The Syllogism: Reflection the Death of Ivan Ilyich [Tolstoy]

ivanThe Syllogism

The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal” – had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others. He had been little Vanya with a mama and papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, a coachman, and a nurse, and later with Katenka – Vanya, with all the joys, sorrows, and enthusiasms of his childhood, boyhood, and youth. Had Caius ever kissed his mother’s hand so dearly, and had the silk folds of her dress ever rustled so for him? Had Caius ever rioted at school when the pastries were bad? Had he ever been so much in love? Or presided so well over a court session?

-Ch. 6, p.79

A Logical & Ontological Commentary

A proposed oppositional relationship between logic and life is one that finds expression in many pieces of literature. Logic is identified as unnaturally fixing the fluidity of life into ideal, abstract categories that have no basis in concrete reality. In this text, however, Ivan Ilyich recognizes the universality of the syllogism of mortality, as well as the particularity of his unique experience of his own mortality. All, in other words, means all, and to deny this, we learn, is to live in bad faith. Moreover, not living one’s life with a consciousness of one’s mortality, this text implies, is irrational, for it is a denial of the only possible conclusion given premise 1 (viz. “Man is mortal”) and premise 2 (viz. “I am a man”).

Ivan’s uniqueness, it could be argued, is also a general kind of uniqueness, namely that of numerical distinction. However, consider the list he gives: his name, the names of his parents, joy, sorrow, enthusiasm, the love for his mother, the memory of kissing her hand, the rustling of the silk folds of her dress for him. It is this for-him which is important in this passage, for it shows that while the fixed conclusions drawn from sound premises cannot be denied without spiraling into irrationality, or even a kind of madness that frets over soot ruining one’s bric-a-brac while one’s house is burning to ashes, it also emphasizes the fact that my experience is not the experience of another.

Yet even in this recognition, Ivan sees himself as more-than Caius. Thus, he deceives himself when he says that he is not “an abstract man” – at least as regards his relationship to other persons. For, in fact, it is precisely this quality of being a particular instantiation of the universal that at the same time makes one the object of analysis. All men are mortal, but men die in different ways and at different times, and they think, feel, and respond to death in different ways. Ivan is an abstraction to others, but not in relation to the one certainty that “All men are mortal.” This mortal man is “Ivan” in relation to himself, and to God.

Ivan’s bad faith is embedded in his repeated use of the preposition with. On the one hand, Ivan was accompanied by the concatenated items of subjective value. On the other hand, he was, is, and will always be distinct from them. It is as if Ivan attempted to unite himself to these items, each of which is associated with a particular passing stage of development – little Vanya was with Mama, Papa, Mitya, etc; Vanya then experienced childhood, boyhood and youth, accompanied by their corresponding joys, sorrows, and enthusiasms; and Ivan experienced culinary outrage, love, and presided well over a courtroom session.

It is only within the inflexible framework of the syllogism that the reader gets a sense of the depth of dramatic irony here. The judgment/conclusion of the syllogism hangs over Ivan’s head his entire life, as it hung over Caius’ head, and as it hangs over the heads of all men. It is the purposeful ignoring of his temporality that enables Ivan to live as though he had the authority to take death to court and pass a final verdict on it. The syllogism has spoken – to deny its conclusion is to deny one or more of its premises. Yet these are the very things that make man who he is: (1.)their individuality and (2.)their participation in the whole.




2 thoughts on “The Syllogism: Reflection the Death of Ivan Ilyich [Tolstoy]

involve yourself

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