Leo Tolstoy, Icarus, and The Economics of Toxic Ambition
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Somewhere almost a quarter century ago, I read a handful of Leo Tolstoy’s stories as an undergraduate, and then again a few years later in grad school. But it’s been a long time, and like so much good literature, these stories have something new to say as I read them again in a different stage of life. I had the joy of discussing one of his short stories with my students recently. At age forty-two, in a room full of students just on the precipice of adulthood, this one sparked a lot of thought for me. (And they seemed pretty into it too, which is a good sign for a teacher.)
Tolstoy's 1886 work “How Much Land Does a Man Need” is a brilliant allegory with a great deal to teach us about keeping our ambitions in check. My senior class has recently been exploring the theme of “the golden mean;” that is, essentially, the wisdom and importance of moderation. This has been against the backdrop of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, with forays into Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and ancient myths like the flight and fall of Icarus. Young Icarus, son of the famed engineer Daedalus, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, melting the wax wings Daedalus had crafted to escape imprisonment in the labyrinth of King Minos of Crete. The height of Icarus's ambitions, quite literally, led to his downfall.
Tolstoy’s story tells of Pahom, a peasant farmer in (presumably 19th century) Russia who aspires to greater freedom and an escape from the servile tedium of his poverty. Inspired by the dream of land ownership, he embarks on a series of risky—but arguably courageous, or at the very least bold—moves that help him achieve this dream. Having succeeded in the acquisition of some land, he is content for a while, but only for a while.
Just when a reader might assume the story is shaping up to be a rather predictable cautionary tale about the vice of ambition-turned-to-greed, Tolstoy throws a curveball and takes it in a unique direction. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Pahom comes face to face with a challenge we can all relate to: knowing when to stop when the going is good. It’s not a novel maxim; however, Tolstoy’s creative take on Pahom’s predicament is really sharp.
Based on Tolstoy’s story, our conversation turned into a study in economics, which is about more than money, for sure. Specifically, we looked at the perilous temptation that confronts us when we discover that the rate of return on investment, financial or otherwise, can increase exponentially. For Pahom’s part, this realization plays out in real time (again, in a context that I won’t spoil). Essentially (and I'm inventing a parallel example to avoid a spoiler here) that an investment of four units yields a return of only one unit, and investing eight units yields only four. Hardly worth the effort involved.
But then he realizes something about the economics of his undertaking: the more he puts in, the more rapidly the returns will grow. So, for example, while a hypothetical investment of twelve yields only nine, beyond that there's soon a tipping point of profitability. An input of sixteen will pay out sixteen. But twenty will yield twenty-five. If he can only push himself to invest thirty-two, the yield would be sixty-four – a great rate of return. And oh, therein begins the true temptation: if he can push himself through suffering and sacrifice to invest as much as forty units, the return will be one hundred: that’s one hell of a return. And it keeps getting sweeter from there. Or does it?
I won’t spoil Tolstoy’s story—you should enjoy it for yourself. But I can say that it was a remarkable thing to confront in a room full of high-achieving young people. We’d all like to think we would know when to stop. When to stop tempting fate and accept the satisfaction of a hard-fought achievement. But therein lies the brilliance of Tolstoy’s story: if we are inherently ambitious, we don’t know how we’ll respond to a toxic level of ambition until we confront it. And once we’re there, it might be nearly impossible to turn back. If we are as reckless and delirious with achievement as young Icarus, we might just plunge to our own destruction.
On the other hand, if we develop habits of discernment, it's possible we'll know when enough is enough.