The Caius Syllogism
In Tolstoy’s story there is not a single character who conceives of his/her own individual death. Absolutely all of Ivan Ilyich’s family and all of his friends—except Gerasim the servant—go to great efforts to shield themselves from that dire possibility. In fact, Gerasim, practically the only positive character in the whole long story, most likely does not believe in his own death either. He simply is more willing to accept the fact that death does exist and that the dying should be comforted as little children are.
In Chapter Six Ivan Ilyich recalls a passage from a textbook of logic by J. G. Kiesewetter (1766-1819), widely used in Russian schools and seminaries. The passage citing the Kiesewetter syllogism and describing Ivan Ilyich’s attitude toward it is probably one of the best in world literature in regard to how an individual regards his/her own death.
“The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius [Julius Caesar] is a man; men are mortal; therefore Caius is mortal,’ had for all his life seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite apart from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mama and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, a coachman and a nurse, then, afterwards, with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs and ecstasies of childhood, boyhood and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball that Vanya had so loved? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of pleats in her dress rustle that same way for Caius? Had he rioted like that at the School of Law when burnt pastry was served? Had Caius been in love the way he had? Could Caius preside at a judicial session the way he could? Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. And it just cannot be that I ought to die. That would be altogether too horrible.”
In voicing such thoughts, Ivan Ilyich speaks for the whole human race, then and now. A refusal to face one’s death appears to be built into the human psyche as a kind of instinct of self-preservation. Here is a quote from Sigmund Freud:
“It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality” (from “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”).
But the matter more often is expressed not by “I cannot conceive of my death,” but by the words Ivan Ilyich screams out for three straight days at the end of the story: “Я не хочу (I don’t want to).”
Taking off on the Kiesewetter syllogism, other thinkers have come up with their own:
(1) The Israeli writer Amos Oz, in a discussion of Tolstoy’s story: “Everyman [note that this is written as one word] is indeed mortal; but I am not everyman—I am me.”
(2) The writer R. Beauvais: Everyone in the history of the world, so far, has ended up dying. But I’m still alive. Therefore I choose never to die.”
(3) Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (Canto 2): “A syllogism: other men die; but I//Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.”
(4) The philosopher Arnold Arms, taking off on Oz: “Everyone who has ever died since the creation of the world has been someone else; I am not someone else, I am me: therefore, I do not consent to die.”
Eventually, Tolstoy forces his character Ivan Ilyich into the final realization that he is Caius, and, of course, all human beings are eventually forced down that same dead end. The critic Ronald Blythe writes that if we do not take the trouble to grow up and accept death, we’ll have to leave the world the same way we entered it: kicking and screaming. He quotes the symbolist Maeterlinck as amazed at the crudeness of Western man’s thought when it comes to the subject of his own death: “We deliver death into the dim hands of instinct, and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence.”
Perhaps true, but the instinct of self-preservation precludes our acceptance of individual death. What kind of life can you live if you have your own death ever on your mind? No kind of life. George Steiner has written that human beings could not survive without the future tense, which is a chimera. The future does not really exist, but we invent it and make our plans for years in advance. This “looking forward” to the future gives us a reason to live. Death, on the other hand, is a future event best ignored. At least if we hope to enjoy what little time we have here on earth.