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The Difference Between the Views of Plato and Tolstoy

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The term ‘full’ insinuates that something is complete or whole… how does one live a complete life? Leo Tolstoy and Plato have many ideas explaining this question. Yet, in my judgement, one is truer than the other. In, “Allegory of the Cave”, Plato expresses the idea that to live a full life is to achieve the kind of knowledge that inspires you to learn more. According to Leo Tolstoy’s, “ The Death of Ivan Ilych”, achieving a full life is through the true relationships and friendships we make. The pursuit of knowledge is the key to living a good life, but the pursuit of relationships is the key to living a full life.

The difference between a good life and a full life is simple: ‘good’ is a subjective term indicating quality while ‘full’ is more objective and delineates completion and/or wholeness. The question is, how does a person live a full life? Leo Tolstoy answers that quite frankly. In, “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan indirectly realizes that having relationships is extremely important to him. He never states this explicitly, but he implicitly shows it. When he is dying, he realizes that he hates being left alone. He turns to Gerasim, his nurse to accompany and speak to him. Ivan finds that speaking to Gerasim helped him become more content, even if for a few instants. Gerasim, “…began to talk to him. And strange to say, it seemed to him that he felt better…” (Tolstoy 311). After this epiphany, Ivan begins to long for friendship and companionship.

Although, he is not so desperate as to talk to his wife or daughter or anyone else who seems not see the severity of Ivan’s condition. He tries to distance himself from anyone who does not believe that he is actually dying. He loved having Gerasim and Peter around and he tried to keep them there as often as possible. He realized that he, “…dreaded being left alone”. During his whole life, he tried to be independent in order to impress and become one of the social elites; especially when his wife became pregnant, he became completely independent from her when she needed support and comfort. Yet, now when the tables have turned, and he is ill, there are not many people to stay by his side and assist him. When he feels alone and lost, he realizes that he needs people around him, thus, proving that relationships are essential to life. Perhaps, if he had a stable circle of trust and loyalty, he could have recovered from his illness.

Unfortunately, Ivan comes to this profound realization at the end of his life. He lives his entire life believing that life should be lived, “…easily, pleasantly, and decorously”. For him that meant chasing after material items like wealth and the approval of those high in stature. During his entire life, nobody really cared about him because he had no true friends or even loyal acquaintances. After he dies, nobody, not even his so-called best friend, Peter, cares that he is deceased. His acquaintances’ first thought of his death was, “of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves…”. Ivan’s death did not even phase his own wife. In fact, his wife seemed to benefit out of his death and tried to do all she can to profit even further; “she knew how much could be got out of the government in consequence of her husband’s death but wanted to find out whether she could not possibly extract something more”. It is an evident sign of personal failure, when your wife and closest companion are not concerned that you have passed on. Ivan did not create one single relationship his entire life; he did not have one person to care for him until he was on his death bed.

Ivan was technically a successful man in his life time. He was a completely, self- made success story. He had a very high-status job, beautiful house, a lovely family (although his family life was detrimental) and a very respected position in the social ladder. Even though he was so accomplished, theoretically, he did not live near a full life because he had not one true or reliable relationship.

In “Allegory of the Cave”, Plato expresses the idea that knowledge is life. Those who never learn, will most likely not live a good life; those who choose not to learn will never live a good life. Although I disagree that knowledge will lead to a full life, I do believe that it will lead to a good life. Plato exclaims that, “when he [a person] is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has clearer vision” (Plato 33). Plato is suggesting that when a person becomes knowledgeable about the truth, he becomes closer to living a good life. Not only this, but he explains that once you crave knowledge, you will never want to stop. He explains that people would, “…rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions ad live in this miserable manner”. What he is suggesting by ‘these false notions’ is the hinderance of true knowledge; like the men in the cave. They were never living a good life, not because of the obvious reason that is their imprisonment, but because they never knew the truth about the world that surrounds them. Plato explicates that the,

“… power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already… so to the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being…or in other words, of the good”.

In order to live a good life, according to Plato, you must use your pre-possessed ability to learn and accumulate all the truths of the universe that you can. Once you do that, you will be living a good life. Although, the question asks what is necessary for a ‘full’ life, it is vital to understand, what is required for a ‘good’ life in order to avoid belittling the difference between ‘good’ and ‘full’.

It’s fundamental to note the difference of opinions between Plato and Tolstoy because they both pose important ideas about life but only Tolstoy expresses what is necessary to live a ‘full’ life versus Plato’s explanation of a ‘good’ life. As stated before, ‘full’ and ‘good’ can be easily confused but they could not be more different. In order to live a full, complete and wholesome life, you need to forge some real relationships. There must be people who surround you that sincerely care for you. Once you have acquired the loyalty, trust and love of even one person, then you have lived a full life. When Ivan finally comes to terms with this, he is finally able to die in peace. He acquired one relationship in his lifetime (with Gerasim), therefore, he was able to change course from a good life to a full life, even if it was too late.

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