Death of Ivan Illyich


I had read this book a while ago, and it struck a chord with me. In essence, I think, this book has shaped my mental model in a deep way. I often ponder if I would have had a different world view if I had never read this book. Here is an excerpt from academy of ideas about the book. One day, I will reread this book to write and reflect on it.

While conformity and the playing out of social roles can help shore-up our bridges of self-deception, this may in the end turn out to be more of a curse, than a blessing. For given the brevity of life it is far better to become aware of our deceptions while we still have time to change. But sadly, it is often only when one is at death’s doorstep that they come to recognize the vanity and falseness of their existence up to that point.

This idea is illustrated in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpieces. The main character in this work is a Russian magistrate who attains great success in rising to the top of Russian society. However, while enjoying the fruits of his labours, he becomes afflicted by a terminal illness and reflecting deeply on the meaning of life is haunted by a nagging feeling that his life was wasted:

“It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich)

This passage by Tolstoy strikes at the root of the danger of living at the mercy of our self-deceptions. Maintaining our illusions requires a massive amount of time and energy and often diverts our attention to vain pursuits. Therefore, our ability to engage in projects and strive after goals which would lead to a more fulfilling life is greatly restricted. To ensure that we don’t face a similar fate as Ivan Ilyich, it is crucial that we take a more honest look at ourselves and the life path that our deceptions have led us down. While most of us have spent years, if not decades, relying on our many self-deceptions, it is still within our ability to break down our false self.


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