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There are many philosophical questions that humans have been trying to answer since the birth of our species. What is my purpose on earth? Is there divine beings? Who created me and this world? The short story The Death of Ivan Ilych tactfully incorporates two of these unanswered questions into the main theme. These questions evaluate the “problem of evil”, and how one should live their life on earth.
The “problem of evil” states that if god was good, almighty, and intelligent, then there wouldn’t be natural disasters that harm the innocent. This problem questions the supremacy of the divine and the origin of evil. There are diseases, storms, sickness, suffering, and death in this world that affects babies, the religious, the elderly, and the innocent. In the short story, Ivan lays on his bed and couch for weeks before his death and continually grapples with this problem and tries to conjure a solution as mortality begins to slip from his fingertips.
Ivan believes he has led a proper life full of decorative belongings and clothes, social gatherings, games, and general pleasantries. As he suffers from great pain in his side from an injury, he questions what he has done to deserve the long lasting pain and deterioration that he experiences. He led his life in a decorative, proper, and pleasant life. He was a social man, had a family whom he took care of, upheld the law, and had not committed any crimes or wronged anyone. Due to this, he did not believe that he deserved to have this natural ailment at the age of forty five that caused him months of pain, suffering, and eventually death.
The first point in which Ivan references the problem of evil is about a fortnight before he passes away. “He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God” (page 55). Ivan believed that God had abandoned him when he needed God most, and that God had intentionally let him suffer and created natural ailments. He begins to question god’s intentions of creating this ailment, why he was brought to earth, and god’s ultimate intentions for his destiny. He first begins to believe that the solution to the problem of evil is that God is cruel, inflicting him with the ailment because he was displeased with how Ivan lived his life. Ivan quickly rejects the idea since he has lived his life being proper, correct, and without crime or sin. He uses the logic that if you do good, then good should come back to you. Ivan admits that there is no reason for death and agony, since he has lived in accordance to his faith.
After a fortnight passes, Ivan realizes that he didn’t live his life correctly. He questioned the way he lived and realized that he didn’t lead an examined life. He only passed time with societal and civil duties and didn’t engage in social interactions to form bonds but only to uphold a reputation. Due to the circumstances, the justification that suffering builds character is the solution to the problem of evil in Ivan’s situation.“(Suffering) refines the individual’s emotional capacities, orders his will, and encourages a more reflective attitude of mind” (Problem of Evil essay). Ivan had to endure suffering to reflect on his life and realize the way he was living was wrong. However, he was not able to correctly convey this message to others and was not able to recover and live an examined life which makes this solution flawed.
As Ivan reflects more on the problem of evil, he finally realizes before the last few days of his life that he indeed lived his life wrong. “And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family and all his social and official interests, might all have been false” (page 60). Socrates, a philosopher, has stated that the unexamined life is not worth living and in Ivan’s moment of reflection and suffering he realized the truth of it. Ivans suffering emphasizes the importance of the philosopher’s principles on how one should live an examined life. One of Socrates’s principles that is relevant to the short story is that one should care more about the improvement of one’s soul than material or wealth. Ivan spent his adult life trying to get the highest paying job, have as much wealth as possible, and bought cheap antiques to try and appear wealthy. Ivan was obsessed with getting into the social circle of wealthy and spent much of his life in falsehood and deception. Not leading an examined life leads to a life that is not valuable or has depth, and Ivan makes a perfect example of this.
One should lead an examined life to avoid letting life slip by them, to have an impact on the world, and to add depth and value to their life and relationships. Ivan had not led an examined life as he had hid from mortality, eventually leading him to being unprepared for death and facing regret. There is no true solution for the problem of evil (if there are divine beings) and every person must face this as they encounter death or suffering.
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