Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XI



He thought he had arrived in port, had achieved the haven in which his unquiet soul might take its repose. He was only at the beginning of a new period of activity.

A winter passed in Moscow (his family duties having obliged him to follow his family thither),[1] and the taking of the census, in which he contrived to lend a hand, gave him the occasion to examine at first hand the poverty of a great city. The impression produced upon him was terrible. On the evening of the day when he first came into contact with this hidden plague of civilisation, while relating to a friend what he had seen, "he began to shout, to weep, and to brandish his fist."

"People can't live like that!" he cried, sobbing. "It cannot be! It cannot be!" He fell into a state of terrible despair, which did not leave him for months. Countess Tolstoy wrote to him on the 3rd of March, 1882:

"You used to say, 'I used to want to hang myself because of my lack of faith.' Now you have faith: why then are you so unhappy?"

Because he had not the sanctimonious, self-satisfied faith of the Pharisee; because he had not the egoism of the mystic, who is too completely absorbed in the matter of his own salvation to think of the salvation of others";[2] because he knew love; because he could no longer forget the miserable creatures he had seen, and in the passionate tenderness of his heart he felt as though he were responsible for their sufferings and their abjectness; they were the victims of that civilisation in whose privileges he shared; of that monstrous idol to which an elect and superior class was always sacrificing millions of human beings. To accept the benefit of such crimes was to become an accomplice. His conscience would have given him no repose had he not denounced them.

What shall we do? (1884-86) is the expression of this second crisis; a crisis far more tragic than the first, and far richer in consequences. What were the personal religious sufferings of Tolstoy in this ocean of human wretchedness—of material misery, not misery created by the mind of a self-wearied idler? It was impossible for him to shut his eyes to it, and having seen it he could but strive, at any cost, to prevent it. Alas! was such a thing possible?

An admirable portrait,[3] which I cannot look at without emotion, tells us plainly what suffering Tolstoy was then enduring. It shows him facing the camera; seated, with his arms crossed; he is wear- a moujik's blouse. He looks overwhelmed. His hair is still black, but his moustache is already grey, and his long beard and whiskers are quite white. A double furrow traces symmetrical lines in the large, comely face. There is so much goodness, such tenderness, in the great dog-like muzzle, in the eyes that regard you with so frank, so clear, so sorrowful a look. They read your mind so surely! They pity and implore. The face is furrowed and bears traces of suffering; there are heavy creases beneath the eyes. He has wept. But he is strong, and ready for the fight.

His logic was heroic:

"I am always astonished by these words, so often repeated: 'Yes, it is well enough in theory, but how would it be in practice?" As if theory consisted in pretty words, necessary for conversation, and was not in the least something to which practice should conform! When I come to understand a matter on which I have reflected, I cannot do otherwise than as I have understood."[4]

He begins by describing, with photographic exactitude, the poverty of Moscow as he has seen it in the course of his visits to the poorer quarters or the night-shelters.[5]

He is convinced that money is not the power, as he had at first supposed, which will save these unhappy creatures, all more or less tainted by the corruption of the cities. Then he seeks bravely for the source of the evil; unwinding link upon link of the terrible chain of responsibility. First come the rich, with the contagion of their accursed luxury, which entices and depraves the soul.[6] Then comes the universal seduction of life without labour. Then the State, that murderous entity, created by the violent in order that they might for their own profit despoil and enslave the rest of humanity. Then the Church, an accomplice; science and art, accomplices. How is a man to oppose this army of evil? In the first place, by refusing to join it. By refusing to share in the exploitation of humanity. By renouncing wealth and ownership of the soil,[7] and by refusing to serve the State.

But this is not sufficient. One "must not lie," nor be afraid of the truth. One "must repent," and uproot the pride that is implanted by education. Finally, one must work with one's hands. "Thou shalt win thy bread in the sweat of thy brow" is the first commandment and the most essential.[8] And Tolstoy, replying in advance to the ridicule of the elect, maintains that physical labour does not in any way decrease the energy of the intellect; but that, on the contrary, it increases it, and that it responds to the normal demand of nature. Health can only gain thereby; art will gain even more. But what is more important still, it will re-establish the union of man with man.

In his subsequent works, Tolstoy was to complete these precepts of moral hygiene. He was anxious to achieve the cure of the soul, to replenish its energy, by proscribing the vicious pleasures which deaden the conscience[9] and the cruel pleasures which kill it.[10] He himself set the example. In 1884, he sacrificed his most deeply rooted passion: his love of the chase.[11] He practised abstinence, which strengthens the will. So an athlete may subject himself to some painful discipline that he may grapple with it and conquer.

What shall we do? marks the first stage of the difficult journey upon which Tolstoy was about to embark, quitting the relative peace of religious meditation for the social maelstrom. It was then that the twenty years' war commenced which the old prophet of Yasnaya Polyana waged in the name of the Gospel, single-handed, outside the limits of all parties, and condemning all; a war upon the crimes and lies of civilisation.

  1. "I had hitherto passed my whole life away from the city." (What shall we do?)
  2. Tolstoy has many times expressed his antipathy for the "ascetics, who live for themselves only, apart from their fellows." He puts them in the same class as the conceited and ignorant revolutionists, "who pretend to do good to others without knowing what it is that they themselves need. . . . I love these two categories of men with the same love, but I hate their doctrines with the same hate. The only doctrine is that which orders a constant activity, an existence which responds to the aspirations of the soul and endeavours to realise the happiness of others. Such is the Christian doctrine. Equally remote from religious quietism and the arrogant pretensions of the revolutionists, who seek to transform the world without knowing in what real happiness consists." (Letters to a friend, published in the volume entitled Cruel Pleasures, 1895.)
  3. A daguerreotype of 1885, reproduced in What shall we do? in the complete French edition.
  4. What shall we do?
  5. "All the first part of the book (the first fifteen chapters).
  6. "The true cause of poverty is the accumulation of riches in the hands of those who do not produce, and are concentrated in the cities. The wealthy classes are gathered together in the cities in order to enjoy and to defend themselves. And the poor man comes to feed upon the crumbs of the rich. He is drawn thither by the snare of easy gain: by peddling, begging, swindling, or in the service of immorality."
  7. "The pivot of the evil is property. Property is merely the means of enjoying the labour of others." Property, he says again, is that which is not ours: it represents other people. "Man calls his wife, his children, his slaves, his goods his property, but reality shows him his error; and he must renounce his property or suffer and cause others to suffer."

    Tolstoy was already urging the Russian revolution: "For three or four years now men have cursed us on the highway and called us sluggards and skulkers. The hatred and contempt of the downtrodden people are becoming more intense." (What shall we do?)

  8. The peasant-revolutionist Bondarev would have had this law recognised as a universal obligation. Tolstoy was then subject to his influence, as also to that of another peasant, Sutayev.—"During the whole of my life two Russian thinkers have had a great moral influence over me, have enriched my mind, and have elucidated for me my own conception of the world. They were two peasants, Sutayev and Bondarev."(What shall we do?)

    In the same book Tolstoy gives us a portrait of Sutayev, and records a conversation with him.

  9. Vicious Pleasures, or in the French translation Alcohol and Tobacco, 1895.
  10. Cruel Pleasures (the Meat-eaters; War; Hunting), 1895.
  11. The sacrifice was difficult; the passion inherited. He was not sentimental; he never felt much pity for animals. For him all things fell into three planes: "1. Reasoning beings; 2. animals and plants; 3. inanimate matter." He was not without a trace of native cruelty. He relates the pleasure he felt in watching the struggles of a wolf which he killed. Remorse was of later growth.