An Animated Introduction to Leo Tolstoy, and How His Great Novels Can Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

Despite our fond­est intu­itions and most cher­ished of cul­tur­al notions—manifested for decades in aspi­ra­tional “Great Books” cours­es and read­ing lists—there is no “com­pelling evi­dence,” wrote Uni­ver­si­ty of York pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy Gre­go­ry Cur­rie at the New York Times in 2013, “that sug­gests that peo­ple are moral­ly or social­ly bet­ter for read­ing Tol­stoy.” Or any­thing else for that mat­ter.

On the con­trary, respond­ed Annie Mur­phy Paul at Time, “there is such evi­dence,” and she cites ear­li­er psy­chol­o­gy stud­ies that show a link between read­ing fic­tion and empa­thy. Lat­er that same year, social psy­chol­o­gists David Com­er Kidd and Emanuele Cas­tano pub­lished a study in Sci­ence titled “Read­ing Lit­er­ary Fic­tion Improves The­o­ry of Mind”—or, in oth­er words, improves empa­thy. The study is enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly picked up by Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, and picked apart by Slate. In short order, Neu­ro­science gets in the game, and there’s talk of chil­dren’s brains “light­ing up” like Christ­mas in response to Har­ry Pot­ter and oth­er books. The Guardian’s “Teacher Net­work” col­umn finds in this sci­ence con­fir­ma­tion for what edu­ca­tors already sus­pect­ed.

Like Cur­rie, Lee Siegel at The New York­er casts doubt on these sup­pos­ed­ly cel­e­bra­to­ry find­ings. Should we require that books prove their util­i­ty, that they make us “bet­ter” in the way that, say, dietary sup­ple­ments do? Is empa­thy real­ly a moral qual­i­ty, or sim­ply an abil­i­ty that allows the unscrupu­lous to bet­ter manip­u­late oth­ers?

This recent tem­pest of social sci­ence and skep­ti­cism notwith­stand­ing, nov­el­ists have long argued that their craft requires, and fos­ters, bet­ter under­stand­ing of oth­er people—or in the famous words of Kaf­ka, which Siegel quotes dis­mis­sive­ly, lit­er­a­ture is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” Fore­most among such artists is Leo Tol­stoy, who—says Alain de Bot­ton in his School of Life video above—“was a believ­er in the nov­el not as a source of enter­tain­ment, but as a tool for psy­cho­log­i­cal edu­ca­tion and reform. It was in his eyes the supreme medi­um by which we can get to know others—especially those who, from the out­side, might seem unappealing—and there­by expand our human­i­ty and tol­er­ance.”

Were Tol­stoy a less­er writer, a the­o­ry like this might have pro­duced unread­ably didac­tic books unlike­ly to find much of an audi­ence. His great lit­er­ary skill makes his books engross­ing­ly enter­tain­ing despite these inten­tions. Nonethe­less, De Bot­ton shows us the ways in which nov­els like Anna Karen­i­na (find it in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books) teach eth­i­cal con­cepts like “sym­pa­thy and for­give­ness.” And whether you read Tol­stoy express­ly to become a bet­ter per­son, or find per­son­al improve­ment a side-effect of read­ing Tol­stoy, I don’t think we need social sci­en­tif­ic argu­ments to read Tol­stoy. Indeed, though great nov­els may teach us many things we did not know about human com­plex­i­ty, their val­ue can reside as much in the ques­tions they ask—and that we ask of them—as in the sup­posed answers they pro­vide about human­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leo Tol­stoy Cre­ates a List of the 50+ Books That Influ­enced Him Most (1891)

Leo Tolstoy’s Masochis­tic Diary: I Am Guilty of “Sloth,” “Cow­ardice” & “Sissi­ness” (1851)

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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