Tortured Intellectual

This is a review of A Confession, by Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy lived through the latter half of the 19th century. He came to the end of his life before the Russian Revolution of 1917. You know of him as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karennina, among many other works, including the one reviewed here, A Confession.  This is a short book but not necessarily a fast read, because Tolstoy lucidly and trenchantly packs significant meaning in a small space, and in addition is relating a progression in his thought, so you must read carefully so as not to lose track.

Pride and Hedonism

Tolstoy’s early life was marked by what he describes as “Epicureanism,” but which we would call hedonism. He lapsed from the faith of his youth “As is usual among people of our level of education. . . . Religious doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it. If it is encountered, it is only as an external phenomenon disconnected from life.”

As he gained stature through his “art,” his writing, he came to think of himself as an intellectual leader, and with other artists and journalists, sometimes referred to collectively as poets, developed a faith, of sorts: “This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion.”

At some point in his life, though, this became tiresome to him, especially seeing the shallowness and antics of people who regarded themselves as the intellectuals of their age. He began to be conscious of the direction to history, the conviction that “we are being carried somewhere;” the idea that everything evolves and that he was evolving with it. But if so, why? And whither? These questions began to gnaw at him. Living for material gain, or prestige, or simply to provide well for his family, began to seem meaningless.


Throughout several years of thinking in this way, Tolstoy was tortured by seemingly unanswerable questions, like what would become of his life’s work to date, or of the work he should do in the future? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live? Why wish for anything, or do anything? Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?

To describe his constant rumination on life’s meaning, Tolstoy illustrated with an Eastern fable. He was like a man who ran from a mythical beast of the air, and fell into a well, but before hitting the bottom, grabbed and held onto a branch in the wall of the well. From there he could look down and see the fierce maw of a waiting dragon. The man was thus imprisoned, by fear, to his little branch, but the longer he stayed, the more his grip loosened with fatigue. What’s more, at the base of the branch were two mice, one black and one white, working their way around and around the branch, chewing at it a little at a time. In this way Tolstoy described life. The mice – the succession of nights and days — slowly but surely weaken our tenuous hold on life, as does our declining strength. The beast of the sky is hunger; privation; scarcity; want. The dragon below is death. At the age of fifty (he lived to be 82) Tolstoy was becoming ever more convinced that he should let go of the branch through suicide.

These kinds of questions took Tolstoy deeper on a philosophical journey, particularly his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, and about Socrates, and of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes.

Suicide and Salvation

At this stage of Tolstoy’s life, he became convinced that all was meaningless, and he increasingly entertained suicidal thoughts, even going so far as to avoid temptations.  He would avoid carrying a gun in solo hunting, for example, and would not leave a rope lying around where he might encounter it in solitude. He stayed his hand from this irrevocable act, however, due to a nagging sense he might have miscalculated.

He found the miscalculation in observing simple peasants and their faith.  Tolstoy had a nearly life-long conviction that as a member of the nobility, he had lived as a “parasite” in Russian society. He thought life was “an evil and an absurdity,” but he eventually came to a different understanding; that all of life was not an evil and absurdity; only his was. ‘[I]f one is to think and speak of the life of mankind, one must think and speak of that life and not of the life of some of life’s parasites.” Looking at the poor working people, the newly emancipated serfs of Russia, he began to see in them a natural nobility, and a humble faith that was authentic and self-proving. It did not require overly-sophisticated analysis, as in his own class. He separated himself mentally to their way of thinking of faith, this way:

“I perceived that to understand the meaning of life it is necessary first that life should not be meaningless and evil, then we can apply reason to explain it. . . . I had also to admit that I was bad; and to feel myself to be good was for me more important and necessary than for two and two to be four. I came to love good people, hated myself, and confessed the truth. Now all became clear to me.”

Tolstoy considered his own vacillation on the question of God’s existence. He found that when he repudiated belief in God, he was suicidal. When he was in a cycle in which he affirmed God’s existence, he found that he was full of life.

Obey Then Believe

He came to consider a simple faith, and achieved a very relevant insight, which is that he should first behave well, as they did; believing would follow. Obedience first; faith follows, not the other way around. He explained it this way:

“If a naked, hungry beggar has been taken from the crossroads, brought into a building belonging to a beautiful establishment, fed, supplied with drink, and obliged to move a handle up and down, evidently, before discussing why he was taken, why he should move the handle, and whether the whole establishment is reasonably arranged – the beggar should first of all move the handle. If he moves the handle he will understand that it works a pump, that the pump draws water and that the water irrigates the garden beds; then he will be taken from the pumping station to another place where he will gather fruits and will enter into the joy of his master, and, passing from lower to higher work, will understand more and more of the arrangements of the establishment, and taking part in it will never think of asking why he is there, and will certainly not reproach the master.”

“So those who do his will, the simple unlearned working folk, whom we regard as cattle, do not reproach the master; but we, the wise, eat the master’s food but do not do what the master wishes, and instead of doing it sit in a circle and discuss: “Why should that handle be moved? Isn’t it stupid?” So we have decided. We have decided that the master is stupid, or does not exist, and that we are wise, only we feel that we are quite useless and that we must somehow do away with ourselves.”

Thus: obey first, understand second. Eschew evil, seek good, and then find the Author of good. That same principle applies to our thinking, not just to our action. We don’t just think our way to the truth of God.

The Far Shore

One more analogy that helps to explain how we can miss the important question in life, as Tolstoy was in danger of doing. Imagine you set out in a boat on a river. You are pushed off from shore, and you begin to row to get to the other side. But the current is strong. You tire. You rest and float with the current. Your boat becomes intermingled with the boats of many others. A few struggle against the current, to achieve the other side, but most yield to it. Along the way, you forget your goal, you relax at the oars, you join in the merry-making and revelry of your fellow boaters floating downstream. And then you hear, dimly at first but with increasing clarity, the roar of cataracts ahead, which will destroy you and your boat if you do not wrench yourself free of the current and pull, pull for the other side.

Tolstoy: “That shore was God; that direction was tradition; the oars were the freedom given me to pull for the shore and unite with God. And so the force of life was renewed in me and I again began to live.”



2 thoughts on “Tortured Intellectual”

  1. I have chewed on Tolstoy’s writing, but not on the parts you covered. As usual, I will chew the cud on this writing too. The notion of obeying as an early step to believing is counter culture, at least in most of the church(es). In a time of flaccidity
    produced by relativisim, of hijinks and horseplay of posturing athiests, of, on the other hand, Christians setting a bar so low anyone can try just enough Jesus as a salve for what ails or as a gloss of being “spiritual,” I loved reading the metaphors of intense paddling for God.

    1. There’s a long-ish section in Confessions in which Tolstoy talks about feeling alive when he was seeking God, but then dismal and even suicidal when he doubted. I inferred this went on for some time, for him. He seemed to get it that if there is no God, then all is pointless, there is no substitute ideology that will re-introduce meaning to life. My impression at the time was that he was following his feelings, but as I think of it, this is perhaps more empirical than I thought. He considered these opposing experiences, and deduced validity for the proposition that produced life.

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