Nov 1, 1999

A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

    Written A Hundred Years Ago, Will Be Appreciated In Future
In the Introduction to the newly published English version of The last days of Leo Tolstoy by Vladimir Chertkov, his closest friend, the publisher writes: ”Nearly a century after his death, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy remains a giant in the world of literature. While the impact of his ‘spiritual’ mission cannot be fully gauged”. A Confession by Leo Tolstoy written in the last decades of the last century could not have been appreciated among the majority in a world that materialism was propagated as the only credible way of approaching knowledge. Talking about any spiritual dimension was miscomprehended as an attempt that could not lead but to irrationality and non scientific thinking. In the New Age where people have started to feel their existence as spirits and not only matter, Tolstoy’s experience is expected to receive so much appreciation.
A Confession by Leo Tolstoy is a very inspiring work for those who are interested in the question: what is the meaning of life? For Tolstoy it was not an exercise of the intellect; it was an arduous search from the side of someone who “had reached the impossibility of living, a cessation of life and the necessity of suicide”. How come that “so imperceptibly and gradually did the force of life” return to him? Was it a new discovery? Tolstoy says that it was “quite old-the same that had borne me along in my earliest days.” Why and how then did it leave him? Here is the whole story as much as possible in the words he expressed it.
At the age of 18 he started to be skeptical about all what he learnt at school as a Christian Orthodox. The signs of the cross and genuflection he made in prayers were, for him, meaningless actions and he could no longer continue doing them. He shared with others the impression that always religious persons were noticed to be “dull-witted, cruel, and immoral people who tend to consider themselves very important “, while “intelligence, honesty, straightforwardness, good naturedness and morality are qualities usually found among people who claim to be non believers.”

Nevertheless, he says, “ I did believe in something, without being able to say what it was. I believed in God, or rather I did not deny God, but what kind of God I could not have said; neither did I reject Christ or his teachings, but what I understood by the teachings again I could not have said.” At that point the young Tolstoy had no conflict because the natural faith in him was manifested in a sincere desire for “moral perfection” coupled with perfection of every other aspect in life.
Yet, however things were not that easy. “Everytime I tried to display my innermost desires-a wish to be morally good-I was met with contempt and scorn, and as soon as I gave in to base desires I was praised and encouraged.” Here was a turning point in Tolstoy’s life, moral perfection was replaced by a determination “to be more famous, more important, wealthier” and all passions of “animal instincts motivating my life.” In a world where “ambition, lust for power, self-interest, lechery, pride, anger, revenge, were all respected qualities,” Tolstoy says that he practiced “lying, thieving, promiscuity of all kinds, drunkness, violence, murder….” But was still considered by others as “a relatively moral man.”
At the age of 26 he started to mix with poets and writers and share with them a role that was bestowed upon them at the time of faith in “evolution”; the role of teaching people. “This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the evolution of life was a religion and I was one of its priests…..for a considerable length of time I lived in this faith without doubting its validity.”
He began to doubt the sincerity of his circle when he noticed that each group term themselves as “the finest and most useful teachers” and “others teach falsely”. Something very deep in him was telling him that if ever someone was carrying such a great mission of “teaching people” he should not seek personal esteem as first priority. But still he shared with them their “genuine, sincere concern” of “how to gain as much money and fame as possible” by writing books and journals. When he remembers this stage in his life Tolstoy says, ”we all spoke at the same time, never listening to one another. At times we indulged and praised each other in order to be indulged and praised in return, at other times we grew angry and shrieked at each other, just as if we were in a madhouse.”
Two events had an effect on him deeply: in a visit to Paris where he saw young men executed; “the sight of an execution revealed to me the precariousness of my superstition in progress……I realized that even if every single person since the day of creation had, according to whatever theory, found this (execution) necessary I knew that it was unnecessary and wrong, and therefore judgements on what is good and necessary must not be based on what other people say and do, or on progress, but on the instincts of my own soul”. The second event was his brother’s death “without having understood why he had lived, and still less why he was dying.” Tolstoy was so touched deep inside, but his supposition was that, “everything is evolving, and the reason why I am evolving together with all the rest will one day be known to me.”
Being involved in more work of writing, arbitration, teaching he began to feel spiritually ill without knowing a concrete reason for that illness. He got more involved in work as a means “of stifling any questions in my soul regarding the meaning of my own life in general.” Another means was getting married and putting for himself a new goal, “the straightforward desire for achieving the best for my family and myself.” Thus another fifteen years passed.
Attacks of despair then started to recur more and more frequently with questions, “Why, what comes next?” ”Well fine, you will have 6000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” “Well fine, so you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”
With no answers to relieve him life turned to a complete meaninglessness. “But it was impossible to stop, and impossible to turn back or close my eyes in order not to see that there was nothing ahead other than deception of life and of happiness, and the reality of suffering and death: of complete annihilation.” Tolstoy, at this stage was not yet fifty, very healthy, famous, rich, respected, leading a wonderful marital life with a beloved wife and wonderful children. He was only possessed by the questions: ”What will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life? Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?
“I searched for an answer to my questions in all branches of knowledge acquired by man. I sought long and laboriously. I did not search half-heartedly, or out of idle curiosity, but tormentedly, persistently, day and night, like a dying man seeking salvation, and I found nothing.” Tolstoy sums up the knowledge that science and philosophy, each out of its own perspective, gives but which he regards as giving not answer to his questions. Science says, ”you are that which you call your life; you are a temporary, incidental accumulation of particles. The mutual interaction and alteration of these particles produces in you something you refer to as your life. This accumulation can only survive for a limited length of time; when the interaction of these particles ceases, that which you call life will cease bringing an end to all your questions.” The speculative realm tells him, ”the universe is something infinite and incomprehensible. Man’s life is an inscrutable part of this inscrutable ‘whole’”.
Finding no answer to his questions in books he turned to people around him. He found them having four forms of “escape”; either they are ignorant of the whole thing, involved in physical pleasure (epicurianism), strong enough to get rid of their lives, or weak enough to cling to life even if they knew well that it was evil and useless. The inner torture he faced was leading him to commit suicide; he did not even know why he did not kill himself.
A new stage in his life started when he was sure that the answer to his questions was not to be found in ”rational knowledge” because that knowledge was dealing with the “finite” and his questions were about the “infinite”. It was such a BIG DISCOVERY for him that his questions were to be answered by “faith” because it is only faith that answers the question: what meaning is not destroyed by death? by: unity with the infinite, God, heaven. “I was inevitably led to acknowledge there does exist another kind of knowledge possessed by humanity as a whole: faith.” “Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequence of which is that man does not kill himself but lives. Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something that he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite, he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite.”
Now that he found the clue, a kind of relative stability emerged; it is not through rationality that man finds answers to a question about the meaning of life, because rational knowledge deals with what is temporal. The truth about what is eternal is to be found in faith, that was his conclusion. “I was now prepared to accept any faith so long as it did not demand a direct denial of reason, which would have been a deceit”, said Tolstoy to himself and started a new direction of search. He turned to “learned people, Orthodox theologians, elder monks, theologians of the newest types of Orthodoxy, and even to the so-called New Christians who thought salvation through faith in redemption ….questioned them on how they believed and what they understand to be the meaning of life…….I could not accept the faith of those people”. “…..they did not live according to the principles expounded in their teachings. I felt strongly that they were deceiving themselves…….they lived only to satisfy their desires and they lived just as badly as, if not worse than, nonbelievers.” Tolstoy then was afraid a “tormenting feeling of fear should return to my former despair, after the hope I had experienced.”
Tolstoy by now had knocked all the doors of outside sources, and every time he thought he was about to find answer to his questions about the meaning of life and what remains of it after death, he was faced by a layer of falsity that, instead of leading him to the truth, was apparently taking him far away again. This might be true on the surface, but actually every step was leading him to the real source of knowledge within. Failure to get out with anything from theologians led him to total despair and panic; and for the first time he found himself directing his face not to something human; “I started to pray to the one whom I sought, in order that he might help me. And the more I prayed the more apparent it became that He did not hear me and that there was really no one to whom I could return. And with my heart full of grief that there was no one, no God, I cried: Lord have mercy on me. Save me! O Lord show me the way! But no one had mercy on me and I felt that my life had come to an end.”
It was not coming to an end, it was the severe pain that precedes birth. With deep suffering and strong feeling- a feeling that cannot be questioned, justified, or proved- that God exists, Tolstoy came up with a conclusion. “A concept of God is not God,” “I am seeking that, without which there cannot be life.” “There He is! He, without whom it is impossible to live. To know God and to live are one and the same thing. God is life.” “And more powerfully than ever before everything within and around me came to light, and the light has not deserted me ever since.”
It was not the end of the journey to experience the flow of life that strongly; actually it was the beginning of a new phase. Tolstoy wanted to do something to express that life through. He was aware, by inner intuition that he wanted to keep in touch with the Source of life, God. With the same purity and sincerity he went to attend the church services with that purpose. “With all the powers of my being I wished to be in a position whereby I could merge with the people in fulfilling the ritual aspects of their faith; but I could not do it. I felt that I would be lying to myself, and mocking what I considered sacred, if I were to do so.” This was a new experience of separating “true” from “false”. “I have no doubt that there is truth in the teachings, but I also have no doubt that there is falsehood in them too, and that I must discover what is true and what is false and separate one from the other.”
With that purpose in mind and heart, he turned to study theology and the Holy Scripture. Tolstoy has wonderful writings about religion in which he separates what is true from what is false. They deserve an article of their own. Since we are interested here in his inner journey which is very relevant for any seeker of truth, the most important thing to mention here is that knowledge he came up with when he read the Bible was not something separated from the inner experience. In other words he read the Bible not as mere literal words, he read it with light in his heart. So the knowledge of the heart, the force of life within made him capable of communicating with the inner language of the Holy Scripture.
Tolstoy came up with two main conclusions: first, the church was deceiving people gravely and people themselves should exert effort to know the true faith. Second, one of the most obtuse superstitions was the superstition of the scientists who said that man can exist without faith. Tolstoy gives his definition of what religion is. “Religion is not a belief established once and for all in certain supernatural events that are supposed to have taken place at a particular time, nor is a belief in the necessity of certain prayers and rituals, nor, as the scientist think, is it a survival of the superstitions of ancient ignorance which have no meaning or relevance of life today. Religion is a relationship established between man, everlasting life, and God in conformity with reason and contemporary knowledge, and which alone pushes humanity forwards to its destined aim.”
With peace inside Tolstoy made of his whole life an expression of what he believed; "he frequently reminded people, his mission was service to God among real, living people rather than monastic seclusion; moreover, he rightly did not feel free to abandon his wife and numerous children”. (Vladimir Chertkov: The last days of Leo Tolstoy)
His religious understanding is based on commitment to life rather than withdrawal from it, on participation rather than passivity, on establishing the kingdom of God on earth rather than anticipating it in an after-life