The Masterpiece That is Tolstoy’s Non-Fiction (Part 1) – A Spiritual Crisis

Tolstoy by Repin 1901 cropped rotated - PICRYL Public Domain Image
Tolstoy painted by Ilya Repin in 1901

Postscriptum from the 15th of November, 2022:

The fact that this series of posts was published in conjunction with Russia’s (to this day ongoing) invasion of Ukraine was no coincidence. I originally conceived the idea for it by asking myself what Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest example of Russian genius to have existed, would have made of it all had he been alive to witness it. While the reader will probably be able to guess an answer to that question I will let the posts themselves explain it in detail.

It is tragically inevitable that cultural heritage will be weaponised in times of war, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some political propagandist out there has twisted Tolstoy’s legacy, however unambiguous it is on the subject, to make it seem like it is part of something that Russia is out in Ukraine defending or, even more bizarrely, that he would have condoned this invasion and been himself in the vanguard, clad in tactical gear and brandishing an assault rifle.

But every time I revisit his works, and those of so many other Russian cultural figures whom I admire so dearly, I recomfort myself knowing that these monuments are not here to serve the interests of just one people, one culture or one nation
, but are as gifts to all humanity born out of only the most noble parts of a beautiful tradition and culture.

–The author

This is the first post that I write on a subject that is not poetical. I did not really have this in mind when starting this blog, though at the same time I never had any clear vision as to where this website would end up going when I first started it.

This is the first post of a planned three on Tolstoy’s non-fiction. The first will explore Tolstoy’s spiritual awakening and crisis, the second the foundations of his radical brand of Christianity and the third his view on art.

If I reflect on all the authors that I have read, I think no-one has influenced my worldview more than Leo Tolstoy and his philosophical/religious writings. I’m afraid most people shrug these off as being secondary to his novels–the perhaps eloquent but misguided ramblings of a titan well past his prime. Tolstoy himself, however, considered these works to be of far greater value than his novels–as a matter of fact, he considered his two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to have been utter artistic failures.

Tolstoy’s renunciation of his own fiction has its origins in a profound spiritual crisis that he suffered in his fifties. He had by that point published both War and Peace and Anna Karenina and was widely considered to be the greatest novelist alive, if not the greatest of all time, yet in spite of this considered both his work and life to have been completely pointless. He came to this conclusion after having been confronted by a simple existential question that everyone faces and to which he had no answer: Why should I live, hope or to do anything with my life when the inevitability of death will destroy it all?

Tolstoy uses an oriental allegory to explain how he viewed his life:

There is an old eastern fable about a traveller who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveller hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him. The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it. Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them. In the same way I am clinging to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand how I have fallen into this torment. And I try licking the honey that once consoled me, but it no longer gives me pleasure. The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – are gnawing at the branch from which I am hanging. I can see the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I can see only one thing; the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.

A Confession

At this point in life Tolstoy seriously considered suicide–not as a rash escape from some kind of unbearable mental breakdown, but rather as a despairing logical consequence of being unable to answer life’s fundamental question. In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy speaks at further length on the topic:

People are astonished that every year there are sixty thousand cases of suicide in Europe, and those only the recognized and recorded cases–and excluding Russia and Turkey; but one ought rather to be surprised that there are so few. Every man of the present day, if we go deep enough into the contradiction between his conscience and his life, is in a state of despair.

Not to speak of all the other contradictions between modern life and the conscience, the permanently armed condition of Europe together with its profession of Christianity is alone enough to drive any man to despair, to doubt of the sanity of mankind, and to terminate an existence in this senseless and brutal world. This contradiction, which is a quintessence of all the other contradictions, is so terrible that to live and to take part in it is only possible if one does not think of it–-if one is able to forget it.

The Kingdom of God is Within You

He was not going to take his own life without expending all of his energy in an attempt to finding a solution to this question, however. Tolstoy found both philosophy and science fundamentally inept at providing an answer and so instead, turned to religion. The term “religion” is one that scholars will say is almost impossible to define, but Tolstoy had a clear definition of his own. For him,

The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me?

Religion and Morality

Not being able to reach an answer to these questions through his own pursuits, Tolstoy briefly converted to and accepted the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church. His conversion to orthodoxy was prompted through his perceived inability of personally understanding God and his divinely ordained purpose, but that this could be resolved by subordinating his belief to the Church, which, with all its theology, traditions and mystical rites, did understand it.

One can see why Tolstoy would have been uncomfortable with this. In his work, even in his fiction, one is struck by an almost ruthless insistence of representing and understanding sheer truth. In converting to orthodoxy, he had put much of this tenacity on hold, but everything that seemed absurd and conradictory in the Church’s practices quickly became too much to bear. Tolstoy’s dilemma was perhaps not much nearer to being solved, but it certainly had taken a step forward:

While listening to the church services I paused at each word and whenever I could I gave it meaning. In the liturgy the most significant words for me were: ‘Love one another in unity.’ But further on I ignored the words: ‘We believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’, because I could not understand them.

A Confession

One sees in passages like the one above that there was something in the Christian faith that deeply resounded with Tolstoy–its doctrines of love, humility and self-denial–and that he wanted to winnow this from the incomprehensible chaff–its dogma and ritualistic superstition–that made up most of the church’s practices. Tolstoy quickly started drifting away from any conceivable branch of Christianity and became a church of one. Nonetheless, he unflinchingly identified as a Christian, and I suspect that a large part of this identification was actually to distinguish himself from most of the Christian institutions of his day, most of which he considered to be fundamentally unchristian.

Tolstoy’s hostility toward the Church was not something he was going to keep to himself, and It is no suprise that Tolstoy was excommunicated and excoriated by many prominent Christian figures of his day. He doesn’t hold back when going on the offensive:

Indeed no other faith has ever preached things so incompatible with reason and contemporary knowledge, or ideas so immoral as those taught by Church Christianity. This is without mentioning all the nonsense in the Old Testament, such as the creation of light before the sun, the creation of the world six thousand years ago, the housing of all the animals in the ark, and all the various immoral atrocities such as the order to murder children and entire populations at God’s command. Nor have we mentioned the absurdity of the sacrament of which Voltaire said that there have been and are a great many absurd religious teachings, but never before was there one in which the main religious act consists in eating your own God. And what can be more ridiculous than saying that Our Lady was both mother and virgin, or that the heavens opened up and a voice rang forth, or that Christ flew up to heaven and is seated up there somewhere, at the right hand of His father, or that God is three persons in one, not three gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but three combined in one. There can be nothing as immoral as those dreadful teachings according to which an angry and vengeful God punishes everyone for the sin of Adam, or that he sent his son to earth to save us, knowing beforehand that men would murder him and be damned for it. Again it is absurd to suggest that man’s salvation from sin lies in baptism, or in believing that all these things actually happened, and that the son of God was killed in order to save people and that those who do not believe it will be punished by God with eternal torment. And so, putting aside those things some people consider to be additions to the essential religious dogma, such as faith in certain relics or icons of the Virgin Mary, prayers of supplication, addresses to various saints according to their speciality, or the Protestant doctrine of predestination, even so the very premises of this religion, accepted by all and formulated in the Nicene Creed, are so ridiculous and immoral, and so contradictory to healthy human feeling and reason, that people cannot believe in them. They can repeat certain words with their lips, but they cannot believe in things devoid of meaning. One can use one’s lips to say: ‘I believe the world was created six thousand years ago’, or: ‘I believe in God the Father in three persons’, but no one can believe it all because the words make no sense. Therefore, the people of our world who profess a distorted form of Christianity do not actually believe in it. This is the peculiarity of our times.

What is Religion and of What Does Its Essence Consist?

All this might perhaps leave you wondering what made up the foundation of Tolstoy’s Christian beliefs. I will get to that in the coming post.

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