Life of Tolstoy/Chapter X



The misery which oppressed Levine, and the longing for suicide which he concealed from Kitty, Tolstoy was at this period concealing from his wife. But he had not as yet achieved the calm which he attributed to his hero. To be truthful, this mental state is hardly communicated to the reader. We feel that it is desired rather than realised, and that Levine’s relapse among his doubts is imminent. Tolstoy was not duped by his desires. He had the greatest difficulty in reaching the end of his work. Anna Karenin wearied him before he had finished it.[1] He could work no longer. He remained at a standstill; inert, without will-power, a prey to self-terror and self-disgust. There, in the emptiness of his life, rose the great wind which issued from the abyss; the vertigo of death.

Tolstoy told of these terrible years at a later period, when he was newly escaped from the abyss.[2]

"I was not fifty," he said; "I loved; I was loved; I had good children, a great estate, fame, health, and moral and physical vigour; I could reap or mow like any peasant; I used to work ten hours at a stretch without fatigue. Suddenly my life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep. But this was not to live. I had no desires left. I knew there was nothing to desire. I could not even wish to know the truth. The truth was that life is a piece of insanity. I had reached the abyss, and I saw clearly that there was nothing before me but death. I, a fortunate and healthy man, felt that I could not go on living. An irresistible force was urging me to rid myself of life. . . . I will not say that I wanted to kill myself. The force which was edging me out of life was something stronger than myself; it was an aspiration, a desire like my old desire for life, but in an inverse sense. I had to humour, to deceive myself, lest I should give way to it too promptly. There I was, a happy man,—and I would hide away a piece of cord lest I should hang myself from the beam that ran between the cupboards of my room, where I was alone every night while undressing. I no longer took my gun out for a little shooting, lest I should be tempted.[3] It seemed to me that life was a dreary farce, which was being played out before my eyes. Forty years of work, of trouble, of progress, only to find that there is nothing! Nothing! Nothing will remain of me but putrescence and worms. . . . One can live only while one is intoxicated with life; but the moment the intoxication is over one sees that all is merely deceit, a clumsy fraud. . . . My family and art were no longer enough to satisfy me. My family consisted of unhappy creatures like myself. Art is a mirror to life. When fife no longer means anything it is no longer amusing to use the mirror. And the worst of it was, I could not resign myself—I was like a man lost in a forest, who is seized with horror because he is lost, and who runs hither and thither and cannot stop, although he knows that at every step he is straying further."

Salvation came from the people. Tolstoy had always had for them "a strange affection, absolutely genuine,"[4] which the repeated experiences of his social disillusions were powerless to shake. Of late years he, like Levine, had drawn very near to them.[5] He began to ponder concerning these millions of beings who were excluded from the narrow circle of the learned, the rich, and the idle who killed themselves, endeavoured to forget themselves, or, like himself, were basely prolonging a hopeless life. He asked himself why these millions of men and women escaped this despair: why they did not kill themselves. He then perceived that they were living not by the light of reason, but without even thinking of reason; they were living by faith. What was this faith which knew nothing of reason?

"Faith is the energy of life. One cannot live without faith. The ideas of religion were elaborated in the infinite remoteness of human thought. The replies given by faith to Life the sphinx contain the deepest wisdom of humanity."

Is it enough, then, to be acquainted with those formulae of wisdom recorded in the volume of religion? No, for faith is not a science; faith is an act; it has no meaning unless it is lived. The disgust which Tolstoy felt at the sight of rich and right-thinking people, for whom faith was merely a kind of "epicurean consolation," threw him definitely among the simple folk who alone lived lives in agreement with their faith.

"And he understood that the life of the labouring people was life itself, and that the meaning to be attributed to that life was truth."

But how become a part of the people and share its faith? It is not enough to know that others are in the right; it does not depend upon ourselves whether we are like them. We pray to God in vain; in vain we stretch our eager arms toward Him. God flies. Where shall He be found?

But one day grace descended:

"One day of early spring I was alone in the forest, listening to its sounds. . . . I was thinking of my distress during the last three years; of my search for God; of my perpetual oscillations from joy to despair. . . . And I suddenly saw that I used to live only when I used to believe in God. At the very thought of Him the delightful waves of life stirred in me. Everything around me grew full of life; everything received a meaning. But the moment I no longer believed life suddenly ceased.

"Then what am I still searching for? a voice cried within me. For Him, without whom man cannot live! To know God and to live—it is the same thing! For God is Life. . . .

"Since then this light has never again deserted me."[6]

He was saved. God had appeared to him.[7]

But as he was not a Hindu mystic, to whom ecstasy suffices; as to the dreams of the Asiatic was added the thirst for reason and the need of action of the Occidental, he was moved to translate his revelation into terms of practical faith, and to draw from the holy life the rules of daily existence. Without any previous bias, and sincerely wishing to believe in the beliefs of his own flesh and blood, he began by studying the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, of which he was a member.[8] In order to become more intimately a part of that body he submitted for three years to all its ceremonies; confessing himself, communicating; not presuming to judge such matters as shocked him, inventing explanations for what he found obscure or incomprehensible, uniting himself, through and in their faith, with all those whom he loved, whether living or dead, and always cherishing the hope that at a certain moment "love would open to him the gates of truth." But it was all useless: his reason and his heart revolted. Such ceremonies as baptism and communion appeared to him scandalous. When he was forced to repeat that the host was the true body and true blood of Christ, "he felt as though a knife were plunged into his heart." But it was not the dogmas which raised between the Church and himself an insurmountable wall, but the practical questions, and in especial two: the hateful and mutual intolerance of the Churches[9] and the sanction, formal or tacit, of homicide: of war and of capital punishment.

So he broke loose, and the rupture was the more violent in that for three years he had suppressed his faculty of thought. He walked delicately no longer. Angrily and violently he trampled underfoot the religion which the day before he was still persistently practising. In his Criticism of Dogmatic Theology (1879-1881) he termed it not only an "insanity, but a conscious and interested lie."[10] He contrasted it with the New Testament, in his Concordance and Translation of the Four Gospels (1881-83). Finally, upon the Gospel he built his faith (What my Faith consists in, 1883).

It all resides in these words:

"I believe in the doctrine of the Christ. I believe that happiness is possible on earth only when all men shall accomplish it."

Its corner-stone is the Sermon on the Mount, whose essential teaching Tolstoy expresses in five commandments:

"1. Do not be angry.

"2. Do not commit adultery.

"3. Do not take oaths.

"4. Do not resist evil by evil.

"5. Be no man's enemy."

This is the negative part of the doctrine; the positive portion is contained in this single commandment:

"Love God, and thy neighbour as thyself."

"Christ has said that he who shall have broken the least of these commandments will hold the lowest place in the kingdom of heaven."

And Tolstoy adds naïvely:

"Strange as it may seem, I have been obliged, after eighteen centuries, to discover these rules as a novelty."

Does Tolstoy believe in the divinity of Christ? By no means. In what quality does he invoke him? As the greatest of the line of sages—Brahma, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, Isaiah—who have revealed to man the true happiness to which he aspires, and the way which he must follow.[11] Tolstoy is the disciple of these great religious creators, of these Hindu, Chinese, and Hebrew demi-gods and prophets. He defends [12]them, as he knows how to defend; defends them by attacking those whom he calls "the Scribes" and "the Pharisees"; by attacking the established Churches and the representatives of arrogant science, or rather of "scientific philosophism." Not that he appealed from reason to revelation. Once escaped from the period of distress described in his Confessions, he remained essentially a believer in Reason; one might indeed say a mystic of Reason.

"In the beginning was the Word," he says, with St. John; "the Word, Logos, that is, Reason."[13]

A book of his entitled Life (1887) bears as epigraph the famous lines of Pascal:[14]

"Man is nothing but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. . . . All our dignity resides in thought. . . . Let us then strive to think well: that is the principle of morality."

The whole book, moreover, is nothing but a hymn to Reason.

It is true that Tolstoy's Reason is not the scientific reason, the restricted reason "which takes the part for the whole and physical life for the whole of life," but the sovereign law which rules the life of man, "the law according to which reasonable beings, that is men, must of necessity live their lives."

"It is a law analogous to those which regulate the nutrition and the reproduction of the animal, the growth and the blossoming of herb and of tree, the movement of the earth and the planets. It is only in the accomplishment of this law, in the submission of our animal nature to the law of reason, with a view to acquiring goodness, that we truly live. . . . Reason cannot be defined, and we have no need to define it, for not only do we all know it, but we know nothing else. . . . All that man knows he knows by means of reason and not by faith. . . .[15] True life commences only at the moment when reason is manifested. The only real life is the life of reason."

Then what is the visible life, our individual existence? "It is not our life," says Tolstoy, "for it does not depend upon ourselves.

"Our animal activity is accomplished without ourselves. . . . Humanity has done with the idea of life considered as an individual existence. The negation of the possibility of individual good remains an unchangeable truth for every man of our period who is endowed with reason."

Then follows a long series of postulates, which I will not here discuss, but which show how Tolstoy was obsessed by the idea of reason. It was in fact a passion, no less blind or jealous than the other passions which had possessed him during the earlier part of his life. One fire was flickering out, the other was kindling; or rather it was always the same fire, but fed with a different fuel.

A fact which adds to the resemblance between the "individual" passions and this "rational" passion is that neither those nor this can be satisfied with loving. They seek to act; they long for realisation.

"Christ has said, we must not speak, but act."

And what is the activity of reason?—Love.

"Love is the only reasonable activity of man; love is the most reasonable and most enlightened state of the soul. All that man needs is that nothing shall obscure the sun of reason, for that alone can help him to grow. . . . Love is the actual good, the supreme good which resolves all the contradictions of life; which not only dissipates the fear of death, but impels man to sacrifice himself to others: for there is no love but that which enables a man to give his life for those he loves: love is not worthy of the name unless it is a sacrifice of self. And the true love can only be realised when man understands that it is not possible for him to acquire individual happiness. It is then that all the streams of his life go to nourish the noble graft of the true love: and this graft borrows for its increase all the energies of the wild stock of animal individuality. . . ."[16]

Thus Tolstoy did not come to the refuge of faith like an exhausted river which loses itself among the sands. He brought to it the torrent of impetuous energies amassed during a full and virile life. This we shall presently see.

This impassioned faith, in which Love and Reason are united in a close embrace, has found its most dignified expression in the famous reply to the Holy Synod which excommunicated him:[17]

"I believe in God, who for me is Love, the Spirit, the Principle of all things. I believe that He is in me as I am in Him. I believe that the will of God has never been more clearly expressed than in the teaching of the man Christ; but we cannot regard Christ as God and address our prayers to him without committing the greatest sacrilege. I believe that the true happiness of man consists in the accomplishment of the will of God; I believe that the will of God is that every man shall love his fellows and do unto them always as he would they should do unto him, which contains, as the Bible says, all the law and the prophets. I believe that the meaning of life for each one of us is only to increase the love within him; I believe that this development of our power of loving will reward us in this life with a happiness which will increase day by day, and with a more perfect felicity in the other world. I believe that this increase of love will contribute, more than any other factor, to founding the kingdom of God upon earth; that is, to replacing an organisation of life in which division, deceit, and violence are omnipotent, by a new order in which concord, truth, and brotherhood will reign. I believe that we have only one means of growing richer in love: namely, our prayers. Not public prayer in the temple, which Christ has formally reproved (Matt. vi. 5-13), but the prayer of which he himself has given as an example; the solitary prayer which confirms in us the consciousness of the meaning of our life and the feeling that we depend solely upon the will of God. . . . I believe in life eternal; I believe that man is rewarded according to his acts, here and everywhere, now and for ever. I believe all these things so firmly that at my age, on the verge of the tomb, I have often to make an effort not to pray for the death of my body, that is, my birth into a new life."[18]

  1. “Now I am harnessing myself again to the wearisome and vulgar Anna Karenin, with the sole desire of getting rid of it as quickly as possible.” (Letters to Fet, August 26, 1875.) “I must finish the romance, which is wearying me.” (Ibid. March 1, 1876.)
  2. In his Confessions (1879).
  3. See Anna Karenin. "And Levine, who had the love of a woman, and was the father of a family, put every kind of weapon away out of reach, as though he was afraid of yielding to the temptation of putting an end to his sufferings." This frame of mind was not peculiar to Tolstoy and his characters. Tolstoy was struck by the increasing number of suicides among the wealthy classes all over Europe, and in Russia more especially. He often alludes to the fact in such of his books as were written about this period. It was as though a great wave of neurasthenia had swept across Europe in 1880, drowning its thousands of victims. Those who were young men at the time will remember it; and for them Tolstoy's record of this human experience will have a historic value. He has written the secret tragedy of a generation.
  4. Confessions.
  5. His portraits of this period betray this plebeian tendency. A painting by Kramskoy (1873) represents Tolstoy in a moujik's blouse, with bowed head: it resembles a German Christ. The forehead is growing bare at the temples; the eheeks are lined and bearded.—In another portrait, dated 1881, he has the look of a respectable artisan in his Sunday clothes: the hair cut short, the beard and whiskers spread out on either side; the face looks much wider below than above; the eyebrows are contracted, the eyes gloomy; the wide nostrils have a dog-like appearance; the ears are enormous.
  6. Confessions.
  7. To tell the truth—not for the first time. The young volunteer in the Caucasus, the officer at Sebastopol, Olenin of the Cossacks, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Besoukhov, in War and Peace, had had similar visions. But Tolstoy was so enthusiastic that each time he discovered God he believed it was for the first time; that previously there had been nothing but night and the void. He saw nothing of his past but its shadows and its shames. We who, through reading his Journal, know better than he himself the story of his heart, know also how profoundly religious was that heart, even when he was most astray. But he himself confesses in a passage in the preface to the Criticism of Dogmatic Theology: "God! God! I have erred; I have sought the truth where I should not have sought it; and I knew that I erred. I flattered my evil passions, knowing them to be evil; but I never forgot Thee. I was always conscious of Thee, even when I went astray." The crisis of 1878–79 was only more violent than the rest; perhaps under the influence of repeated loss and the advance of age; its only novelty was that the image of God, instead of vanishing and leaving no trace when once the flame of ecstasy flickered out, remained with him, and the penitent, warned by past experience, hastened to "walk in the light while he had the light," and to deduce from his faith a whole system of life. Not that he had not already tried to do so. (Remember the Rules of Life written when he was a student.) But at fifty years of age there was less likelihood that his passions would divert him from his path.
  8. The sub-title of the Confessions is Introduction to the Criticism of Dogmatic Theology and the Examination of the Christian Doctrine.
  9. "I, who beheld the truth in the unity of love, was struck with the fact that religion itself destroyed that which it sought to produce." (Confessions.)
  10. "And I am convinced that the teaching of the Church is in theory a crafty and evil lie, and in practice a concoction of gross superstitions and witchcraft, under which the meaning of the Christian doctrine absolutely disappears." (Reply to the Holy Synod, April 4-17, 1901.)
  11. As he grew older, this feeling of the unity of religious truth throughout human history—and of the kinship of Christ with the other sages, from Buddha down to Kant and Emerson—grew more and more accentuated, until in his later years Tolstoy denied that he had "any predilection for Christianity." Of the greatest importance in this connection is a letter written between July 27 and August 4, 1909, to the painter Jan Styka, and recently reproduced in Le Théosophe (January 16, 1911). According to his habit, Tolstoy, full of his new conviction, was a little inclined to forget his former state of mind and the starting-point of his religious crisis, which was purely Christian: "The doctrine of Jesus," he writes, "is to me only one of the beautiful doctrines which we have received from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Israel, Hindostan, China, Greece. The two great principles of Jesus: the love of God, that is, of absolute perfection, and the love of one's neighbour, that is, of all men without distinction, have been preached by all the sages of the world: Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and, among the moderns, Rousseau, Pascal, Kant, Emerson, Channing, and many others. Truth, moral and religious, is everywhere and always the same. . . . I have no predilection
  12. for Christianity. If I have been particularly attracted by the teaching of Jesus, it is (1) because I was born and have lived among Christians, and (2) because I have found a great spiritual joy in disengaging the pure doctrine from the astonishing falsifications created by the Churches."
  13. Tolstoy protests that he does not attack true science, which is modest and knows its limits. (Life, chap. iv. There is a French version by Countess Tolstoy.)
  14. Tolstoy often read the Pensèes during the period of this crisis, which preceded the Confessions. He speaks of Pascal in his letters to Fet (April 14, 1877, August 3, 1879), recommending his friend to read the Pensèes.
  15. In a letter Upon Reason, written on November 26, 1894, to Baroness X (reproduced in The Revolutionaries, 1906), Tolstoy says the same thing:
    "Man has received directly from God one sole instrument by which he may know himself and his relations with the world: there is no other means. This instrument is reason. Reason comes from God. It is not only the highest human quality, but the only means by which the truth is to be known."
  16. Life, xxii.-xxv. As in the case of most of these quotations, I am expressing the sense of several chapters in a few characteristic phrases.
  17. I hope later, when the complete works of Tolstoy have been published, to study the various shades of this religious idea, which has certainly evolved in respect of many points, notably in respect of the conception of future life.
  18. From a translation in the Temps for May 1, 1901.