“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool” is one of George Orwell’s great essays. As I reread it I am less able to accept his anti-religious bias; but I share his dislike of the dubious otherworldly “saintliness” that Tolstoy attempted to put into practice.
In the essay, Orwell addresses Tolstoy’s violent dislike of Shakespeare, noting Tolstoy’s choice of King Lear as illustrating everything that is wrong with the poet. Tolstoy finds Lear to be
stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.
Orwell turns the tables on Tolstoy and proposes that Tolstoy dislikes the play precisely because King Lear is a figure who in strong ways resembles Tolstoy as an old man, and the play is a refutation of what Tolstoy himself tried to do – renounce all his wealth and privilege in a “huge and gratuitous act of renunciation.”
According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was not happy. On the contrary, he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him precisely because of his ambition.
Putting aside Orwell’s assumption that doing the will of God must be in conflict with earthly pleasure, his thesis about Tolstoy, whose desire for mystic renunciation he contrasts with Shakespeare’s curiosity and interest in all facets of human life in this world, is compelling. Even more interesting is his summary of the meaning of King Lear:
Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. This does not mean that everyone will turn against you…but in all probability someone will. If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up. If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This does not always happen, but it is to be expected, and you ought not to complain if it does happen. The second blow is, so to speak, part of the act of turning the other cheek.
The deeper moral of the play, Orwell says, is:
‘Give away your lands if you want to, but don’t expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won’t gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live for others, and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself.’
My own turn away from liberalism came in my teens when I began to realize, from the bold statements of people like Ayn Rand, that “selflessness” and self-renunciation can actually be a great evil. People who make themselves miserable are not helping others, but merely spreading misery and evil in the world. People who allow parasites to feed on them are encouraging the growth of parasites. Orwell saw this too. I imagine that, like Rand, his negative experiences with adults who used religious platitudes as a way to control children prevented him from seeing the possibility of Christianity as compatible with worldly enjoyment and love of humanity.
Orwell’s lesson from Lear applies to nations, too. A great nation that renounces its wealth, land, power, even the dignity and well-being of its own people in the name of world peace, universal democracy, woman’s rights, free trade, anti-racism, and other liberal abstractions will certainly meet a grievous end. And the society that replaces it, being founded on plunder and looting, is guaranteed to be greatly inferior to what it replaced. Unfortunately, the person who tries to point this out today has to endure being regarded as a raving Fool – the one who spoke the truth to King Lear. Still, much vitality and spirit remains in the nations of the West, and I’m not giving up on the possibility that they will awaken to the truth.