“I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” Ecclesiastes 3:12
Among the many writings of Leo Tolstoy, best known as author of War and Peace, one of classical literature’s most famous works, is an often-overlooked novelette entitled The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I was unaware of it myself before I read an essay about it in the newspaper, which sparked my curiosity enough to sit down and read this little short book.
The story which occurs in the mid to late 1800’s is a rather grim tale about a man, Ivan Ilyich, who is stricken with an unidentifiable and ultimately terminal disease and the resulting physical suffering and mental anguish it caused the poor man. Prior to becoming ill, however, Ivan Ilyich had lived what we might call today an upwardly mobile life. Raised in a good family, handsome, intelligent and well educated in the law he rose in the ranks of his profession to become a distinguished judge. He married well, though the relationship was a bit rocky, had a couple of children, was financially comfortable, and had a nice circle of friends of the proper social status. Overall, one might say he had done quite well. Except, he began to wrestle with his thoughts . . .
“Maybe I didn’t live as I should have?” This thought kept coming into his mind. “But it can’t be that I didn’t live as I should have. I did everything that was supposed to be done,” he said to himself . . .
Reading the book of Ecclesiastes reveals how tormented Solomon became about the same thing. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” he mourns in his essay, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Yet, it is not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy life, he eventually realizes, but that real pleasure is found in enjoying whatever we have as gifts from God, not in what we accumulate. “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” Which he concludes means, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
So, this all left me wondering if Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a parable about the book of Ecclesiastes. Perhaps? I don’t know. But whatever his intentions, reading it made me pause and examine my own life. And maybe that’s its real purpose.