Ivan the Fool is a short parable by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1886. It presents Tolstoy’s philosophical critique of militarism and commercialism.
Ivan belongs to a peasant family. He has two brothers. One of his brothers is a soldier, the other is a fat merchant. Ivan is the story’s hero; he is called a fool because he lacks keen intelligence and understanding of how the materialistic world works. Ivan stays home and takes care of his parents and his sister (who is dumb because she cannot speak) on his family farm.
In the story, it is Ivan the fool who leads others to a life of happiness, and it is his “dumb” sister who can tell the difference between a person of true value, and an arrogant charlatan. The fairy tale points out the devious and destructive elements of militarism and commercialism, while idealizing the peasant life.
Throughout the story, Ivan and his brothers are tempted by little devils, who disguise themselves as different characters, and offer tempting rewards to sow conflict in the family. Ivan never falls for these tricks while his brothers do.
The little devils that were conspiring to tempt the brothers into trouble were agitated, so they decided to sow more conflict, each time disguising themselves as a potentially useful person to either one of the brothers. A masterful merchant met with the fat merchant and promised to multiply his riches. A great general met with the soldier and helped him upgrade his army. But soon after both brothers got into trouble. The soldier would be defeated in battle, and the merchant would starve for days.
The same devils tried to trick Ivan the fool, but they failed. In frustration, they tried one final trick — a disguised nobleman who would promise Ivan wisdom and a prosperous city. Before doing so, he had walked among the fools (the villagers) and tried to purchase food and drink with his gold. But he was not given anything to eat because the villagers soon did not need any gold.
When he asked for bread, the baker obliged but only if it was received in Christ’s name. This disgusted the devil-disguised-as-nobleman, who went hungry for days. Ivan’s dumb sister served food, and she was fooled by the lazy. But she managed to distinguish between the honest and the dishonest by looking at their hands. Dirty hands were a sign of hard work, while soft white hands were a sign of laziness. Those with soft hands would only eat the leftovers. The nobleman had no luck going there.
Ivan was given the news that there was a nobleman who went around trying to buy things with gold they did not want. Ivan met with the nobleman, who promised him wisdom, factories, and a wealthy city. All he required was to address the people.
So, he did. He told them that to make money, they would need to use their heads, not their hands. The fools listened for a while, then they got bored, and went back to work. But each day, they would listen a little more, out of curiosity. Eventually, the nobleman felt hungry and tired, and asked for some bread. But the villagers laughed at him, and suggested that he should use his brilliant head to get his own bread, since that was what he had preached.
He finally collapsed and fell on his head. One of the fools remarked, ironically, that he had finally used his head.
Ivan the Fool was told of what had happened, and approached the nobleman, who after having his head crushed, appeared as the devil.
Tolstoy’s short story is a simple parable about the virtue of honest work. The laborers were kind but fair. And they were hard to fool (even though they were known as “fools”). Tolstoy was clearly fond of irony.
The laborers knew the value of hard work, and were instantly suspicious when they heard of promises of Eden for little to no effort. They had powerful bullshit sensors.
The modern world has fewer people tilling the fields with their hands — a historical anomaly.
Kenneth Boulding, an eminent economist and creative thinker, shows that the present moment is a turning point in human history. If we measure human history, not according to how much time has passed, but how many notable events have occurred — we live in a truly exceptional epoch. The last few hundred years have seen as much change in human activity as did the thousands of years before combined. The world today is as different from the world in which Kenneth was born in, as the world in which Kenneth was born in is different from the world of Julius Caesar. Almost as much has happened since he was born as has happened before.
In the book Future Shock, an interesting way of categorizing time is suggested. If we divide the last 50,000 years of man’s existence into lifetimes of around 62 years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves.
Only during the last 70 lifetimes has effective communication between lifetimes been possible. Only during the last 6 lifetimes did masses of men see the printed word. Only in the last 2 has anyone used an electric motor. And most of the material goods we use every day have all been invented within the present (800th) lifetime.
Recall that in Tolstoy’s short story, Ivan and his villagers were either farmers, or they were manual laborers. In 1886, reading the same story was an entirely different experience than reading it in 2021 for one crucial reason — there are barely any manual laborers left.
In a single lifetime (out of the 800), agriculture, the original basis of civilization (the agricultural revolution allowed hunter gatherers to finally settle down and eventually become literate) has lost its dominance in almost every civilization. In the largest economies of the world, agriculture employs fewer than 15 percent of the economically active population.
In the US, whose farms feed 200 million Americans and around 160 million people around the world, this number is already below 6 percent and is shrinking rapidly.
After the agricultural revolution, we had the industrial revolution. Today, we have already entered the third stage of human development. In 1956, the US became the first major power where half of its non farm labor stopped wearing the blue collar of factory or manual labor. Within the same lifetime, a society has not only thrown off the burden of agriculture, but has thrown off the burden of manual labor as well.
The parable demonstrates with clarity, the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of achieving wealth or fame quickly. Ivan’s brothers, who were tricked by the prospect of military or commercial success, represent modern man, who, without the toil of manual labor, has lost track of what is real. He lives in a dream like state, pulled by ideas and abstractions, with no sense of where he came from, or where he is going.
“The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may so, very desirable.”
Donald Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”
Whatever is fashionable and exciting holds sway, whatever is archaic and drab is ignored. In the words of Neil Postman, modern society is complicit in the project to be amused to death.
Decades ago, before the Snapchat and TikTok, there were concerns about how information was being presented on TV.
“MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour”, writes that the idea is “to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required … to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
He goes on to say that the assumptions controlling a news show are “that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.”
A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
We do not refuse to remember or find it useless to do so, but we have become unfit to remember. If remembering is more than nostalgia, it needs context — theory, vision, metaphor — a way that allows facts and patterns to be discovered. The politics of instant news gives no such context. A mirror only shows you what you are wearing today but says nothing about yesterday. Television launches us into an incoherent, continuous present.
If this is true, then Orwell was wrong again, at least for Western democracies. He thought that history would be demolished by the state or some equivalent to the Ministry of Truth. This may be true of the Soviet Union, but as Huxley foretold, nothing so dramatic needs to happen.
Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the populace with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
We should look at Huxley, not Orwell, to understand the threat of television and other forms of imagery pose to liberal democracy — specifically, to freedom of information.
There is a book called Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard, where he describes the hyper-real — a simulation of reality that is more real than reality itself. For example, CNN’s coverage of the US-Iraq war was more real than the war itself, because the entire world witnessed the events unfold on the news platform, and even those who were engaged in the war got much of their information and impressions of the war from CNN. Rick Roderick, in his lecture on Baudrillard, gives the example of his child who will get angry at a Nintendo and see nothing strange with the idea of getting angry with a machine. In our world, broken screens due to unbearable range is a normal event, even among adults. We live in a hyper-real world. The games that people can play are far more sensual and intense than real life experiences (and becoming more so). And often, the consequences of what happens on a screen are worse than what could happen in the real world.
Our brains are easily tricked into believing things that are not there.
But not strictly in a visual or visceral sense.
We buy into many kinds of illusions. The prospect of making easy money in the stock market, after witnessing an anomalous event where a negligible number of small traders hit the lottery, is a common phenomenon that might earn itself a unique label soon. Other than obvious financial scams, fake yogis, and pipe dreams — we are prone to paying attention to the wrong things. We allow our focus to shift in whichever way the wind blows, or whatever news article (or Youtube video) contains the highest number of controversial words in its title, or highest number of views.
Or we spend a significant portion of our time trying to look like fakes of fakes. Copies of copies. That is, many people’s ideal beauty standard is of a barbie doll — a fiction. So, they do everything they can to look like barbie. They succeed. Countless others copy them.
Deep fakes are a fascinating phenomenon suggested by one reader of this website.
Deepfakes are so-named because they use deep learning technology, a branch of machine learning that applies neural net simulation to massive data sets, to create a fake. Artificial intelligence effectively learns what a source face looks like at different angles in order to transpose the face onto a target, usually an actor, as if it were a mask. Huge advances came through the application of generative adversarial networks (GANS) to pit two AI algorithms against each other, one creating the fakes and the other grading its efforts, teaching the synthesis engine to make better forgeries.
The proverbial devil has been tricking people into making bad decisions for a long time. More than a hundred years later, we have not become much better at recognizing what is real from what is fake. We still look for simplistic solutions and listen to charlatans. We are still mistake appearances for reality. In fact, we are deliberately manufacturing a world where truth becomes more difficult to locate (Attention-hacking) and making it more difficult to separate illusion from reality (Deep fakes, Virtual Reality).
Another element in Ivan the Fool is mimesis (Girard’s idea) — the brothers were successfully tempted because they wanted to beat their competition. The soldier lost the battle with his new, more powerful army to another army that was more powerful. It may be no coincidence that Girard saw the mimetic mechanism as the devil himself.
The deepest illusion is not only that we mistake copies of reality for reality, but that we don’t even recognize that we are doing that — that was the Huxleyan warning.
It is possible to suspend disbelief temporarily when entering a movie theatre and becoming fully immersed in the movie. It is also possible to be mindful of your surroundings while enjoying the movie. But movie theatres, VR headsets, or game consoles are obvious mediums of simulation. You make a conscious decision to engage in these activities — knowing that your perceptions will be fooled.
But what about every-day life, or the “facts” about the world that we take for granted. To what extent are our impressions of the world based on reality, rather than descriptions of reality? To what extent are the narratives that we have subscribed to better determinants of our experience of the world, than our own previous experience of the world? What percentage of what we know is true, and what percentage is propaganda, or borrowed ideas that are themselves copies of borrowed ideas? Which of our desires are truly our own, and which are unconsciously borrowed from others out of laziness?
If you could become Ivan the fool for a day, or his dumb sister, what would you notice?
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.