Death by Inauthenticity: Heidegger's Debt to Ivan Il'ich's Fall

By Irwin, William | Tolstoy Studies Journal, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Death by Inauthenticity: Heidegger's Debt to Ivan Il'ich's Fall


Irwin, William, Tolstoy Studies Journal


It is tempting to describe The Death of Ivan Il'ich as an excellent illustration of some major elements of Being and Time, but that would not be accurate. More properly, Heidegger owes a debt of inspiration to Tolstoy, a debt not fully repaid by the single footnote to The Death of Ivan Il'ich in Being and Time: "In his story 'The Death of Ivan Ilyitch' Leo Tolstoi has presented the phenomenon of the disruption and breakdown of having 'someone die'" (298/254). (1)

Walter Kaufmann actually says, "Heidegger on death is for the most part an unacknowledged commentary on The Death of Ivan Ilyitch" (355). Kaufmann, however, does not document this claim with textual evidence from Tolstoy's story, and he has been rebutted by Robert Bernasconi, who argues that "one cannot identify Heidegger with Tolstoy, at least not on the basis of the minimal and highly selective reading that Kaufmann offered" (14-15). As a novelist and a philosopher, Tolstoy and Heidegger are doing very different things. Even if Heidegger is indebted to Tolstoy, he is doing much more than just offering unacknowledged commentary on Tolstoy. Nonetheless, there is much in Heidegger's account of death that was likely inspired by Tolstoy.

In "A Note on Heidegger's Death Analytic: The Tolstoyian Correlative," Alan Pratt has done some of the textual documentation that Kaufmann neglected. Pratt focuses narrowly on death, however, and therefore misses elements of the story that reveal Heidegger's greater debt to Tolstoy's narrative depiction and imagery of authenticity and inauthenticity (297-304). Heidegger's debt cannot be established through philological or biographical evidence, but the interpretation of Tolstoy's story here is offered as evidence in its own right.

I.

For Heidegger, there is no human nature or pre-given essence. Rather, as he says, the essence of Dasein lies in its existence (Zu-sein) (67/42). We make ourselves through the choices we make. Heidegger's conception of authenticity is notoriously difficult to define or encapsulate, but as a starting point let us take Charles Guignon's explanation that for Heidegger "an authentic life is lived as a unified flow characterized by cumulativeness and direction" ("Authenticity, Moral Values" 229). Authenticity is thus a matter of how one lives, not what one is ("Heidegger's Authenticity" 334). The authentic individual owns his existence; he takes responsibility for it as something that is his to shape and make.

Authenticity is not so much a matter of the 'content' of a life as it is the 'style' with which one lives. The distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity seems to hinge not on what one is in the sense of what specific possibilities one takes up, but rather of how one lives. ("Heidegger's Authenticity" 334)

No individual is ever completely authentic or inauthentic, although one mode or the other does tend to predominate. In our everydayness, as Heidegger describes it, we tend to fall into the "they-self" (das Man). We lose ourselves in a public identity and in the meaningless chatter of the crowd. We become simply one among many; we adopt common and socially acceptable opinions on current affairs; we become preoccupied with issues and talk that hide from us our own individuality; we become predominantly inauthentic.

Ivan Il'ich was inauthentic long before he learned of his illness. Ivan was an accomplished man in some ways, but nothing extraordinary. In fact, "Ivan Il'ich's life had been most simple and commonplace--and most horrifying" (49). He was the middle son of a government official, neither cold like his older brother nor reckless like his younger brother. He was a happy mean between the two--clever, lively, and pleasant. Ivan's character was molded at the university:

   As a law student he was to become what he was
   to remain for the rest of his life: a capable,
   good-natured, sociable man but one quick to
   carry out whatever he considered his duty, and
   he considered his duty all things that were so
   designated by people in authority. … 

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