Ivan the Fool is a short parable by Leo Tolstoy. Ivan is one of three brothers, who come from a peasant family. Ivan, we are told, is a hard worker, who tills the farm the family lives in. One of his brothers is a soldier, the other is a fat merchant. Throughout the story, Ivan and his brothers are tempted by little devils, who disguise themselves as different characters, and offer tempting rewards. The soldier and the fat merchant demand money from the father, since Ivan is a fool, and their sister was born dumb. The father tells them to ask Ivan, since he was the hardest worker, and only if accepts, they can get their money. Ivan invariably does.
The two brothers embark on their journey and find relative success, but then they are easily tempted by the devil’s tricks, while Ivan is not. Eventually, the brothers need assistance, so they ask Ivan for help, and he obliges. Ivan, because he is not tricked by the devil, acquires some magical powers that allow him to create soldiers and money.
When Ivan’s brothers asked for help the first time, he offered the soldier an army, and the fat merchant money. But soon enough, they came back for more, because the soldier needed money, and the fat merchant needed soldiers. This time, Ivan refused. The two brothers decided to join forces and split their money and soldiers. After doing so, they both went on to establish their own kingdoms.
As for Ivan, he continued to work hard on the family farm, caring for his mother, father, and dumb sister. One day, he travelled to a princess who was sick, but he had nothing to cure her with, since he had already used his remedy on a peasant. But by coincidence, the princess had been cured upon his arrival. He was made ruler of this kingdom. The philosophy that the people of this kingdom embraced was humble, hard work.
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 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 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, out of curiosity. Eventually, the nobleman felt hungry and tired, and asked for some bread. But he was told to use his 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, that he had finally used his head. Ivan 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”).
The modern world has fewer people tilling the fields with their hands. But the parable demonstrates, with precision and clarity, the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of getting-rich or powerful quickly. The devils in the story only managed to be successful at tricking the two brothers because of their greed. Ivan the Fool ruled over a village that embraced his philosophy — be kind, work hard, ignore bullshit. But the salesmen of utopian dreams still exist among us, they are the charlatans who promise easy answers to difficult problems. It is becoming harder to tell who these charlatans are, because like the devils in Tolstoy’s short story, they conjure ingenious disguises, and they are effective.
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 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.
The proverbial devil has been tricking people into making bad decisions for a long time. Even long before Tolstoy. But 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. 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.
But the deep illusion is not only that we mistake copies of reality for reality, but that we don’t even recognize that we are doing that. It is possible to suspend disbelief temporarily when entering a movie theatre and becoming fully immersed in the movie. But it is also possible to be mindful of your surroundings while enjoying the movie. But movie theatres, VR headsets, or game consoles are obvious. 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? Which of our desires are truly our own, and which are unconsciously borrowed from others for no good reason?
If you could become Ivan the fool for a day, what would you notice?