when he spoke those words in 1837, and we were still wrapped up in a parochial European mindset. He challenged his hearers to wake up and live their lives with depth and purpose.

That message has never been more relevant.

Literature is by definition immediately relevant, because it speaks of the human condition.  Ironically, we long for depth in our lives but content ourselves in shallow water. Our entertainment is banal and our conversations increasingly require a smaller and smaller vocabulary. We each have the same twenty-four hours available in every day, but many of them are lived half-heartedly – nothing special.

Apart from the simple, trashy books which constantly drill to our lowest carnal elements, true literature calls to us a host of writerly advisors who push and pull us into moral dilemmas, forcing us to, as Socrates said“know thyself.”  Anaïs Nin said “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”  Herein lies first the opportunity and ultimately the catalyst of real growth.

Arbery wrote

“Literature matters because nothing can better approach the form, in this sense, of life in its felt reality, as it is most deeply experienced, with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering.  Without being specifically religious itself, it can give an experience of a common glory that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made.  It can turn the loss of life and meaning not only into the rediscovery of meaning but into an occasion of promissory joy.”

In his essay “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy tells the story of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting a student’s sketch. “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit,” the student marveled, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy comments: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness take place.” 

To the college students I say – congratulations.  You are standing at the beginning point of self-discovery.  As you embark on this new journey that will commence your development of self-hood, take with you an open, seeking mind.  Fuel it with treasure of the ages and allow literature to inform your journey.

You will never regret it.  Tonight I’m praying for you, and someday you will join me and Gustave Flaubert who wrote in Madame Bovary

What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright…Haven’t you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you’ve had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.