The Philosophy Of Death

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy provides a literary portrait of a mans life and death. This exercise aims to analyse denial and the inevitability of death, both its meaning and context, in ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’, using the philosophy of Martin Heidegger in ‘Being and Time’.

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The Death of Ivan Ilych

In the study of literature, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is generally regarded as one of the most influential works on death and dying. The story is a classic study of how acceptance of mortality can change how individuals approach not only life, but also death. Structurally, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is a simple text. It begins with what would be the end of the story, Ivan’s funeral, and then records his life from childhood to his illness. In this way, Tolstoy suggests that Ivan Ilych is not really alive until he confronts the deterioration of his being.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (Tolstoy, 235). The chronicle of Ivan’s life begins with this line. Ivan Ilych consumed his life by just playing a role, formality and propriety were imperative to him, more so than any kind of human emotion. Serving as a judge, he had a career with influence and standing, and a respectable middle-class family. Then, a mysterious illness befalls him, one that no amount of skilled doctors can accurately diagnose. Whilst all are in agreement that his condition is terminal, they defer from telling him and insist that the treatments will one day have him back on his feet. Ivan Ilych is ultimately reduced to lying on a sofa, eased only by opium and the goodness of his servant, Gerasim, who says, “It’s God’s will. We shall all come to it some day” (Tolstoy, 235).

The novel follows the course of Ivan’s slow deterioration and his inability to deal with the inevitable approach of death. He tries for a long time to look away from it, to hide, but he cannot. Ironically, as he begins to sense the looming spectre of death, Ivan questions the dismantling of his comfortable life and the rightness of how he lived. Ivan wonders, “Why must I die and die in agony? There is something wrong! Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done” (Tolstoy, 273). In the midst of his desperate screaming, two hours before his death, Ivan feels the tears of his son on his hand. After months dwelling on his own torment, he feels pity for his son and asks for forgiveness. It is at this moment that he is released from the mental anguish that has engulfed him, and “in place of death, there was light” (Tolstoy, 279).

Heidegger and the Inevitability of Death

“One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us” (Heidegger: 297).

Death is an inevitable event. Someday, we will all die and ultimately confront the inescapable reality of our own mortality. German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, gives new meanings to our understanding of death in ‘Being and Time’. Heidegger argues that by confronting the inevitability of death, we adjust our perspectives and alter our approach towards life. We become beings-toward-death who are able to re-examine life and embrace our world.

The discussion in ‘Being and Time’ depends on understanding the use of the term, “Dasein”, commonly translated as ‘existence’ or more literally as ‘being there’, it could be said that Dasein is an individual human being. As Dasein, we are each an existing entity and have the ability to consider how we shall be in the world. By Heidegger’s analysis of being-towards-death, Dasein understands what it means to exist.

Heidegger suggests that rather than facing the reality of death, Dasein may flee from it, back into the absorption of everyday life. By running away from the reality and the finitude of our existence, we may collapse into a state of anxiety and bring forth anguish in Dasein’s being; we may despair when confronted with the actuality of our death. According to Heidegger, “angst” enables us to have an understanding of our eventual demise and anticipation in the face of death makes an authentic life possible. When we choose to accept the inevitable, we realise the possibilities of life and we discover a truth; we can find meaning – at least for ourselves. By breaking the illusions of death, we can conquer life. This is the difference between living authentic and inauthentic lives.

While we cannot know what death itself will be like, we can look ahead towards our dying. By accepting that one is constantly moving towards death and understanding that mortality is fundamental to who we are, Heidegger states something authentic is uncovered, a moment that will truly be one’s own. Through this insight, Heidegger shows that death is an individual event in that it is something that every person must go through. Nobody can die my death – It is unique to each one of us. To each it is given and cannot be denied.

A Heideggerian Approach to Ivan Ilych

In ‘Being and Time’, Heidegger makes use of Tolstoy’s story in his own analysis of death. He says in a footnote, “In his story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyitch’ Leo Tolstoi has presented the phenomenon of the disruption and breakdown of having someone die” (Heidegger: 495).

Early in the novel, Ivan’s death is presented as an inconvenience and a burden. His wife’s attitude to his failing condition is that “it was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her” (Tolstoy, 254). This parallels Heidegger’s thoughts on the everyday relationship with death, “Indeed the dying of Others is seen often enough as social inconvenience, if not even a downright tactlessness, against which the public is to be guarded” (Heidegger, 298). In the story, death is seen as a “social inconvenience”, disrupting everyday life.

From Heidegger’s perspective, the story of Ivan Ilych demonstrates a case of an individual that lives an inauthentic existence. Ivan Ilych, his wife and family, and even the doctors have all missed the point that death is certain; one cannot escape the inevitability of death. It is perhaps only Gerasim, a simple peasant, who is able to maintain an authentic and reflective stance towards death. Gerasim is not interested in upholding the trivial social concerns that everyone else seems to – he recognises that death is a reality. Half way through the story Ivan remarks, “Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them” (Tolstoy, 264). From a Heideggerian perspective, Gerasim alone displays a compassionate and meaningful existence in the story.

As Ivan’s condition slowly deteriorates, “it” (the pain, the spectre of death) becomes something that he can no longer ignore, although he is still being told that he will recover. At a certain point, however, he begins to ask, “Why deceive myself?” (Tolstoy, 257) When Ivan’s brother-in-law visits before New Year’s, he is so disturbed by his condition that he is unable to be in his presence. He says to Ivan’s wife “Why, he’s a dead man! Look at his eyes – there’s no light in them” (Tolstoy, 256), though she denies this change. For her, he is merely sick; he will get better with time. Heidegger lets us understand this when he says, “This evasive concealment in the face of death dominates everydayness so stubbornly that, in Being with one another, the ‘neighbours’ often still keep talking the ‘dying person’ into the belief that he will escape death and soon return to the tranquillized everydayness of the world of his concern” (Heidegger, 297). Though Ivan’s family appear to be trying to comfort him, really they are only denying what Ivan has now realised – he will soon face his own death.

When Ivan truly realises that his condition is incurable, he reflects on a presentation of death he had learnt from Kiezewetter’s Logic, “‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’, had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite quite separate from all others” (Tolstoy, 259). This comparison to Gaius Julius Caesar demonstrates that Ivan’s attitude towards death is severely misunderstood. For Heidegger, this statement would seem to imply Ivan Ilych fell into the inauthentic way of life, unable to face his death with acceptance and bravery, preferring instead to be coddled and pitied.


‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is primarily a meditation on the nature of death. For Heidegger, death brings our lives into focus. Referencing Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ as an example, Heidegger argues that most people go through life in avoidance of the reality – the possibility to end all possibilities – one’s death. Heidegger is confident that by anticipating death, we can ensure an authentic way of being.