Thursday, June 3, 2021

Foolish peasants

 I

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Konstantin Levin tries to introduce various reforms to improve the productivity and profitability of his country estate, but the peasants are too stuck in their ways, either unable or unwilling to learn new methods, and the reforms don’t work. Levin also tries to rationalize or make sense of his life with a similar lack of success. Tolstoy seems to see the two projects and their failure as related. In Chapter 10 of the last part of the novel he writes of Levin that:

He knew he must hire laborers as cheaply as possible; but to hire men under bond, paying them in advance at less than the current rate of wages, was what he must not do, even though it was very profitable. Selling straw to the peasants in times of scarcity of provender was what he might do, even though he felt sorry for them; but the tavern and the pothouse must be put down, though they were a source of income. Felling timber must be punished as severely as possible, but he could not exact forfeits for cattle being driven onto his fields; and though it annoyed the keeper and made the peasants not afraid to graze their cattle on his land, he could not keep their cattle as a punishment.

To Pyotr, who was paying a money-lender ten per cent. a month, he must lend a sum of money to set him free. But he could not let off peasants who did not pay their rent, nor let them fall into arrears. It was impossible to overlook the bailiff’s not having mown the meadows and letting the hay spoil; and it was equally impossible to mow those acres where a young copse had been planted. It was impossible to excuse a laborer who had gone home in the busy season because his father was dying, however sorry he might feel for him, and he must subtract from his pay those costly months of idleness. But it was impossible not to allow monthly rations to the old servants who were of no use for anything.

Levin knew that when he got home he must first of all go to his wife, who was unwell, and that the peasants who had been waiting for three hours to see him could wait a little longer. He knew too that, regardless of all the pleasure he felt in taking a swarm, he must forego that pleasure, and leave the old man to see to the bees alone, while he talked to the peasants who had come after him to the bee-house.

Whether he were acting rightly or wrongly he did not know, and far from trying to prove that he was, nowadays he avoided all thought or talk about it.

Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not. When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.

So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any chance of knowing what he was and what he was living for, and harassed at this lack of knowledge to such a point that he was afraid of suicide, and yet firmly laying down his own individual definite path in life.

Levin is here close to suicide, so his situation is hardly ideal, but a solution to all his problems (a solution other than suicide) seems to be close at hand. Reasoning and thinking, looking for answers and wondering whether what he is doing is right or wrong, is the source of his problems. Not thinking about such things but simply getting on with his work in the traditional way appears to be the answer.

In the next chapter, a conversation with a peasant named Fyodor, who contrasts those who live for their bellies with those who live for their souls, fills Levin with excitement:

The words uttered by the peasant had acted on his soul like an electric shock, suddenly transforming and combining into a single whole the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts that incessantly occupied his mind. These thoughts had unconsciously been in his mind even when he was talking about the land.

He was aware of something new in his soul, and joyfully tested this new thing, not yet knowing what it was.

“Not living for his own wants, but for God? For what God? And could one say anything more senseless than what he said? He said that one must not live for one’s own wants, that is, that one must not live for what we understand, what we are attracted by, what we desire, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can understand nor even define. What of it? Didn’t I understand those senseless words of Fyodor’s? And understanding them, did I doubt of their truth? Did I think them stupid, obscure, inexact? No, I understood him, and exactly as he understands the words. I understood them more fully and clearly than I understand anything in life, and never in my life have I doubted nor can I doubt about it. And not only I, but everyone, the whole world understands nothing fully but this, and about this only they have no doubt and are always agreed.

“And I looked out for miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle which would convince me. A material miracle would have persuaded me. And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it!

“Fyodor says that Kirillov lives for his belly. That’s comprehensible and rational. All of us as rational beings can’t do anything else but live for our belly. And all of a sudden the same Fyodor says that one mustn’t live for one’s belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him! And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now—peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned, who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing—we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by the reason—it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects.

“If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.

“And yet I know it, and we all know it.

“What could be a greater miracle than that?

“Can I have found the solution of it all? can my sufferings be over?” thought Levin, striding along the dusty road, not noticing the heat nor his weariness, and experiencing a sense of relief from prolonged suffering. This feeling was so delicious that it seemed to him incredible. He was breathless with emotion and incapable of going farther; he turned off the road into the forest and lay down in the shade of an aspen on the uncut grass. He took his hat off his hot head and lay propped on his elbow in the lush, feathery, woodland grass.

“Yes, I must make it clear to myself and understand,” he thought, looking intently at the untrampled grass before him, and following the movements of a green beetle, advancing along a blade of couch-grass and lifting up in its progress a leaf of goat-weed. “What have I discovered?” he asked himself, bending aside the leaf of goat-weed out of the beetle’s way and twisting another blade of grass above for the beetle to cross over onto it. “What is it makes me glad? What have I discovered?

“I have discovered nothing. I have only found out what I knew. I understand the force that in the past gave me life, and now too gives me life. I have been set free from falsity, I have found the Master.

“Of old I used to say that in my body, that in the body of this grass and of this beetle (there, she didn’t care for the grass, she’s opened her wings and flown away), there was going on a transformation of matter in accordance with physical, chemical, and physiological laws. And in all of us, as well as in the aspens and the clouds and the misty patches, there was a process of evolution. Evolution from what? into what?—Eternal evolution and struggle.... As though there could be any sort of tendency and struggle in the eternal! And I was astonished that in spite of the utmost effort of thought along that road I could not discover the meaning of life, the meaning of my impulses and yearnings. Now I say that I know the meaning of my life: ‘To live for God, for my soul.’ And this meaning, in spite of its clearness, is mysterious and marvelous. Such, indeed, is the meaning of everything existing. Yes, pride,” he said to himself, turning over on his stomach and beginning to tie a noose of blades of grass, trying not to break them.

“And not merely pride of intellect, but dulness of intellect. And most of all, the deceitfulness; yes, the deceitfulness of intellect. The cheating knavishness of intellect, that’s it,” he said to himself.

And he briefly went through, mentally, the whole course of his ideas during the last two years, the beginning of which was the clear confronting of death at the sight of his dear brother hopelessly ill.

Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, and forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must either interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.

But he had not done either, but had gone on living, thinking, and feeling, and had even at that very time married, and had had many joys and had been happy, when he was not thinking of the meaning of his life.

What did this mean? It meant that he had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.

He had lived (without being aware of it) on those spiritual truths that he had sucked in with his mother’s milk, but he had thought, not merely without recognition of these truths, but studiously ignoring them.

Now it was clear to him that he could only live by virtue of the beliefs in which he had been brought up.

“What should I have been, and how should I have spent my life, if I had not had these beliefs, if I had not known that I must live for God and not for my own desires? I should have robbed and lied and killed. Nothing of what makes the chief happiness of my life would have existed for me.” And with the utmost stretch of imagination he could not conceive the brutal creature he would have been himself, if he had not known what he was living for.

“I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question—it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given, because I could not have got it from anywhere.

“Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

 

This, apparently, is what Tolstoy thought at the time is the meaning of life. Reason leads to Schopenhauerian despair, although not necessarily to wrong living. A consistent rational thinker would rob, lie, and kill. An inconsistent, hypocritical one, will behave well but feel suicidal or as if life is meaningless, and will ignore truths that they have known their whole lives. A consistent, honest person will, instead, live irrationally and love their neighbor. This is not arbitrary irrationality. It is rule-governed and time-tested. But it is incomprehensible and expressible only in senseless words.

Problems:

1.      Can truths that we all know really be inexpressible in language that makes sense?

2.      Can it really be irrational to believe such truths?

3.      A worry that some people have about the idea that one cannot rationally decide what is the best way to live but that one should, nevertheless, throw oneself into something wholeheartedly is that this will lead to people becoming Nazis or joining ISIS. Tolstoy avoids this problem but perhaps does so at the cost of committing himself to a very conservative (though not in the sense that Nazis are very conservative) position.

4.      Relatedly, does Tolstoy implicitly compliment Thrasymachus too much by suggesting that his view is indeed the rational one to take?

 

II

In the story “Die klugen Leute” by the brothers Grimm (translated as “Wise Folks,” although I would say “Clever People”) invites a mixed reaction to some simple country folks. (Link: https://www.grimmstories.com/language.php?grimm=104&l=en&r=de) One of them agrees to sell three cows on credit, security for which is offered in the form of one cow’s being left with her until the buyer returns with the money. This makes sense to the woman, so she accepts the deal. Of course, the buyer has no intention of coming back, so he gets two cows for free.

In the next episode of the story, the woman’s husband pretends to have fallen from heaven and cons a woman into giving him money to pass on to her husband there. Of course, he intends only to keep the money for himself. When this second woman’s son rides out to find the man and ask him about heaven, he pretends to be someone else and persuades the boy to give him his horse so that he can ride after the man from heaven. In this way he gets a free horse as well as the money. But, the story concludes, “you no doubt prefer the simple folks.”

Two kinds of people are contrasted in this story. The first kind is self-interested men who are cunning and cruel. They are happy to lie and cheat in order to get what they want. The main character, who is one such man, threatens his wife with a beating if she does anything foolish. When he gets both money and a horse for free he ‘rewards’ her by postponing the beating. He is not likeable at all, but he does appear to be genuinely happy at his success. He is not troubled by guilt.

The other kind of person is the two women and the boy. They sincerely believe in heaven, and are very trusting of other people. They are also kind. Not only do they not threaten to beat people, the second woman even stands in her cart so as not to flatten the straw in it, which, she believes, would make it heavier for the cattle that pull the cart. They engage in a kind of reasoning, but it is a nonsensical kind of reasoning (a denser pile of straw is not heavier than a loose one, and a cow is no security at all (let alone sufficient in the circumstances) when, until he pays, the man leaving it is not its owner. Like the first kind of person, these people are happy. They lose out in terms of property, but their faith means that they do not know they have lost out. The second woman and her son, for instance, believe that their money and their horse have gone to someone they love in heaven. As the story says, we certainly prefer such people to the cruel cynics.

Everyone would, presumably, like to have plenty of the trusting people around. They will not cheat you, and, if you want to, you can easily cheat them. You have much to gain and nothing much to lose from their presence. Unless you marry one and they give your cows away. But you wouldn’t prefer to marry someone who beats you. Probably you would prefer to marry someone of the trusting kind, if you really had to choose between these two types of person.

Which kind of person would you rather be yourself though? It’s natural to resist the choice as overly simple, but it’s also hard to imagine what a cross between the two would be. Most of us probably are some sort of cross between the two, but it’s hard to imagine how one could be such a thing without inconsistency. That is, we are all a bit selfish and a bit altruistic, sometimes trusting and sometimes cynical, but this looks like having a self-contradictory nature rather than anything that presents a real third alternative. It is a bit of both, not evidence of another option altogether.

Questions:

1.      Is there a third alternative after all that we might find if we looked harder?

2.      If both types are happy and even use their own kind of reasoning (so that, in some sense, perhaps, neither is more rational than the other), is there any reason to prefer one to the other? Is it simply a matter of taste?

3.      What is the significance of the fact that we prefer one kind to the other? Does it make it rational to prefer to be a member of that kind? (I would say No, but there does seem to be some kind of contradiction in preferring one team but choosing to join the other.)

4.      Contrary to what I implied in question 2, are the kind, faithful people objectively foolish and not rational at all?

5.      If being rational means reasoning correctly, by what standard can we judge who reasons correctly? Is the answer, Tolstoy-style, that we have no choice but to use the only one(s) we know?

6.      And do we have only one standard of rationality? Rules of logic (e.g. modus ponens) can seem like rules of a game, and there are lots of games with lots of rules. Or, ignoring that line of thought, we might think of rationality as purely instrumental, as only about means to some non-rationally-determined end, or, alternatively, we might think of reason as something that can help us choose ends as well as means.

7.      Even if there are competing conceptions of rationality or reason, might it be the case that we ought to try to eliminate all but one. If it is a compliment to call someone or some decision rational, ought we to resist calling Thrasymachus rational? And, similarly, ought we to say that beliefs we favor are rational rather than mere matters of taste? More strongly, can we regard what we really believe as something like a mere matter of taste? (Cf. Cora Diamond’s “The Problem of Impiety” p. 39: “If you say, “I believe that incest is absolutely ruled out, but I don’t believe the prohibition rests on some rational justification; it’s simply what was passed down to me,” you are, or so it would seem, undercutting your own claim genuinely to believe that incest is ruled out.”)

 

III

Wittgenstein mentions the “Klugen Leute” when he talks about the people he imagines selling wood in an unconventional way (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics I §150 of the 1964 edition). The discussion begins conventionally enough. Wittgenstein says in §141 that what he is doing is offering “remarks on the natural history of man” and then, in §142, talks about teaching mathematics as part of various techniques for accomplishing practical tasks: sharing out nuts, building a house, selling piles of logs. If people only multiply or add in these specific circumstances, and think of their calculations only as part of the process of doing these specific things, are they not really calculating? Presumably they are, even though their practice looks different from ours (in which, for instance, we learn times tables in school).

Things start to get weirder in §147, when Wittgenstein starts to ask questions about right and wrong (or right and more right):

These people—we should say—sell timber by cubic measure—but are they right in doing so? Wouldn’t it be more correct to sell it by weight—or by the time that it took to fell the timber—or by the labour of felling measured by the age and strength of the woodsman? And why should they not hand it over for a price which is independent of all this: each buyer pays the same however much he takes (they have found it possible to live like that). And is there anything to be said against simply giving the wood away?

There is an interesting shift here. The idea of selling wood by weight rather than volume does seem more correct, albeit perhaps unnecessary given the (I assume) more or less regular density of wood that might be sold in this way for firewood or small construction projects. If it weighs more, after all, there is more wood. But then, on second thoughts, what is the wood for? If it’s for burning, does dense wood burn as well? If it’s for construction, don’t the dimensions of each piece matter more than its weight? So the goals of the buyer come into play. As does the behavior of wood under various circumstances (e.g. how well does it burn when dense?, how much might it shrink or expand when left lying around waiting to be sold?, how much difference in cost might such things make?, and so on). It also matters a lot what people care about. Why weigh instead of measuring if measuring is easier and no one cares about the small difference in price that might result if we weighed instead?

But then people care about things other than cost and what can be done with the wood. They care about justice, for instance. And they have different ideas about what justice requires. There is certainly no easy way to choose between these as long as all are practicable. Wittgenstein is careful to bring in Tolstoy’s test of time: they have found it possible to live like that.

Having raised the question of justice Wittgenstein immediately abandons it:

Very well; but what if they piled the timber in heaps of arbitrary, varying height and then sold it at a price proportionate to the area covered by the piles?

And what if they even justified this with the words: “Of course, if you buy more timber, you must pay more”?


This does not seem just or practical to us, but, given that we have different ideas about the most just or most practical or most accurate way to sell wood, why shouldn’t we be open to other ways of doing it? Well, we aren’t (it seems). Perhaps we have the answer to question 5 above here. We might not be able to say why, but these people are behaving irrationally. It is at this point, in §150, that Wittgenstein comments: “(A society that dealt this way would perhaps remind us of the “Clever People” in the fairy tale.)”

In what way might it remind us of them? Presumably in the sense that they engage in a kind of reasoning, or appear to do so, but not one that makes sense to us. Or rather, they appear not to do what we call reasoning, but to engage in a kind of parody or pseudo-version of it. They are, we might say, fools. (And Wittgenstein says in §149 that he would try to show them that you don’t necessarily buy more wood if you buy wood spread out over a bigger area. So his point is not that their way is just as good as ours. He disagrees with them.)

But if they do remind us of the clever people then we might ask whether we are like the amoral men in that story. We might wonder, in particular, if there is something we are missing. Or if we can justify our way of doing things, show it to be better than theirs and not simply the one we are used to. And here “their way of doing things” would include not only how they sell wood but also how they reject our attempts to convert them to our way of thinking about how they sell wood. Obvious considerations would be whether they seem to be happy, and whether their society functions. But if they are just as happy as us and their society just as functional (as far as this can be measured, given their apparent folly) then we don’t seem to be able to say much except “How strange!” We might even wonder if they are morally or spiritually better than us, as people sometimes wonder about people from other cultures, although I doubt we could say anything to justify any such suspicion.

 

IV


Above I posed four problems and seven questions. Here are the problems:

1.      Can truths that we all know really be inexpressible in language that makes sense?

2.      Can it really be irrational to believe such truths?

3.      A worry that some people have about the idea that one cannot rationally decide what is the best way to live but that one should, nevertheless, throw oneself into something wholeheartedly is that this will lead to people becoming Nazis or joining ISIS. Tolstoy avoids this problem but perhaps does so at the cost of committing himself to a very conservative (though not in the sense that Nazis are very conservative) position.

4.      Relatedly, does Tolstoy implicitly compliment Thrasymachus too much by suggesting that his view is indeed the rational one to take?

 

Here are the questions:


1.      Is there a third alternative after all that we might find if we looked harder?

2.      If both types are happy and even use their own kind of reasoning (so that, in some sense, perhaps, neither is more rational than the other), is there any reason to prefer one to the other? Is it simply a matter of taste?

3.      What is the significance of the fact that we prefer one kind to the other? Does it make it rational to prefer to be a member of that kind? (I would say No, but there does seem to be some kind of contradiction in preferring one team but choosing to join the other.)

4.      Contrary to what I implied in question 2, are the kind, faithful people objectively foolish and not rational at all?

5.      If being rational means reasoning correctly, by what standard can we judge who reasons correctly? Is the answer, Tolstoy-style, that we have no choice but to use the only one(s) we know?

6.      And do we have only one standard of rationality? Rules of logic (e.g. modus ponens) can seem like rules of a game, and there are lots of games with lots of rules. Or, ignoring that line of thought, we might think of rationality as purely instrumental, as only about means to some non-rationally-determined end, or, alternatively, we might think of reason as something that can help us choose ends as well as means.

7.      Even if there are competing conceptions of rationality or reason, might it be the case that we ought to try to eliminate all but one? If it is a compliment to call someone or some decision rational, ought we to resist calling Thrasymachus rational? And, similarly, ought we to say that beliefs we favor are rational rather than mere matters of taste? More strongly, can we regard what we really believe as something like a mere matter of taste? (Cf. Cora Diamond’s “The Problem of Impiety” p. 39: “If you say, “I believe that incest is absolutely ruled out, but I don’t believe the prohibition rests on some rational justification; it’s simply what was passed down to me,” you are, or so it would seem, undercutting your own claim genuinely to believe that incest is ruled out.”)

 

And here are my answers (but I won’t offer much justification for them here):


Problem 1: No. Truths that we know can be expressed in language that makes sense.

Problem 2: No. It cannot be irrational to believe something true.

Problem 3: Tolstoy is committed to a kind of conservatism, but we need not be. We do inherit concepts and practices, but not in a way that is necessarily problematic politically, morally, etc. Commitment to what we all recognize as reason is not politically (etc.) conservative.

Problem 4: I think so, yes. We should not lightly call bad things/people rational, nor call what we embrace irrational.

Question 1: I think not, but I cannot say that I have looked very hard.

Question 2: I don’t think it’s simply a matter of taste which we prefer (although taste itself is not such a simple or arbitrary thing).

Question 3: The answer is in the question.

Question 4: The kind, faithful people are foolish in one sense (given one definition of rationality), but at least deserve better than to be called fools. Certainly those who take advantage of their nature should not be praised as clever or rational without qualification.

Question 5: The answer is in the question, more or less.

Question 6: We seem to have more than one standard of rationality. That’s probably all right as long as we keep the differences clear in our minds.

Question 7:  The word ‘rational’ should probably be used as a compliment except when it is very clear that we are using it in some other, limited (or technical) way. 

2 comments:

  1. Q4 reminds me of how potatoes were introduced into several countries (esoteric consequentialism?), and of "look behind you, Mr Caesar!".

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    1. I don't know the potato story, but I agree about "Look behind you, Mr Caesar." At least, that seems like the kind of thing the people in the Brothers Grimm story might say. It is foolish, but in a lovable kind of way.

      On the other hand, it isn't at all clear to me that loving one's neighbour, etc. (the kind of thing Levin calls irrational) should be thought of as the same as this. One way to try to deny that ethical behaviour is irrational is virtue theory of the kind that sees the development of virtue as creating an enhanced (or different) sense of rationality, making visible reasons for doing things that are not visible to those who lack the relevant virtue. One question then would be whether this is true, or a good way to think. Are there different forms of rationality in this way, or reasons for actions that might be visible/audible to some but not others? A second question, if so, would be whether we can decide--and if so, how--that some reasons are better than others (whether virtue improves or merely changes one's reasoning). And then a third question is whether it's a good idea to step back and think like this, or whether somehow asking these questions is getting too abstract. Are these perhaps pseudo-questions after all?

      I don't know the answers to any of these.

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