From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX
The Gospel in Brief
Bill Schardt and David Large
There are some striking parallels between Wittgenstein's life and that of Tolstoy. Both were born into extremely rich families, yet both subsequently gave their property away, and tried to live simple and humble lives. Both valued manual labour as something spiritually uplifting. Both underwent some sort of religious conversion to a form of Christianity. Yet neither, despite their evident high-mindedness, seems to have treated other people particularly well!
And Tolstoy's religious writings, such as the Gospel in Brief and A Confession, clearly had an enormous influence on Wittgenstein especially at the time he was writing the Tractatus. Strange then that so few commentators have even acknowledged, let alone attempted to account for, Tolstoy's influence on Wittgenstein's philosophy. It is therefore especially worth considering the extent to which the Gospel in Brief specifically influenced the outlook of the Tractatus. Indeed, as his friend and correspondent, Paul Engelmann put it, out of all Tolstoy's writings Wittgenstein had an especially high regard for the Gospel in Brief. Yet it often appears to be simply assumed that the Gospel in Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein. Why this might be so is never clearly explained. That the book does not seem to be readily available or very well known in the English-speaking world may partly explain why its influence on Wittgenstein may have been neglected. But in this article we attempt to explain the impact of the Gospel in Brief upon Wittgenstein's philosophy (especially the later passages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), and his general view of ethics.
Although the Gospel in Brief was not published in Tolstoy's lifetime, it clearly comes from the period of his religious and moral writings between 1879 and 1902. It is a fusion of the four Gospels, the purpose of which is to seek an answer to the problem of how we should live. It is both philosophical and practical, rather than theological and spiritual, in its intention. Tolstoy believed that the existence of God could neither be proved nor disproved and that the meaning of life lay beyond the limits of our minds. ( And compare this with Wittgenstein's conception of absolute or ethical value as expressed in his 1929/30 Lecture on Ethics (Philosophical Review, 1965.) Tolstoy further believed that the Church itself, as a body, interfered with one's ability to live a peaceful, everyday life, free from significant pain and suffering. This too can only have appealed to a restless soul such as Wittgenstein.
The Only Book in the Shop
How Wittgenstein came by his copy of the Gospel in Brief, and the importance he came to attach to it, is almost a parable in itself. At the time in question Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army at the start of the First World War. These circumstances were very different from those of Edwardian England let alone the blissful solitude of a Norwegian fjord. Wittgenstein discovered a small bookshop in Tarnow, a town then under Austrian rule but now in southern Poland. It is said that the shop had only one book (Tolstoy's) and that Wittgenstein bought the book because it was the only one they had. Some have suggested that he saw this as a sign, though we shall leave that supposition there. In any case, he started reading the Gospel in Brief on September 1st 1914 and subsequently carried it with him at all times, memorising passages of it by heart. He became known to his comrades as the man with the gospels, constantly recommending the book to anyone who was troubled. Wittgenstein himself said that the book essentially kept him alive.
It seems fairly sure that at this time Wittgenstein underwent some kind of religious conversion, though not in the conventional sense. The Russellian logicist emerged as a man with strong spiritual if not actually ascetic leanings. It is less certain, however, that this experience changed the way he treated ethics in the Tractatus. It is rather that reading the Gospel in Brief led Wittgenstein to add a new element to the Tractatus and indeed to his already formed conception of ethics. That additional element is usually referred to as the mystical. Wittgenstein would still have, we would argue, dealt with the subject of ethics, as transcendental, by passing over it in silence. Furthermore, Wittgenstein had already been influenced by Schopenhauer, especially his conception of the will, and that while his sense of the transcendental or other-worldly may have been deepened by the influence of Tolstoy's work, it was not originated by it.
The Gospel According to Tolstoy
By 1879 Tolstoy, then aged 51, had become very depressed, and in order to find a solution to his problems he studied Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in some depth. He came to believe that he had found the answer to his problem, that is, the problem of how we should live, in the teachings of Jesus, but that these had to be sifted out from the accumulated dogma of the churches. To this end he formed, from all four gospels, a single account of the life and teachings of Jesus. In the Gospel in Brief (which is extracted from a larger work) Tolstoy omitted the accounts of Christ's birth and genealogy, the miracles, and the resurrection. He also left out most of the material about John the Baptist. He removed all the supernatural events and everything he found difficult to believe or which he regarded as irrelevant. His concern was how we should live and how Jesus' life could help explain that to us. He thus omitted all the key points that make Jesus necessarily different from us, in other words, all that requires faith in the divinity of Jesus. In short, Tolstoy portrays for us Christ 'without the Christianity'.
What remains is supposed to be the pure teachings of Jesus, or as much as can be recovered or reconstructed after so many centuries. It is true that most of the account is very familiar to anyone who has read the gospels in the Bible. It is, however, evident that Tolstoy, as well as removing material from the accounts, went so far as to add a certain amount. This is, presumably, an attempt to insert material that he believed should have been there; material that was perhaps omitted by oversight or even excised at a later date. Tolstoy must have felt that he had come to understand the character of Jesus well enough to know what he must have taught, even when it is not explicitly recorded. This would be as a consequence of his understanding Jesus' answer to the question of how we should live. The additions are done very elegantly, so that it is hard to tell where Jesus ends and Tolstoy begins. The effect on the reader is to exaggerate the ascetic aspects of Jesus teachings so that the balance is shifted from the theological to the philosophical. Explicitly in his introduction and implicitly in the text Tolstoy is very critical of organised religion and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Indeed, in 1901 he was excommunicated for his unorthodox views and activities.
Tolstoy says that he discovered to his astonishment that the whole of Jesus' teaching is summed up in the Lord's Prayer, (which is conventional Christianity) and each of the twelve chapters takes its title from a phrase of the prayer. In the chapter entitled 'Thy Kingdom Come', Tolstoy attributes five commandments to Jesus. Not all of these are stated as such in the Bible, and not all of them are implicit in the original text. Tolstoy's commandments are:
i) Do not be angry, but be at peace with all men.
Wittgenstein and the Nature of Ethics
Readers of the Tractatus will not find any moral injunctions of the sort present in the Gospel in Brief there. In considering the possibility of an ethical law Wittgenstein says:
When an ethical law of the form, 'Thou shalt ... [do such and such]', is laid down, one's first thought is, 'And what if I do not do it?'. - Tractatus 6.422
He goes on to say that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual sense, but asserts that there must be some kind of ethical reward and punishment lying in the action itself.
There is then a paradox. While Wittgenstein asserts that nothing can be said about ethics, the Gospel in Brief says a great deal about how life should be lived, and, furthermore, what it says seems to have had a powerful influence on Wittgenstein. The solution to this problem lies in the distinction between saying and showing, as expressed in the Tractatus; because although there are no ethical propositions - the Gospel cannot say anything about how we should live - yet Wittgenstein must have believed that it did show the way to live.
The statement 'It is wrong to kill' can be said, in the minimalist sense that it can be spoken, but in 'Tractarian' terms it cannot be said in the sense that it expresses a particular moral imperative. People say things like this all the time, and other people understand them. It is, however, possible that someone may disagree with this statement, and there is ultimately no way of resolving the dispute by reference to states of affairs or facts about the world. This is because the statement does not express a fact, and this is what is meant when Wittgenstein asserts that ethics cannot be put into words. If I say it is wrong to kill, do I, thereby, show that it is wrong to kill? In some cases I do and, in some cases I do not. There is no way of proving that it is wrong.
Such remarks as: 'I am my world' (Tractatus 5.63), and 'For what the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest' (Tractatus 5.62), provide a key to Wittgenstein's view. In these he directs us to the actual experience of living. The person whose moral outlook, i.e. their way of living, is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by logical arguments or matters of fact. They have, rather, been shown, the way that they should live.
We must, however, be aware that the Tractatus appears to disagree with itself. The philosopher Caleb Thompson takes other remarks in the the work as implying that coming to see meaning in life is just a matter of living.
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. -
and thenFor Wittgenstein, someone who realises that there cannot be scientific answers to the problems of life will then find that these problems vanish. But can he really mean that? Surely it was not as easy as that for Wittgenstein himself and cannot be as easy as that for anyone else.
When understood in the light of the Gospel in Brief this interpretation presents only part of what Wittgenstein was saying: the person looking for the meaning of life will stop looking to science as they will appreciate that they are looking in the wrong place! As the answers are not ones science is able to give, they cannot, in Tractarian terms, be said. It is in this sense only that they may be said to have vanished.
Wittgenstein is also committed to a notion of the ethical in which ethical notions are expressed, and in which we may receive responses to our wonderings about the problems of life. This notion of the ethical is the same as that displayed by Tolstoy through the figure of Christ in the Gospel in Brief. To disregard this work's influence is to miss this further point, vital to the understanding of Wittgenstein's thinking about ethics. The very same notion indeed recurs some ten years later in his notebooks and in the Lecture on Ethics.
For the ethical teaching of the Gospel in Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein. He felt deeply that what it showed (if not said) was right. Here indeed was the answer to the question of how we should live. An effect such as this is personal; the book need not change the life of everyone who reads it. Perhaps Wittgenstein is the only person to have been affected by it in this way. In any case, an argument with someone who was unmoved by the book could not come to any conclusion over its efficacy. The ethical import of the book is not a question of what the book says. If this is correct, it takes us some way towards a developed understanding of the distinction between saying and showing.
The Impossibility of Ethical Facts
The Tractatus opens with the statement that 'The world is everything that is the case'. This is immediately followed by the comment that 'The world is the totality of facts, not of things'. Wittgenstein is referring to the philosophical use of the word 'fact' whereupon a fact is to be thought of as the worldly correlate of a true proposition. A proposition, in turn is a 'truth functional' item, i.e. it must be either true or false. At the time he wrote the Tractatus Wittgenstein believed that the world could be completely described by a finite number of such true propositions. This implies that that which cannot be described by the propositions is not in the world. Hence at Tractatus 6.41 Wittgenstein states that the sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world no value exists, for if it did it would have no value.
The above argument means that there cannot be ethical facts because the rightness or wrongness of an action cannot be determined by any examination of the world. Hence the truth or falsity of a statement such as 'it is wrong to murder people ', cannot be determined in this way. Ethical or moral statements are not propositions; they are not truth functional in the way that real propositions must be. As ethics is not propositional it cannot, therefore, be put into words. It is, instead, transcendental (Tractatus 6.421), and as such must be passed over in silence (Tractatus 7). Propositions can express nothing that is higher than themselves, i.e. nothing beyond states of affairs of the world (whether true or false), and so there can be no propositions of ethics.
In his 1929/30 Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein used the metaphor that if a man could write a book on ethics that really was a book on ethics, this book would with an explosion destroy all the other books in the world. In a more restrained mood, we may say that a book that showed, in a logically rigorous fashion, that from any particular state of affairs in the world it followed that there was a particular right course of action that must be followed by a moral individual, would make physical, if not material, that which could only previously have been conceived of as transcendental. For it to be possible to write such a book, there would have to be propositions in ethics.
This does not mean that Wittgenstein regarded ethics as unimportant. On the contrary, almost all the really important things, things of value, cannot be said, though Wittgenstein intimates that at least some of them may be shown. In his preface to the Tractatus he suggests that when he has achieved his aim of saying what can be said at all, very little will have been achieved.
Because of his philosophy, Wittgenstein could not put the ethical position expressed in the Gospel in Brief into the Tractatus as propositions, let alone statements of fact. The thoughts contained therein when stated as putative facts could not have been true. He did, however, do the only thing he could do and showed how the ethical position of the Gospel in Brief was possible. In so doing he allowed us to have an answer to the question of how we should live our lives. As he wrote later: