Tolstoy On Life, Death & Religious Belief

Below are excerpts from My Confession, as they appear in Lift Up Your Eyes: The Religious Writings Of Leo Tolstoy (New York: Julian Press, 1960). See also The Collected Works of Leo Tolstoy, by Thomas Crowell & Co., 1899.

I. Religious belief an artificially constructed edifice

II. Life as murderer, liar, adulterer

III. The view of life taken by fellow intellectuals

IV. The real motive of intellectuals

V. Despair and nihilism

VI. A famous parable

VII. The form his conversion took

VIII. Questions

I. Religious Belief An Artificially Constructed Edifice

"A certain S---, a clever and veracious man, once related to me how he came to give up his belief.

"Twenty-six years ago, while he was off on a hunting expedition, he knelt down to pray before he lay down to rest, according to a habit of his from childhood. His elder brother, who was of the party, lay on some straw and watched him. When S--- had finished, and was preparing to lie down, his brother said to him: --

"'Ah, so you still keep that up?'"

"Nothing more passed between them, but from that day S--- ceased to pray and to go to church. For thirty years S--- has not said a prayer, has not taken the communion, has not been in a church, -- not because he shared the convictions of his brother, or even knew them, -- not because he had come to any conclusions of his own, -- but because his brother's words were like the push of a finger against a wall ready to tumble with its own weight; they proved to him that what he had taken for belief was an empty form, and that consequently every word he uttered, every sign of the cross he made, every time he bowed his head during his prayers, his act was unmeaning. When he once admitted to himself that such acts had no meaning in them, he could not continue them.

"Thus it has been, and is, I believe, with the large majority of men. I am speaking of men of our class, I am speaking of men who are true to themselves, and not of those who make of religion a means of obtaining some temporal advantage. (These men are truly absolute unbelievers; for if faith be to them a means of obtaining any worldly end, it is most certainly no faith at all.) Such men of our own class are in this position: the light of knowledge and life has melted the artificially constructed edifice of belief within, and they have either observed that and cleared away the superincumbent ruins, or they have remained unconscious of it."

II. Life As Murderer, Liar, Adulterer

"I put men to death in war, I fought duels to slay others, I lost at cards, wasted my substance wrung from the sweat of peasants, punished the latter cruelly, rioted with loose women, and deceived men. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder...There was not one crime which I did not commit, and yet I was not the less considered by my equals a comparatively moral man.

"Such was my life during ten years."

III. The View Of Life Taken By Fellow Intellectuals

"The view of life taken fellow-writers was that life is a development, and the principal part in that development is played by ourselves, the thinkers, while among the thinkers the chief influence is again due to us, the artists, the poets. Our vocation is to teach men.

"In order to avoid answering the very natural question, 'What do I know, and what can I teach?' the theory in question is made to contain the formula that it is not necessary to know this, but that the artist and the poet teach unconsciously.

"I was myself considered a marvelous artist and poet, and I therefore very naturally adopted this theory. I, an artist and poet, wrote and taught I knew not what. For doing this I received money; I kept a splendid table, had excellent lodgings, women, society; I had fame. Naturally what I taught was very good...

"But in the second, and especially in the third year of this way of life, I began to doubt the infallibility of the doctrine, and to examine it more closely. What first led me to doubt was the fact that I began to notice the priests of this belief did not agree among themselves. Some said: --

"We are the best and most useful teachers; we teach what is needful, and all others teach wrong."

"They disputed, quarreled, abused, deceived, and cheated one another. Moreover, there were many among us who, quite indifferent to the question who was right or who was wrong, advanced only their own private interests by the aid of our activity. All this forced on me doubts as to the truth of our belief.

"Again, having begun to doubt the truth of our literary faith, I began to study its priests more closely, and became convinced that almost all the priests of this faith were immoral men, most of them worthless and insignificant, and beneath the moral level of those with whom I associated during my former dissipated and military career; but conceited and self-satisifed as only those can be who are wholly saints, or those who know not what holiness is.

"I grew disgusted with mankind and with myself, and I understood that this belief was a delusion. The strangest thing in all this was that, though I soon saw the falseness of this belief and renounced it, I did not renounce the rank given me by these men, -- the rank of artist, poet, teacher. I was simple enough to imagine that I was a poet and artist, and could teach all men without knowing what I was teaching. But so I did."

IV. The Real Motive Of Intellectuals

"...The real motive that inspired all our reasoning was the desire for money and praise, to obtain which we knew of no other means than writing books and newspapers, and so we did. But in order to hold fast to the conviction that while thus uselessly employed we were very important men, it was necessary to justify our occupation to ourselves by another theory, and the following was the one we adopted: --

"Whatever is, is right; everything that is, is due to development; development comes from civilization; the measure of civilization is the diffusion of books and newspapers; we are paid and honored for the books and newspapers which we write, and we are therefore the most useful and best of men!"

V. Despair And Nihilism

"I felt that the ground on which I stood was crumbling, that there was nothing for me to stand on, that what I had been living for was nothing, that I had no reason for living...

"The truth was, that life was meaningless. Every day of life, every step in it, brought me, as it were, nearer the precipice, and I saw clearly that before me there was nothing but ruin. And to stop was impossible; to go back was impossible; and it was impossible to shut my eyes so as not to see that there was nothing before me but suffering and actual death, absolute annihilation...

"I could not attribute a reasonable motive to any single act in my whole life. I was only astonished that I could not have realized this at the very beginning. All this had so long been known to me! Illness and death would come (indeed, they had come), if not to-day, then to-morrow, to those whom I loved, to myself, and nothing remains but stench and worms. All my acts, whatever I did, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself be nowhere. Why, then, busy one's self with anything? How could men fail to see this, and live?...It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us; as soon as we are sober again we see that it is all a delusion, and a stupid delusion! In this, indeed, there is nothing either ludicrous or amusing; it is only cruel and stupid!"

VI. A Famous Parable

"There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler in the steppes who is attacked by a furious wild beast. To save himself the traveler gets into a waterless well; but at the bottom of it he sees a dragon with its jaws wide open to devour him. The unhappy man dares not get out for fear of the wild beast, and dares not descend for fear of the dragon, so he catches hold of the branch of a wild plant growing in a crevice of the well. His arms grow tired, and he feels that he must soon perish, death awaiting him on either side, but he still holds on; and he sees two mice, one black and one white, gradually making their way round the stem of the wild plant on which he is hanging, nibbling it through. The plant will soon give way and break off, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this, and knows that he must inevitably perish; but, while still hanging, he looks around him, and, finding some drops of honey on the leaves of the wild plant, he stretches his tongue and licks them.

"Thus do I cling to the branch of life, knowing that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand why such tortures have fallen to my lot. I also strive to suck the honey which once comforted me, but this honey no longer rejoices me, while the white mouse and the black, day and night, gnaw through the branch to which I cling. I see the dragon plainly, and the honey is no longer sweet. I see the dragon, from which there is no escape, and the mice, and I cannot turn my eyes away from them. It is no fable, but a living, undeniable truth, to be understood of all men...

"I was like a man lost in a forest, and who, terrified by the thought that he is lost, rushes about trying to find a way out, and, though he knows each steps leads him still farther away, cannot help rushing about...

" get free from this horror, I was ready to kill myself. I felt a horror of what awaited me; I knew that this horror was more horrible than the position itself, but I could not patiently await the end. However persuasive the argument might be that all the same a blood-vessel in the heart would be ruptured or something would burst and all be over, still I could not patiently await the end. The horror of the darkness was too great to bear, and I longed to free myself from it as speedily as possible by a rope or a pistol ball. This was the feeling that, above all, drew me to think of suicide."

VII. The Form His Conversion Took

"I began to draw nearer to the believers among the poor, the simple, and the ignorant, the pilgrims, the monks, the raskolniks, and the peasants...

"Thus I began to study the lives and the doctrines of the people, and the more I studied the more I became convinced that a true faith was among them, that their faith was for them a necessary thing, and alone gave them a meaning in life and a possibility of living. In direct opposition to what I saw in our circle -- where life without faith was possible, and where not one in a thousand professed himself a believer -- amongst the people there was not a single unbeliever in a thousand. In direct opposition to what I saw in our circle -- where a whole life is spent in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction with life -- I saw among the people whole lives passed in heavy labor and unrepining content. In direct opposition to what I saw in our circle -- men resisting and indignant with the privations and sufferings of their lot -- the people unhesitatingly and unresistingly accepting illness and sorrow, in the quiet and firm conviction that all these must be and could not be otherwise, and that all was for the best. In contradiction to the theory that the less learned we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see in our sufferings and death but an evil joke, these men of the people live, suffer, and draw near to death, in quiet confidence and oftenest with joy. In contradiction to the fact that an easy death, without terror or despair, is a rare exception in our class, a death which is uneasy, rebellious, and sorrowful is among the people the rarest exception."

VIII. Questions

1. Would it even occur to Tolstoy today to seek a spiritual solution to his problem? Would he seek palliation, as so many others have, in antidepressant drugs? Would he construe the "problem" as his own restless subjectivity and make peace with any cultural movement that could happily kill it off for him?

2. Where would Tolstoy fit in in our own society today? Would anyone want to read or listen to him now? Would he have his own radio show? Would The New York Times review his books?

3. Living and breathing in our milieu, which makes a fetish of outward success, of material prosperity, would he take so favorable a view of the "simple and poor," of the ignorant and marginalized? And if not, where would he find the energy to sustain his faith? Or might he embrace atheism?