E. Belfort Bax December 1910

Tolstoy and the Ethics of Introspection

Source: New Age, 22 December 1910, p. 188-189;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Sir, – The able and interesting article of Mr. Randall on the “Kreutzer Sonatta” and Tolstoy generally, hardly, I think, goes to the core of the problem of ethics or morality (there is no philological ground, I take it, for drawing any distinction between the Greek and the Latin derivative contained in the question of sexual asceticism. The question is – does the sexual act, apart from its result in offspring, come within the sphere of morals at all? This is more important than as to whether Tolstoy was personally sincere or insincere in his “walk and conversation.” I have always strongly insisted, for my own part, that the whole sexual side of life as distinguished from any consequences as regards offspring, is, like eating and drinking and other physiological functions, purely private and “self-regarding,” and hence occupies, considered per se, neutral ground, outside the judgments of ethics and their categories. For this reason chastity and its opposite do not seem to be in themselves matters for either praise or blame. Supposing Tolstoy had succeeded in living up to his ascetic principles. Cui bono? He would doubtless have expected people to admire him and, like “Little Jack Horner” of nursery fame, would have said, “See what a brave boy am I!”

But in what respect, I ask, would he have been more morally admirable in his pose than the circus artiste who has succeeded in achieving some difficult and straining feat of balance in his? Only in the metaphysical assumptions, I fancy, of what I have elsewhere termed the “Ethics of Introspection,” which postulate an absolute value in actions as such, and direct and more or less arbitrary relations between the individual soul and some divinity outside itself. Rationalistic social ethics are the antithesis of all this. These latter insist that all conduct must have a necessary and direct social bearing for good or for ill, before it can be admitted within the pale of ethical judgment with its categories of good and evil, praise and blame.

[This does not say, it may be remarked, that actions may not be amenable to an ęsthetic judgment even where they are outside the legitimate sphere of moral judgment.]

Applying this to the question under consideration, I contend that there is no greater moral virtue, per se, in chastity than in its opposite. This question of sexual indulgence is purely private, physiological and extra-moral. Every individual ought to judge for himself how much chastity is good for him and how much negation thereof is good, just as he ought to judge how much whiskey is good for him and how much unadulterated London water or Cadbury’s cocoa. For, on the same grounds, I object to the preaching of Teetotalism as a moral virtue – which it is not – although I admit that there is a difference here, since the drunkard places himself within the sphere of moral judgment owing to the fact that in his drunkenness he may easily become a direct social nuisance, or even a social danger, such as the sexually over-indulgent man will not. Personally, I do not as a rule appreciate either the chaste man or the erotic man. Historically speaking, the worst monsters have been reputed chaste – the Torquemadas, the Calvins, the Robespierres. The man of both extremes I find, as such, unpleasant. Similarly, while as we all agree, the drunkard is insufferable, yet the Teetotaler is also not agreeable company unless possessed of intellectual qualities which make one forget his Teetotalism. While a commonplace person who can take his “whack” of liquor is endurable for a time at least, who can abide the commonplace teetotaler for even half-an-hour ?

We come now to the question of “self-discipline.” To my thinking rational “self discipline” is shown far more in indulgence within the limits of the physiological juste milieu of the appetites, which each individual must find out for himself, than in renunciation. But granting the desirability of “self-discipline” in the conventional sense, by which I understand the making oneself uncomfortable, why, I ask, should human beings be always called upon by introspective moralists to make themselves just sexually uncomfortable? Why may they not vary the “self-discipline"? There are other ways of making oneself uncomfortable besides this from boredom onwards. For example, reading S. Verdad’s diatribes against all that makes for progress and glorifications of himself, standing on one leg at the corner of Chancery Lane for half-an-hour, crossing the Channel on a rough day below decks (for at least many of us). All these things surely could also serve for “self-discipline.'’