Leo Tolstoy Biography
Leo Tolstoy (or Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy), 1828-1910, was a Russian novelist and social reformer, born on the 9th of September (August 28) 1828, in the home of his fathers – Yasnaya Polyana, near Toula – a large country house (not the present one) built in a severely formal style, with Doric pillars and architraves, standing solitarily in a typical Russian landscape. The Tolstoy family, to whom it had belonged for several generations, was originally of German extraction, and had settled in Russia in the days of Peter the Great.
The first ancestor of distinction was Petr Andreevich Tolstoy. His descendant Nicholas (the father of the great author) was born in 1797. After serving for a short time in the army he retired in 1824, and led the life of a Russian boyar. By his marriage with the princess Maria Volkonsky, Count Nicholas in a great measure rebuilt the family fortunes, which had fallen into decay during the two previous decades. Count Leo Tolstoy was the youngest but one of the five children of this marriage, and lost his mother when he was barely three years old. Six years later his father died also, at the age of forty-one.
As a child, Tolstoy, though observant and thoughtful, showed no marked talent. He was plain and very sensitive on the point, suffering keenly for want of notice and affection. This sensitiveness led him as he grew older to hide himself away from his playmates and spend hours in lonely brooding. He describes in Childhood how, one day, it dawned suddenly upon his mind that Death was ever lying in wait, and that to be happy one must enjoy the present, unconcerned with the future. Whereupon the youthful Epicurean flung aside his books and pencils, and, stretched on his bed, fell to munching sweetmeats and reading romances. But Tolstoy’s childhood was not without its share of wholesome pleasure. Hunting and shooting, the delight of the Russian noble, occupied much of his father’s leisure, and from his earliest years the boy was wont to accompany his parent. At other times he was quite happy sitting beside his father’s coachman on an expedition to one of the neighbouring towns, or with his brothers running in and out of the stables and coach-houses.
The tedium of the schoolroom and the reproofs of his tutor made a reverse side to the picture, but did not prevent this fund of early memories from being, as he writes, ” ever to be treasured, and fondled again and again, serving as a well-spring from which to draw my choicest treasures.” After his father’s death at Moscow, in 1837, Tolstoy and his brothers were placed under the guardianship of his aunt, the countess Osten-Sacken, and in the care of Mme Ergolskaya, a distant relative. The former died, however, in 1840, and the charge devolved on another aunt, Mme Jushkov, who lived in Kazan. Mme Jushkov was a typical Russian lady of her class. Keeping open house, fond of gaiety and society, her ideas on moral questions were liberal in the extreme. Tolstoy was eleven years old when he became subject to her influence – an influence which he subsequently regarded as having been the reverse of beneficial. A French tutor was engaged for him and his brothers, prior to their entrance into the university of Kazan. Outside the hours of study Tolstoy spent his days either in solitary rambles, during which he reflected on the problems of life, or in violent exercise at the gymnasium (the only form of athletics enjoyed by boys of his position in Russia). Thus the physical and philosophical impulses of his nature were developed in equal measure, and these two conflicting forces began their lifelong duel. Only in later years has the philosopher sometimes seemed to outweigh the man of action in Tolstoy’s vigorous personality.
In 1843, at the age of fifteen, he entered the university of Kazan, and gained with his college cap and uniform what he College. prized most, his independence. The lax rule of the At un i versity – which was of no high scholastic repute, giving ready admittance to the sons of the rich and noble – enabled him at the same time to enter the world of society and study its complex problems at leisure. Kazan was in those days a real paradise for such as sought happiness in social excitement, dining and dancing. No city in Russia was so given up to the pursuit of pleasure. Among these scenes of luxury and licence the students played a prominent part. Amid such influences the boy soon ripened into the man. The constant succession of balls, picnics and parties wearied and disgusted him. The pages of Youth are eloquent of deadly ennui. He is for ever seeking ” Her,” engaged in an undefined ” pursuit of the Well-beloved,” with a half spiritual, half physical longing. At intervals in this quest of the unknown he devoured the novelists of his day, chiefly Dumas and Eugene Sue. He already thought deeply on the object of existence; forming new ideals, aspiring to noble deeds, seeing himself in imagination now a passionate lover, now a leader of men. He was always trying to be original, and to tread unbeaten tracks. Partly in consequence of this feeling, he determined to enter the school of Eastern languages. His first attempt was unsuccessful, but finally passing in through the medium of a supplemental examination, he took up Arabic and Turkish. These studies, however, proved uncongenial to his versatile nature, and failing to distinguish himself in them, he turned his attention in 1845 to the school of law. Here he met with equal discouragement. The professors – all Germans, and many of them not knowing enough Russian to make themselves understood – were favourite butts for the students’ wit. There was practically no serious teaching, nor any personal interest shown in the pupils. Tolstoy’s evil genius had once more cast him in stony places and left him to work out his own salvation. History, religion and law now claimed his attention in his final efforts to gain the university diploma. In religion his opinions had undergone a great change. From the child’s unthinking acquiescence in a hereditary faith had sprung absolute unbelief. History he held a useless form of knowledge. ” Of what avail,” he said, ” to know what happened a thousand years ago ? ” Hence he neglected the lectures on these subjects, absented himself from the examinations, was confined in the university gaol for irregular attendance, and ended by coming out but moderately well in the yearly examination. The conviction that he was wasting his time forced itself upon him. An idle, dissipated life had told upon his health, and early in 1847 Tolstoy asked permission to go down, ” on account of ill health and private reasons.” Thus ended his college life, which from an educational point of view he had treated as a jest. Somewhat of an enigma as he was to his companions, with his alternate fits of feverish gaiety and melancholy abstraction, aristocratic hauteur and liberal views, there was yet found a little band of students to accompany him on the first stage of his journey homewards. While probably admiring the original bent of his mind, they little dreamed their late comrade would one day be acclaimed as Russia’s greatest thinker and novelist.
Tolstoy went back to his estates with fresh hope and energy, determined to ameliorate the condition of his peasantry and fulfil The the duties of a landlord. Rumours had reached Youthful him at Kazan from time to time of the recurring Reformer. famines, revolts and miseries of the serfs. In 5847, as often before, the crops failed to suffice for the needs of the starving people, and whole districts set forth to petition the tsar for food. Here was a vital problem requiring prompt solution. In the course of desultory reading at the university he had studied the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Frenchman’s plea for Nature, honest work and simplicity of life, had impressed him greatly. Fired with enthusiasm, he now entered heart and soul on the task of realizing this ideal. Unfortunately, he was as yet without sufficient moral stamina to withstand recurring disappointments and to combat the suspicions of the serfs. The youthful reformer lacked the patience necessary to deal with the deep-rooted mistrust engendered by years of oppression and neglect. After six months of struggle with this discouraging state of things he temporarily gave up the attempt, and we find him in St Petersburg taking up for a time the broken threads of his education. But with the restlessness of transition strong upon him he soon returned to country life, and in company with his brother Sergius gave himself up to hunting, gambling, carousing with Zigani dancers, and throwing all serious thoughts to the winds. The Landlord’s Morning may be taken as a picture of this stage of Tolstoy’s life. The inevitable reaction soon came. Oppressed by debts and difficulties, in the spring of 1851 he betook himself to the Caucasus, where his eldest brother Nicholas was stationed with his regiment. At Pyatigorsk, at the foot of the mountains, he rented a cottage for about twelve shillings a month, and lived there with the utmost frugality.
Finally his brother’s persuasions, aided by the influence of relations in high places, led him to enter the army. He passed the necessary examination at Tiflis, and joined the artillery in the autumn of the year. Enters the J Y Y Army. At that time Russia was much disturbed by the lawlessness of the Caucasian races. Bands of Circassians were constantly on the move, plundering and looting. The punitive expeditions in which Tolstoy took part were his first taste of warfare. Neither his military duties nor his love of sport entirely absorbed him, however. The great power which had hitherto lain dormant now awoke. He began to write, and within the next few years produced some of his finest works. Nekrassov, the editor of the Russian Contemporary, accepted Childhood, the young author’s maiden effort. In accordance with the common practice, he received nothing for the MSS. Publication of a first attempt was considered ample payment in those days. Tolstoy was now twenty-four years of age. Childhood was followed by The Landlord’s Morning, Boyhood and Youth, in quick succession. His early aspirations were revived in these pages, which reflect the doctrines of Rousseau. ” You neither know what happiness is nor what life is,” he writes to expostulating friends. ” Once taste life in all its natural beauty, happiness will consist in being with Nature, seeing her, communing with her.” His philosophy notwithstanding, Tolstoy felt a pardonable desire for promotion, which was slow in coming to him. Some verses ascribed to him (an authorship never denied) making fun of the general during the siege of Sebastopol, which appeared in print, may possibly have had something to answer for. Be that as it may, the spirit of unrest and dissatisfaction was moving Tolstoy to return home, when rumours of hostilities arose, and the Crimean War burst into flame. He promptly volunteered for active service, and asked to be allowed to join the army on the Danube, under the command of Prince Gortchakov.
In the early part of 1854 we find him encamped before the walls of Silistria, a town of Bulgaria, which Gortchakov had invested. At the very height of the bombardment, however, Austrian intervention prevailed, and the siege was raised. The din of battle was hushed and revelry took its place. At the ball which promptly celebrated the event Tolstoy felt ill at ease. The joyous music and babel of tongues jarred on his sensitive ear, fresh from the moans of the wounded and dying. He went up to the prince and asked leave to start for Sebastopol. Permission being granted, he hastened from the ballroom, and left Silistria without delay.
He now exchanged the offensive for the defensive. Shot and shell fell like hailstones on the bastions of Sebastopol. Courage, fortitude, presence of mind were at every moment demanded, while assault followed assault, until at last the overwhelming strength of the allies compelled the Russians to retreat. Throughout that trying time Tolstoy cheered his companions, whiling away many a weary hour with jest and story. Amid this ” wrackful siege of battering days ” he wrote those Tales from Sebastopol which earned him instant literary celebrity, and caused the emperor Nicholas to issue special orders that he should be removed from a post of danger. An official despatch recounting the events of the siege was next written by Tolstoy at the command of his superior officer, and with the charge of this document he was shortly afterwards sent to St Petersburg. He was never again on the field of battle.
Tolstoy returned home with new impressions. Sad at heart and sick of the horrors of war, he came back with a feeling of brotherly love for the common soldiers, whom he and devotion, fighting for their country without hope of reward, without fear of death. He contrasted them with the more self-seeking nobles, and felt their superiority. The stirring scenes through which he had passed, the simple faith of his men, all had helped to renew his belief in God. Preceded by the fame of his descriptions of Sebastopol and the Caucasus, he arrived in St Petersburg to find himself the object of a general ovation.
The Sovremennik (Contemporary), in which Tolstoy’s first work, Childhood, had appeared, numbered among its contributors the foremost writers of the day. To be admitted to their ranks was considered by them an honour equivalent to the award of a fauteuil in the French Academy. They welcomed Tolstoy with open arms, the veteran novelist, Turgeniev, in particular hastening to greet him on his arrival, and begging him to make his house his home. Society was equally eager to open its doors to the young soldier-author. His vivid and dramatic pictures of the war had been widely read and had created a profound sensation.
The great official world of St Petersburg proceeded to offer him a brilliant series of entertainments in which he found himself the central figure. It is not surprising that this combined adulation from literary men and society overcame for a time the growing asceticism of his character. Yet it also in a measure hastened its development. Even while borne swiftly on the current of pleasure, his strenuous nature gradually reasserted itself. In the pages of My Confession, Tolstoy describes the phases of this mental unrest. The narrowness of a literary clique soon became irksome to his dominant character. His passionate desire for truth brought him into frequent conflict with those who paid more regard to convention. With Turgeniev especially he found himself constantly at variance. A friendship between natures so diametrically opposite, between two men who might be described as leaders respectively of the old and the new school of thought, could not long subsist. Mutual admiration does not imply sympathy. Turgeniev presently wrote to a friend, ” I regret I cannot draw nearer to Tolstoy, our views are so opposed, the one to the other.” And these differences of opinion gradually led to a complete estrangement. On the other hand, in Fet, the poet, he found a lifelong friend. Others of his intimates were Nekrassov, the editor of the Contemporary, already mentioned; Katkov, the celebrated journalist; Droushinine, Grigorovitch, Fet, and Ostrovski, the dramatist.
While Tolstoy was thus waking to a sense of distaste for his environment, a great event was pending. With the accession of Alexander II. in 1855 a wave of progressive policy – set in motion by the tsar himself – stirred the Movement. bureaucratic circles of Russia, and while fiercely resisted by some of the nobility, met generally with cordial encouragement. The emancipation of the serfs became the burning question. ” The People ! ” and ” Progress ! ” were the cries quickly caught up by the press of Russia and of Germany also. It was in Germany, indeed, that the novel of humble life sprang into being, Gotthelf leading the way with his tales, Uli the Serf and Uli the Tenant. Auerbach followed with his village stories, which opened a new world of thought; Stifter and a host of others brought up the rear.
This new impulse in literature soon spread to Russia. Turgeniev in his Sportsman’s Tales, Grigorovitch in The Village and Anton Goremika, showed their sympathy with the moujik. But above all others, Tolstoy was most deeply and lastingly affected. Awakened by this echo from without of his own inmost yearnings, he realized at last the true bent of his mind. ” The People ” became his watchword. One increasing purpose henceforth ruled his life, and gradually brought into harmony the inequalities and contradictions of his character. Roused from the inertia which had been caused by nerves and hypochondria, he wrote Polikoushka, a painful story dealing with the ills of serfdom. His active brain then turned to considering the meaning and scope of the catchword ” Progress,” and fully to do this he determined to go abroad and study the educational and municipal systems of other countries. He finally started for Germany in January 1857.
Tolstoy only three times crossed the Russian frontier, and these journeys were all between 1857 and 1861. On his first trip, Germany and Italy were hurriedly visited. He also made a short stay in Paris, which had attractions for him in the society of several Russian friends, among whom were Nekrassov and Turgeniev. With the latter he had not yet come to open rupture. From Paris he went to Lucerne. An incident which occurred there, and is reproduced in his semi-autobiographical Lucerne, shows the workings of his spirit. He tells how a wandering musician stood one day in the hotel courtyard, and after his performance asked in vain for alms from the convivial crowd assembled. Tolstoy, in the person of the hero, then indignantly came to the rescue, brought the poor minstrel into the hotel, and, moved to wrath with the churlish waiters who were unwilling to serve him, ordered a private room where he himself supplied his guest’s wants, and sent him away happy with a double lining to his pockets.
Of his successive journeys westwards, the third alone was of long duration and of corresponding importance in its results. Prior to this last visit to foreign parts, his time was spent between Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow, often in the company of his friend Fet. On a bear-hunt together, Tolstoy narrowly escaped death, an incident which he graphically describes in his Fourth Reading-book for Children (zoth ed., 1900, &c.). Fet also mentions it in his Reminiscences. His departure was finally hastened by the serious illness of his brother Nicholas, who had gone to France to recruit his failing health. Tolstoy, after halting in Berlin and Dresden, joined him, but only to endure the grief of witnessing his end. Nicholas died on the zoth of September 1860, and Tolstoy’s letters of that period show how deeply he was affected by the death of his brother. It gave a yet more serious turn to his thoughts. In a letter to Fet he reverts to his old trouble, the enigma of life. ” In truth,” he writes, ” the position in which we stand is terrible.” This mental gloom probably still hung over him during his wanderings through Italy. There is no record of his impressions of Rome, Naples, Florence. Turning his footsteps northwards, however, he began to take renewed interest in social conditions, elementary and monastic education, and the general subject of his quest. From Paris (where his friend spoke of him as ” singular indeed, but subdued and kindly “) he went to London in 1861, no noteworthy incident marking his brief visit.
The spring of 1861 found him once more at Yasnaya Polyana, where some little time before he had forestalled the Emancipa tion Act by freeing all the serfs on that estate. He now began digesting the mass of information he Experi- had acquired abroad, eager to put his ideas into meats. practice. The feelings with which he reviewed his experiences were largely those of disappointment. Of the educational systems of Italy, France and Germany, that of the last-named country alone earned his partial approval. While there he visited the universities, prisons and working-men’s clubs. He made the acquaintance of Auerbach, and was greatly influenced by his ideas on village schools. He was also much impressed by the novel institution of the kindergarten, to which Frdbel, the great educationist, was devoting all his energies. Determined to follow these lines, he sought and obtained permission to open a school. In his zeal he also started an educational journal called Yasnaya Polyana.
This journal now only exists as a literary curiosity, but the essays published in it have all been reprinted in his collected works. The time for opening the school was well chosen. The liberal spirits of Russia had gained the day and won a great victory. Just two months previously the decree of emancipation (February 1861) had been sent forth. The air was rife with schemes for the betterment of the peasantry. A new era seemed to have begun.
Tolstoy’s school was essentially ” free.” ” Everything that savours of compulsion is harmful,” he said, ” and proves either that the method is indifferent or the teaching bad.” So that not only were no fees paid, but the children came and went as they pleased, learned what they pleased, and were subjected to no sort of punishment. It was the duty of the teacher to fix the pupils’ attention, and his the blame if they failed to learn. ” The student,” said Tolstoy ” must have the right to refuse those forms of education which do not satisfy his instincts. Freedom is the only criterion. We of the older generation do not and cannot know what is necessary for the younger.”
On these principles the Yasnaya Polyana school was started in a house near that of Tolstoy. He himself taught drawing, singing and Bible history. The Old Testament was his handbook; he held it as indispensable in any course of instruction, a model for all books. Doubts and fears sometimes assailed him, still for a year all went well. Other schools were opened on the same lines in the district, and success seemed assured. But the eyes of the government inspectors had long been suspiciously fixed on them, and a correspondence on the subject presently ensued between the ministry of education and the home department. The verdict passed by the former was free from overt animus. ” The activity of Count Tolstoy deserves respect and should win co-operation from the educational department, although it cannot agree with all his ideas; ideas which he will in all probability abandon on due consideration ” (October 1862). Yet there was a subtle threat conveyed in these last words which was probably not without effect. Signs of discouragement grew visible. We find the enthusiast complaining that his masters desert him, his pupils fall away. The plague of inquisitive visitors annoys him. At the end of the second year the schools were closed, the journal discontinued, and Tolstoy, disheartened and sick, ” more,” as he writes, ” in mind than body,” betook himself to the healthful quiet of the steppes, to breathe fresh air, to drink koumiss and to vegetate. This was the end of his educational experiment, the aim of which was rather to develop the character than to educate in the ordinary sense of the term. When later he asked leave from the authorities to reopen the schools, it was peremptorily refused.
His socialistic theories were now fully unfolded. In his view the people were everything, the higher classes nothing. The latter had misinterpreted the meaning of ” progress,” imagining it to be synonymous with education; and hence compulsory teaching had been resorted to, with harmful results. Reading and writing played but a small part in forming a man’s mind and fitting him for life. They merely rendered him more articulate. These questions should be left to the people themselves. Their demands were very clearly expressed. They knew what they wanted, and were thoroughly convinced that ” in the great question of their spiritual development they would neither take a wrong step nor accept that which was false.”
Such was in substance Tolstoy’s doctrine. ” The people,” he affirms, ” are stronger, more independent, more just, more human, and, above all, more necessary than the upper class. It is not they who should come to our schools; we should learn of them.” This desire to subvert society is akin to the philosophy of Rousseau, as expressed in Emile (livre iv.):
“C’est le peuple qui compose le genre humain; ce qui n’est pas peuple est si peu de chose, que ce n’est pas la peine de le compter. L’homme est le meme dans tous les etats; si cela est, les etats les plus nombreux meritent le plus de respect. Devant celui qui pense, toutes les distinctions civiles disparaissent: it voit les memes passions, les memes sentiments dans le goujat et dans l’homme illustre; it n’y, discerne que leur langage, qu’un coloris plus ou moms apprete…. Etudiez les gens de cet ordre, vous verrez que, sous un autre langage, ils ont autant d’esprit et plus de bon sens que vous. Respectez donc votre espece; songez qu’elle est composee essentiellement de la collection des peuples; que quand tous les rois et tous les philosopher en seraient otes, it n’y paraitrait gunre, et que les choses n’en iraient pas plus mal.”
While Tolstoy’s theories were thus in course of practical solution, his literary powers suffered eclipse. Turgeniev, who lived near him in the country, writes in disgust that he ” has grown a long beard, leaves his hair to fall in curls over his ears, holds newspapers in detestation, and has no soul for anything but his property.” Indeed, his time was fully taken up, for while still occupied in supporting the school, he had allowed himself to be nominated to the position of ” Arbitrator.,” which he held for a year and some months (1861-1862).
This was an arduous post. The arbitrators were with the appointed under the Law of Emancipation to supervise the distribution of land, to adjust the taxes, define the conditions of purchase, and decide all matters in this connexion. These duties were after his own heart, and he went to work with a will. Every day he had difficult points to deal with, deputations of peasants coming to see him, the new law and the rights it bestowed on them having to be explained. The hardest of all Tolstoy’s tasks was to remove the suspicion and mistrust felt by the serf towards the landlord. On the other hand, he had to contend with the nobility of the district, who were well aware of the side on which his sympathies placed him. For a year and a half he tried energetically to do his duty, but this experience led him eventually to regard the Emancipation Law as a not unmixed blessing. It had come too soon, and been granted unasked. The condition of the peasantry was worse than before. A noble impulse, inspired by love of the people, impelled Tolstoy to become their champion and interpreter.
A tragic incident occurring about this period (1866) forcibly illustrates Tolstoy’s character as a defender of the helpless. A regiment had recently been stationed near Yasnaya Polyana, in consequence of some five hundred convicts being at work upon the railway. In this regiment was a certain Captain N., a strict disciplinarian, who led a solitary life and was much disliked by his brother officers and his men. For trifling faults he would condemn his soldiers to unheard-of punishments.
One of his orderlies in particular, a young man of some education – who had voluntarily taken the place of a comrade to free him from military service – was constantly getting into trouble, until, for some slight clerical error in a report, Captain N. ordered him to be degraded and flogged. This was too much for the poor volunteer. He followed the officer as he was leaving the orderlyroom, and struck him a blow on the face. He was immediately placed under arrest, and the details of the occurrence quickly spread through the neighbouring villages.
Two officers of the regiment brought the story to Tolstoy and begged him to undertake the soldier’s defence. He consented readily, and no opposition being made by the military authorities, at once prepared for the court-martial. A few days afterwards the court assembled. Warned by the president of the severity of military law, Tolstoy made answer that he was come to defend not a criminal but a man compelled to crime by force of circumstances outside his will. The plea he set up was that the prisoner was not in full possession of his senses; but this defence was not allowed to stand. The soldier was condemned to be shot, in spite of the utmost intercession Tolstoy could make. The emotion of the crowded assembly stirred by his appeal, the mute quiescence of the soldier (persuaded that death was better than the living agony of exile), the closing tragedy – all this, added to the many scenes of war and bloodshed which he had previously witnessed, made a lasting impression and caused him to raise his voice yet louder in the cause of universal love and peace.
During the preceding period of ethical experiment he published only two books, but these stand high among his works. They were Three Deaths (1859) and The Cossacks (1863) – the latter written ten years before, its leading idea being that culture is the enemy of happiness. At the conclusion of his arbitratorship, seeing his efforts partially nullified, and feeling himself overstrained and overworked, he determined to exile himself for a time to Samara, a south-eastern province. He halted on his way in Moscow, and here one night’s high play cost him the MSS. of The Cossacks, which he sold to the editor of the Russian Messenger for boo to pay his debts of honour. A pleasanter feature of this visit to Moscow lay in the renewal of his intimacy with the Behrs family, Sophia, the younger daughter of the house, being his special attraction. He finally reached Samara in the spring of 1862, and went through a “koumiss cure,” revelling in what he called “the life of a beast of the field.”
By the month of July he felt completely restored to health, and returned to Yasnaya Polyana, where his sister Maria and his aunt, Mme Ergolskaya, were looking after the property. The house in which he now lived was comparatively new. The one in which he was born was sold to pay some earlier gambling debts, and had been removed bodily to the Dolgoe estate some 30 m. distant. He now felt a sense of something wanting in his home – a feeling of incompleteness took possession of him. He wanted to see Sophia Behrs, and accordingly left almost immediately for Moscow. Sophia’s father. was a fashionable Russian doctor, born and bred in Moscow, and a graduate of that university. He had three daughters, of whom Sophia was the second. The friendship between the Behrs and the Tolstoy families was of old standing, Countess Maria Tolstoy having been a school companion of Mrs Behrs.
Marriage and Family Life
It was now the height of summer, and every one of consequence was leaving the city for their country seats. The Behrs family were going on a visit to their grandfather, whose estate lay not more than 40 m. from Yasnaya Polyana. Here they accordingly broke’; their journey, and during the pleasant days that followed Tolstoy’s attachment deepened. Not long after their departure his impulse took shape, and mounting his horse, he set out for Twicy, where they were staying. His errand was a definite one; and he lost no time in fulfilling it. At first. Dr Behrs demurred, unwilling to allow his second daughter to marry before her elder sister, but his objections were presently overruled. On the 23rd of September 1862 the marriage took place, and Tolstoy installed his bride at Yasnaya Polyana with the conviction that calm and contentment were his at last.
Two weeks later he wrote to his friend Fet, saying that he was now happy and felt quite a new man. In his Confession some years later he writes: ” The new conditions of a happy family circle led me away from my researches into the meaning of life. My whole mind became concentrated on the family – on the mother, the children, and the anxiety to provide due means of subsistence. The effort after perfection resolved itself into the effort to ensure the happiness of my offspring.” Tolstoy thereupon settled down to country life, and though to the young countess this exile from her town friends and relations must have been somewhat of a trial, they remained on their estates for the following eighteen years, with very short intervals of absence. They had thirteen children, of whom the eldest was born in June 1863.
In the bringing up and instruction of his family Tolstoy conformed in essentials to the requirements of his position. No experiments were attempted. English and German governesses were engaged, and their educational methods followed the usual routine. Both father and mother devoted a considerable amount of time to their children. Punishment was rare. It consisted in a strict ” boycott ” of the offender, which was not relaxed until a frank confession of fault was made – no light penalty to a sensitive child. The theory of free option in study was dropped by Tolstoy in the case of his children, but he was for ever joining in their games, taking them on his shooting expeditions and sharing in their gymnastic exercises. Manual labour was always congenial to the great writer, and formed a natural concomitant to his pastoral existence. It was a common thing for him to mow the lawns, hoe and rake the garden beds, or when out walking to take the scythe from a labourer and wield it lustily.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s two most widely known and finest novels, date their commencement from this period. These two novels were received Literary with scant favour by both the Liberals and Con- Work. servatives in Russia. Katkov, the editor who was publishing Anna Karenina in his periodical, introduced so many changes into the MSS. that the publication was not continued. It was due to N. Strachov, the literary critic, that public opinion was brought to recognize the merits of these novels. Every day Tolstoy retired to his room for a certain number of hours, and whether in the humour or not, sat at his table and wrote. “Inspiration comes with writing,” he used to say. Authorship he avowedly despised, yet confessed the temptation of public applause and heavy gains was too great to resist. The reading world has reason to be glad of this touch of inconsistency. Despite his genius for characterization, the task of novel-writing cost him a severe and determined effort. The technique of literary composition irked him exceedingly. “You cannot conceive,” he writes in 1864 to his friend Fet, “how hard is this preliminary labour of ploughing the field in which I am compelled to sow. To consider and reconsider all that may happen to all the characters beforehand, and to think over the million of possible combinations, and to choose one out of a hundred thousand, is very difficult.”
In the course of this correspondence interesting sidelights are thrown on Tolstoy as landowner and farmer. Not long after his marriage he wrote, ” I have made an important discovery, of which I hasten to tell you. Agents, stewards and overseers are only so many hindrances to farming! Dismiss them all and lie abed till so o’clock, and you will see things will certainly go none the worse. I have made the experiment, and am quite satisfied. Now to business. When you are in Orel buy me 20 poods of various kinds of string, &c., and send them to me if it does not cost more than two roubles thirty kopecks a pood with the carriage “; and in this vein he enters into manifold rural matters, the progress of crops, the illness of a favourite horse or the calving of a valuable cow. Again the philosopher rises to the surface, and he questions Fet as to the workings of his mind.
“I don’t mean in the Zemstvo nor in agriculture; these are occupations for active men, with which we employ ourselves in a perfunctory fashion, much like ants engaged in hollowing out a clod of earth – work of which the result is neither good nor bad. But what are you doing with your thoughts; how is the inner mechanism working? Is the secret spring trying to show itself, making its presence felt? Has it forgotten how to work? that is the all-important question.” At another time he pays a well-earned tribute to his wife’s helpful sympathy. ” She is by no means a trifler,” he writes, ” but is an earnest helpmeet to me.” In literary matters he valued above everything the opinions of Fet and of Turgeniev (notwithstanding his saying of the latter, ” the older I grow the less I love him “). Fet, indeed, was an intimate and devoted friend, constantly interchanging visits with the Tolstoy family. To him the scenes of War and Peace were first unfolded as Tolstoy read them aloud in the quiet evenings.
It was at Fet’s house (in 1864) that the violent quarrel took place between Turgeniev and Tolstoy which nearly culminated in a duel. Many inaccurate accounts of it have been given, but the history of the rupture as re- with corded by Fet may be looked on as trustworthy. It seems that Turgeniev in rather a boasting spirit was praising his daughter’s English governess – how she had desired him to name the precise sum his daughter might spend in charity, and how, at her instigation, the young lady made a practice of mending the clothes of some of the poorest peasants. Tolstoy, who was always against the artificial ” philanthropy ” of the wealthy, said brusquely that he thought it was theatrical and poseuse for a daintily-dressed girl to sit sewing at filthy, evil-smelling garments in the name of charity. Turgeniev thereupon rose, furious, from the table. ” Stop saying such things ! ” he cried, ” or I will force you to silence, with insults if need be.” Peace was with difficulty restored by M and Mme Fet. The letters which subsequently passed between them only served to fan the flame, so that even the amiable Fet was involved in the dispute and for a short time estranged from Tolstoy. Finally, after a lengthy and acrimonious correspondence, the threatened resort to arms was averted through the interposition of friends; but fourteen years were allowed to pass before a reconciliation took place. In 1878 Tolstoy, believing himself to be in a dying state, at length made overtures of peace to his brother author; overtures which Turgeniev met cordially in the following terms:
“Dear Leo Nikolaevitch,-I received your letter to-day which you sent to me poste restante. I was delighted and much moved by it. With the greatest pleasure I am ready to renew our former friendship and to press your proffered hand. You are quite right in thinking I harbour no feelings of enmity towards you. If they ever did exist they have long since disappeared, and no remembrance of you now remains save that of a man to whom I am sincerely devoted, and of a writer whose first step it was my great privilege to be one of the earliest to welcome; whose every new work has always aroused in me the greatest interest. I rejoice from my heart that our misunderstanding has come to an end. I hope to be in the province of Orel this summer, and then we shall meet. I send you my best wishes, and once more grasp your hand in friendship.”
Meanwhile Tolstoy had pursued literary labours with relentless ardour and with ever-increasing fame. Prince Andre (the hero of War and Peace) and Anna Karenina in turn occupied all his thoughts. Several years were given to the perfecting of these remarkable character-paintings. When the publication (1864-1869) of War and Peace had been succeeded by that of Anna Karenina, he set himself to write yet another great novel, dealing with the times of Peter the Great, but after working at it for some months he suddenly abandoned the scheme. One of the few excursions made during these years of tranquillity was undertaken in 1866 to the battlefield of Borodino, the scene of the famous fight in 1812. For two days Tolstoy wandered over the plain, investigating and taking notes, and there he drew a plan of the battle, which was afterwards published as a frontispiece to War and Peace. But the continued pressure of severe nervous and mental strain was bound to affect a man of his calibre; health and spirits gradually sank, so that in 1870 Countess Tolstoy induced him once more to seek the healthful air of Samara, and subject himself to the ” koumiss cure ” in practice there. A strange At Samara. feature of this ” treatment ” lay in the avoidance of meal and vegetables, the diet being strictly confined to meat. Tolstoy pitched his tent in the village of Karalieck, where the primitive life among the Bashkir nomads exactly suited his habits and disposition. He had a faculty for making himself at home with peasant folk, and was a great favourite among them. In this district there was a large community of Molochans, a sect whose tenets differ considerably from those of the Orthodox religion of Russia. They acknowledge no guide save the Bible, and reject all the rites and ceremonies of the Greek Church. Their honesty, industry and temperance made them an example to all the country round, and caused Tolstoy to study them with special interest. So delighted was the count with this visit to Samara, that he shortly afterwards purchased an estate of over 2000 acres in the district. But his pleasure was short-lived, for not long afterwards (1872-1873) the crops failed and a serious famine broke out. He thereupon opened a subscription fund for the starving population, and went from village to village taking a quantity of grain with him, and making what provision was possible in the circumstances.
Tolstoy was now making up for lost time, learning what he had failed to learn at the university. Greek was his great attraction. ” Without Greek,” he exclaims, ” there Studies in i s no culture.” He also became enamoured of the writings of Schopenhauer, and for the greater part of a year (1869) devoted himself to the study of that philosopher. ” Never,” he says,. “have I experienced such spiritual joys.” Enthusiastic in everything he takes up, he assures his friends that Schopenhauer is the greatest genius he has met with. He sets himself to translate his works, and tries to enrol Fet as a co-translator. Philosophy at this stage of his life went hand in hand with sport and agricultural interests. He contemplated buying an estate in the province of Penza, but on the 21st of October 1869 he writes: “The purchase of the estate in Penza has not come to anything. I have now finished the sixth volume (War and Peace), and I hope it will be published on the 1st of November. There are a lot of snipe. I have shot four brace, and to-day found two brace and killed one bird.”
After a period of comparative rest and ease, the shadows of war and death once more encompassed Tolstoy. Two of his children died in 1873, and their loss was followed by that of his much-loved aunt, Mme Ergolskaya. A mental restlessness and uneasiness came over Tolstoy, and also a desire for the exercise of a wider philanthropy. The Russo-Turkish War put the crowning touch to these feelings. God and death, war and the intricacies of life were now the constant subjects of his letters. ” You will not believe what joy your last letter has given me,” he writes in 1877 to his dear friend Fet. “When you speak of the existence of the Deity, I agree with everything you say, and I would wish to write much, but time fails me and it is difficult in a letter. For the first time you write to me on the Divinity of God. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Don’t say that we must not think about it. Not only we must, but we ought. In all ages the best people, the true people, have thought about it.” Tolstoy now resumed the study of the Bible, and took special delight in the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. He treats them as a new discovery, and recommends them to his friends as having much in common with the teaching of Schopenhauer ! This revived interest in religious questions was accompanied and perhaps deepened by a state of extreme depression. It was then he reconciled himself with Turgeniev, and in December 1878 we find the latter staying with him on a visit of three days’ duration. Turgeniev writes that he finds him ” very silent, but much developed.” s The count on his side feels the same want of mutual sympathy as of old, and confesses that no real friendship seems possible between them.
Tolstoy now entered on the third phase of his life. He himself thus describes the stages of his mental growth. In the first phase he lived only for his own lusts and pleasures. This came to an end at the age of thirty-four. Then came the interest in the welfare of humanity, which married life cooled and obscured for a while. The striving for the welfare of mankind was mingled with the striving for personal well-being. But the third and highest phase was reached when the service of God became the motive power of his existence. All other aims grew subservient to this, and interest in the merely personal life had begun to disappear. He had passed through every imaginable grade of religious thought. As a child he had gone to church and confession unquestioningly. As a student and young man he had scorned and ridiculed religion. Later in life he became a pious and devoutly orthodox Greek Churchman, until one day during the Russo-Turkish War he was filled with a spirit of revolt at hearing the priests pray for the destruction of the enemy, beseeching the Almighty to help them to kill their hundreds and thousands. His whole being recoiled from the un-Christianity of these prayers, and he then and there renounced the orthodox faith. For three years he had exceeded the priests themselves in the regularity of his attendance. Now he felt there was something vitally amiss, and he flung it all to the winds.
The novelist was rapidly being hidden in the philosopher’s cloak, to the dismay of literary Europe. So early as 1859 Turgeniev had exclaimed, ” If only Tolstoy would not philosophize, all might yet be well.” His brilliant contemporaries, Gogol, Dostoievski and others, had all in different ways been seized in turn by what may be called the. fever of religion. Tolstoy was to suffer from it too. Like the flickering of a dying lamp, his imagination again shone out in The Death of Ivan Ilyitch and The Power of Darkness. Subsequently, with rare exceptions, his writings were overloaded with ethical reasonings. He was now fifty. While leading a life outwardly calm and peaceful, he had passed through innumerable mental struggles and vicissitudes. Of these he speaks with simple candour in My Confession, an autobiographical sketch which appeared in print at intervals between the years 1879 and 1882. In the orthodoxy of the Greek Church, with fastings, prayers and rigid observances of her rites, he vainly sought an answer to his doubts; finally he broke away from a ceremonial which had become empty and lifeless to him, and built up a religion of his own. Impressed with the conviction that the peasant’s mental ease was the result of his life of physical toil, Tolstoy tried to adopt the same habits, and for some ten years (dating from about 1880) he renounced the life of his own class as completely as it was possible for him to do. He rose early and went to work in the fields, ploughing, cutting the corn, working for the widow and orphan, and helping them to gather in the crops. He also learnt boot and shoe making, and enjoyed being praised for his skill. Thus he laboured late and early, and in these simple physical acts found the best cure for his attacks of despondency. ” Simplicity ! Simplicity ! Simplicity ! ” His food and drink, his pleasures and personal indulgences, were curtailed. Meat was given up and replaced by a vegetarian diet. Field sports – equivalents for cruelty and lust of blood – were abandoned, and his gun hidden away to rot and rust. Even tobacco was renounced as luxurious and unhealthy.
But with all his straining towards simplicity, it was in the nature of things impossible for Tolstoy absolutely to lead the life of a peasant. Labour though he might throughout the day, there was his well-appointed house to return to. He could not cut himself off from his wife and children. Friends and acquaintances could not be wholly ignored by the would-be Diogenes. Circumstances in this respect were too strong for his views and wishes. The renunciation was still only a partial one. But as the strain of a great surrender is greatest while it is still incomplete, so Tolstoy felt more and more impelled to emancipate himself from worldly concerns. The break in the long spell of country life which presently occurred only served to deepen this desire. In 1881 his eldest son went to the university, and the two next in seniority soon followed him. It became necessary for the family to be in Moscow a great deal, for the sake of the children’s education. The eldest daughter had come out into society, and friends were continually calling, obliging Tolstoy to sit and talk with them. All the elements of town life were distasteful to him. Money was an evil thing in his sight, and he gave up carrying it about with him, or even making use of it. “What makes a man good is having but few wants,” he said, and he accordingly set himself to limit his wishes rigidly, and to detach his heart from all treasured objects.
The year 1880 was the census year in Russia. The government, as usual, called for volunteers to help to carry it out. Tolstoy became one of the enumerators, whose duties afforded an excellent opportunity for seeing the conditions under which the poor lived. The misery of it made him often wish to surrender all his property and have nothing more to do with lands and money, but the government and family circumstances prevented him. In the pamphlet, What are we to do ? he graphically narrates his census experiences. Again and again he attempted to carry his theories into effect. At last, calling his wife into his room, he explained to her that property and many possessions had become irksome to him. Wealth he now regarded as a sin. He wished to be rid of all personal ownership. In 1888 Tolstoy renounced all claim to his estates; everything was made over to his wife and children, the countess acting as trustee. True, this renunciation made little difference in his manner of life. He lived under the same roof as before, ate at the same table, wrote and read in the same study. The change was mental rather than material. He cared no longer for the growth or improvement of his estates, but gave himself up to ethical questions, and endeavoured day by day to bind himself more closely to the people. He now began to write specially for their benefit a number of simple tales which have been widely read, tales directed mostly against crying evils – the peasant’s love of vodka, and like themes. He found willing fellow workers in the firm of Russian publishers known under the name of Posrednik (V. Tchertkoff, and a group of friends). John the Fool, which was published in 1886 in the ” Posrednik Series,” is generally considered the best of these stories. The Power of Darkness (1885) also appeared in this series, and was written with the same object in view. Unfortunately, the popularity of these stories aroused the attention of the government, and led to many of them being forbidden on account of their Socialistic tendencies.
The terrible famine of 1891-1892 added fresh lustre to Tolstoy’s name. He and his family worked unceasingly in soup-kitchens and barns, distributing food and clothes. No true leader lacks a following. Every oppressed sect or individual turned instinctively to Tolstoy for sympathy and support, the most important case in point being that of the sect of the Doukhobors. Early in 1891 rumours began to reach headquarters of social and religious excitement fermenting among the inhabitants of the Caucasus, and especially among the Doukhobors (q.v.). This people, numbering from fifteen to sixteen thousand, shared their goods and property in common, and made The Doukhobors. laws of conduct for themselves, based on a simple form of religion unobscured by ceremonies or ritual. In these matters, and especially in refusing to serve as soldiers, they defied the governors of the Caucasian provinces, so that,”as their numbers and strength of opposition to authority grew formidable, severe measures were put in practice for their suppression. Several of their leaders were exiled, and in 1895 some hundred of them were condemned to be enrolled for three years in the so-called ” disciplinary regiment.”
It was in that year that Tolstoy came in contact with them personally, and became deeply interested in them. He promptly identified himself with the agitation in their favour, and by his endeavours aroused sympathy for them in other countries, especially in England. After many rebuffs from the government, and many unavailing efforts to reach the kindly ear of the Tsar, the persecution of the Doukhobors at length ceased, and they were allowed to emigrate. It was in aid of these people that Tolstoy wrote and published Resurrection. The attack on the Orthodox Church in this novel was probably the chief cause which led to his formal excommunication by decree dated the 22nd of February 1901. In later years Tolstoy maintained all his interests, but old age gradually told on his strength. He died on the 10th of November 1910 at Astapovo, where he Death. was stricken with pneumonia when carrying out a sudden decision to leave Yasnaya Polyana and end his days in retirement.
Tolstoy’s Religious Ideas
No account of Tolstoy can pretend to any measure of completeness which does not refer to his views on religion. Tolstoy himself attributes so much importance to them that he has written several books with the sole object of telling the Tolstoy’s world what he considers truth. In My Confession he describes the various stages of religious experience through which he has passed. He begins with a graphic picture of the religious state of the society in which he was brought up. There, although people were nominally orthodox, actually they believed in nothing. Indeed so inconsistent were the ideals of that society with any real belief in the Orthodox Church that at sixteen Tolstoy practically renounced Christianity and became a sceptic. During the whole of this period he felt unhappy and dissatisfied, for he had no theory which enabled him to solve the riddle of life. He found no solution to the c(uestion he often put to himself – Why do I live? nor to the other which depended on the first – How ought I to live?
It seemed to him that the men he met dealt with these questions in four ways. Some ignored them and treated life as if it were a meaningless jumble of vanity and evil. Others, recognizing the difficulty of satisfactorily solving these questions, simply shut their eyes and made the best of life as they understood it without thinking of the future. A third group answered these questions by regarding life as an evil and foolish thing and by putting an end to it. Fourthly, there were those who considered it a stupid and ridiculous farce and yet continued to live on, making the best of it.
Tolstoy himself took up the last position, although it failed to meet his spiritual needs. He felt that the millions who accepted the religious theory of life had somehow a better answer to the problem, notwithstanding that their solution was based on an absurd hypothesis. Although faith was unreasonable it alone gave meaning to life, faith being understood as the theory which linked man’s finite life with the infinite. Having arrived at this conclusion Tolstoy was ready to accept any faith which did not require a direct denial of reason, and for this purpose studied Buddhism, Mahommedanism and Christianity. The only persons he felt whe were happy and found a meaning in life were the poor, and the only life that could be lived in accordance with reason was life under simple conditions such as animals lived. Only man must labour, not as the animals, each for itself, but for all. The search after God was not an act of reason but of feeling. To live after God’s word we must renounce all the material pleasures of life and be humble and charitable to all men.
This belief he found in the churches, but mixed up with other things which he could not understand and which repelled him, viz. sacraments, fasts, bowing before relics and images. The church festivals, as commemorating miracles or alleged facts of Christ’s life, were repugnant to. him. Communion he explained to himself as an action done in remembrance of Christ and as signifying a cleansing from sin and an acceptance of Christ’s teaching. When asked by the priest to repeat before receiving the elements that he believed that what he was about to receive were the real Body and Blood, he repeated the formula but found that no wish to believe could make him believe it. The attitude of the various Christian churches towards one another also alienated his sympathy; it had no resemblance to a union of love. He thought that there should be mutual concessions where beliefs had so much in common, but was told that any compromise involved an admission that the clergy had altered the primitive faith and that it was their duty to hand on the faith inviolate. He was also very much repelled by the attitude of the Church towards war and capital punishment. Tracing the happiness of the peasantry to their faith, he became convinced that there were certain elements of truth in Christianity. The Christian churches and the Greek Orthodox Church in particular had in his view combined to obscure the basis of truth in Christ’s teaching.
Tolstoy therefore set himself to endeavour to eliminate what he thought the false doctrines and superstitious elements which had grown up round. Christianity, and to discover the verities contained in it. Tolstoy started with the premise that Christ’s teaching was communicated to unlettered persons and only put down in writing long after his death. ” It may be assumed,” he says, ” that the Church in accepting the three synoptic gospels had accepted much that was inaccurate.” Tolstoy argues that it should be remembered that the gospels must have gone through many changes and that he is therefore at liberty to deal with them critically. He sees in Christianity not an exclusively divine revelation, nor a mere historical phenomenon, but a teaching which gives meaning to life. The churches, he considered, were substituting a teaching which was not Christ’s, but was a strained and contorted version of what Jesus taught. The sectarianism of Christianity had its root in the idea that the gospels are to be understood not by taking them by themselves, but by interpreting them in such a manner as to make them agree not only with the other sacred writings but with the traditions of the Church,which were themselves obscure. Tolstoy maintained that it was the foreign elements foisted upon Christ’s teaching which have alienated the best minds from Christianity. Anyone taking Christ’s teaching alone will see that it has no admixture of elements that contradict common sense. It has no sympathy with superstitions, contains no ” dregs,” has no ” darknesses,” but is the strictest and fullest system of ethics.
The substance of Christianity seems to Tolstoy the inculcation of love, humility, self-denial and the duty of returning good for evil, and these essential principles attracted him throughout his life, even when he was a sceptic. The Greek Orthodox Church treated these principles rather as accessory to the teaching of Jesus than of its essence, and the Church considered dogma of more importance. The rule of the Orthodox Church concerning dogmas, sacraments, fasts, prayers, seemed not only unnecessary but were not based on anything in Christ’s teaching. The Sermon on the Mount as reported in Saint Matthew contains, according to Tolstoy, the essence of Christ’s teaching which Christians should carry out entirely. The key to the sermon is contained in the words ” Resist not evil,” this injunction meaning that not only should Christians never repay evil with evil but also that they should not oppose it with physical force. Any physical resistance of evil is contrary to the law of love. This command he regards as the central point of the doctrine of Jesus and as really easy to obey, for which view he quotes Christ’s statement, ” My yoke is easy.” The whole teaching of the churches was contrary to Christ’s teaching when they gave their sanction and approval to armies and the enforcement of the criminal law by the executive powers of a government. Christian society not only ignored Christ’s injunction not to resist evil but was actually based on a denial of its truth. The words ” Judge not that ye be not judged “Tolstoy treats as an expansion or rather as a logical result of the command ” Resist not evil.” Jesus denied the possibility of human justice, demonstrating in the case of the woman taken in adultery that man could not judge his fellow man, since he himself was also guilty. Jesus’ declaration amounted to saying, ” You believe that your laws reform criminals; as a matter of fact they only make more criminals. There is only one way to suppress evil, that is to return good for evil without respect of persons.” The whole social fabric of modern so-called ” Christian ” society was founded upon principles disapproved of by Christ. Its prison cells, factories and houses of infamy, its state church, its culture, science, art and civilization were all based on coercion and violence. People pretended that Christ did not abolish the Mosaic law, but that the law of Christ and the law of Moses harmonized. But Christians acted on the principle of ” an eye for an eye,” discarding the law of Christ and following that of Moses.
Tolstoy goes through the gospel for the purpose of finding out what Christ’s teaching really is. In doing so, he puts aside the miraculous events of Christ’s birth and all other miracles as irrelevant to his inquiry, and also impossible of belief. The result is that he finds that Christ laid down five ” entirely new ” commandments, the first commandment being ” Live in peace with all men,” which was the interpretation put upon the words ” Ye have heard it ever said by the men of old time that thou shalt not kill and that whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment, but I say unto you whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.” The words ” without cause,” Tolstoy rejects, as does also the Revised Version. He considers these words open the door to the evasion of the commandment. Tolstoy interprets the next words, ” and whoever shall say to his brother ` rata ‘ shall be in danger of the council, but whosoever shall say ` thou fool ‘ shall be in danger of hell fire ” to mean that one must never look upon a human being as worthless and as a fool. Not only must Christians refrain from anger, but it is the duty of a follower of Jesus to live in peace with all men. They should not regard anger as justifiable in any circumstances.
The second commandment of Jesus Tolstoy declares to be, “Thou shalt not be united physically to any woman except the one whom thou hast originally known sexually. You commit a sin if you ever abandon that woman. Marriage is marriage, whether there have or have not been any legal or ecclesiastical formalities, once there has been physical union.”
The third commandment as Tolstoy understands it is ” Swear not at all.” This commandment applies not merely to profane swearing but to all kinds of oaths, whether taken by witnesses in courts of law, by soldiers when being sworn in, by magistrates in pursuance of their office, oaths of fidelity and the like. All the oaths are imposed for an evil purpose and are entirely wrong.
The fourth commandment is ” Resist not evil.” Christ’s followers were never meant to act as judges, citizens, policemen or in any other capacity in which it would be their duty to resist evil. Christians should do good in the sense of living virtuously. To abolish evil they should avoid the commission of evil, and never under any circumstances resist wrongs by force. They should never return violence by violence. Christ taught ” If any one strike you, suffer it; if any one would deprive you of anything, yield it up to him; if any one would force you to work for him, go and work for him; if any one would take away your property, abandon it to him.”
The fifth commandment is laid down in Matt. v. 43-48. After calling the attention of his readers to the fact that the words which introduce the injunction to ” Love your enemies,” &c., read, ” Ye have heard it said of old that thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy,” Tolstoy points out that these words must be understood as meaning ” Thou shalt love thy fellow countryman and hate the foreigner.” But when Christ taught in opposition to this maxim ” Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,” He meant ” You have heard it laid down of old that you must love those of your own race and hate foreigners, but I say to you, love every one without distinction of nationality.” It is difficult to love your personal enemy, but it is perfectly possible to love citizens of a foreign nation equally with your own. Tolstoy admits that it is difficult to conceive that everything that is considered essential and natural – what is thought noble and grand – love of country, defence of one’s own country, its glory, fighting against one’s country’s enemies – is not only an infraction of the law of Christ but directly denounced by Him. People might here retort ” If it is true that Jesus really meant this He would have said so plainly.” To this objection he replies ” We must not forget that Jesus did not foresee that men having faith in His doctrine of humility, love and fraternity could ever with calmness and premeditation organize themselves for the murder of their brethren. Christ not foreseeing this did not in so many words forbid Christians to participate in war.” To make good this point Tolstoy shows by quotations from the Fathers that none of the early Christians ever contemplated fighting with any thing but spiritual weapons.
The doctrines of original sin, of the Atonement, of the Trinity, of the Resurrection, are, according to Tolstoy, all without foundation and contrary to Christ’s teaching. Man is conscious, he writes, of a spiritual essence which exists in an imperfect form not only within himself but also in all other living creatures. The perfect spiritual essence is what we call God. It is the indwelling of this spiritual essence in man which creates the desire for communion with God and with those who possess the spirit imperfectly. The true life of man consists in fulfilling the needs of the spirit; and everything that helps to free it from the influence of the body which is antagonistic, tends to encourage the growth of that immortal part. When death comes the spirit is emancipated from the body and returns to God, where possibly, says Tolstoy, it ceases to have an individual existence. The spirit in man is not subject to the limitations of time and space. The life of the individual, however, is essentially bounded by time and space. With the destruction of the body this life ceases to exist, but the divine spiritual life remains. Death is therefore not annihilation but merely the emancipation of the spirit, its introduction to a new and unknown state of existence, to another form of manifestation of the divine spiritual essence. The more a man endeavours to live the life of the spirit the nearer his approach to the eternal and the less the significance of death. But it is impossible for the human intellect to conceive any form of existence outside space and time. So far therefore as immortality implies a resurrection of the body Tolstoy denies it; so far as it implies an individual consciousness of the soul he states we can predicate nothing of it. There are two doctrines of life. One of these doctrines, the source of all error, consists in believing that the personal life of man is one of his essential attributes. The other doctrine, that taught by Jesus, is that the whole purpose of our personal life lies in the fulfilment of the will of God.
Before attempting to define the powers and position of an author, it is best to pass in review the works which have led to his present as a reputation. Tolstoy the writer is a guide of unusual Tolstoy Writer. fa i thfulness to Tolstoy the man. The gradual evolu tion of the reformer and preacher out of the brilliant novelist is described in no pages so clearly as in his own. Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1855-1857) – Tolstoy’s first literary efforts – may be regarded as semi-autobiographical studies; if not in detail, at least in the wider sense that all his books contain pictures, more or less accurate, of himself and his own experiences. No plot runs through them; they simply analyse and describe with extraordinary minuteness the feelings of a nervous and morbid boy, a male Marie Bashkirtseff. They are tales rather of the development of the thoughts than of the life of a child, with a pale background of men and events. The distinct charm lies in the sincerity with which this development is represented. We are introduced by the child, Nicholas Irtenyev, to a number of characters one after the other – father, mother, grandmother, tutor, servants and serfs; and are led by him from the father’s study to the morningroom, and so on to the kitchen and the housekeeper’s closet; and we catch, as in a magic crystal, the lifelike scenes on his waking – in the schoolroom – at his mother’s side. But the apparently unconscious change of the child’s mind into that of the youth – his budding thoughts, hopes, fears – form the true drama of the story. The Cossacks (1863), written round the theory that culture is an enemy to happiness, was followed by War and Peace (1864-1869), which has been justly. called a Russian epic. Within its pages Tolstoy has marshalled a panoramic array of kings, princes and nobles as they lived and moved during the times of the great Napoleonic wars. There are so many figures in the picture, so much kaleidoscope colour and movement, that the spectator often finds it difficult to follow the thread of the narrative. The leading characters principally belong to the highest Russian society, whose circle – with its inflexible code of laws and customs, and a vitiated moral atmosphere affecting each member of it in a greater or less degree – links them together. The interest centres not so much in any single person as in the groups formed by four leading families of the ” grand monde ” – the Rostovs, Bezouchovs, Volkonskys and the Kouragines – all bound together by common aims and interests. The men are eager to make a name and enjoy life; the women seek pleasure in gossip and romance. Peter Bezouchov and Prince Andre, with natures essentially different but united by a love of truth, are the exceptions to this rule. Peter Bezouchov is one of Tolstoy’s finest characterizations, drawn with a masterly hand. He is the embodiment of all that is good and bad in the Russian temperament. On the one side there is the striving after an ideal and a capacity for self-sacrifice, on the other an absence of firmness and balance. Like Tolstoy himself, he is always in doubt as to what is right and what is wrong, as to the meaning of life and death, and, like Tolstoy at that time, can as yet find no answer to these riddles. While Peter Bezouchov is a typical Russian, a very Tolstoy, Prince Andre if a less striking, is a more lovable personality. Upright and noble-minded, he yet is unable to cast off the chains of custom which have held him from childhood. He too is constantly seeking mental rest and finding none. The lovestory of Andre and Natasha Rostov, which runs through the novel, is a poem in itself. Natasha is almost the only heroine Tolstoy has given us who wins our affections; but even she, after many transitions, sinks to the level of the Hausfrau, with no aim beyond the propagation and nurture of the race. It must be borne in mind that in War and Peace Tolstoy winged his shafts not at men generally but at that particular section of society to which he himself by birth and association belonged.
A long period of silence followed the publication of this novel, during which the world heard little of him. At length in 1873 he issued the first parts of Anna Karenina. It is without doubt his greatest literary production. The area of time and space in it, as in the preceding book, is large, but it has more continuity of action, and the principal characters are kept well in the foreground. It is a study of modern Russian life, in which the normal passivity of unsympathetic conjugal relations is sharply contrasted with the transient omnipotence of passion and deep love. The hero and heroine are Count Wronsky, a young soldier in a crack regiment, and Anna Karenina, the wife of an important official in the political world of St Petersburg. The parts of secondary heroine and hero are filled by Kitty Cherbatzky and her lover and ultimate husband, Levine.
The central figure is of course Anna herself, an elegant and fascinating ” mondaine.” She is honest, frank and well endowed by nature, and has an innate striving after truth and beauty in art and in life, but her early marriage with Karenina (who is double her age, reserved and taciturn), while socially advantageous, has dulled and stunted her ideals. Ignorant of the meaning of love, she despises it, and it is not till she meets Wronsky that she realizes to the full the emptiness of her existence. Wronsky, young, handsome, impassioned, recognizing no principle but his own desires, offers her the rich wine of life at a draught. She tastes it, after scant hesitation; and then, flinging away her worldly position, deserting her husband and child, she drains it to the dregs, only to find that poison lies in the cup. Anna and Wronsky have no true ideal to cling to. He, as their passion cools, finds the tie irksome and a hindrance to his career. She grieves for her lost and dearly-loved son, and frets as she sees that Wronsky’s devotion is waning, recognizing too late that he loved her chiefly for vanity’s sake, that they are slipping daily asunder, and growing displeasing to each other. Her past life is closed to her, the future opens like an abyss.
The crisis has come, and swiftly obeying the impulse of her despair she seizes on death as her only weapon for wounding Wronsky and cutting the hopeless knot of her life. This pitiful end is led up to step by step with microscopic truth and insight, into the springs of human action. In the married life of Kitty and Levine, on the other hand, Tolstoy describes a state of happiness of a material nature – disagreements easily bridged over, and mutual interest in their children and the pleasures of the country. Levine is the Tolstoy of fiction. The improvement and development of his estates, the life of a country squire, fail to satisfy him. The death of his brother, the birth of his child, awaken his mind to the problems of existence, and he is plunged in melancholy. Finally, relief comes to him with the words of a peasant who bids him ” live for his soul and for his God.” Thereupon Levine exclaims, ” I have discovered nothing. I have simply opened my eyes to what I knew already; I have come to the recognition of that power which formerly gave me life and which renews life in me to-day. I am freed from error; I recognize my master.” And the novel ends with the effacing of the intellect in a cloud of happy mysticism.
The Kreutzer Sonata, published in 1890, created a profound impression. Many who were previously unacquainted with Tolstoy’s work read this story of love, jealousy and revenge, and “Kreutzer were dumbfounded by its boldness. It is a startling advance upon Family Happiness, published thirty years earlier. Society generally, and Russian society in particular, is ruthlessly condemned for its views on marriage and its attitude towards the vexed question of the relations between man and woman. Marriage, Tolstoy says, can only be condoned if spiritual sympathy exists, and then only as the means to the continuance of the race; otherwise it is a breach of true morality. The ” motive ” of the Sonata is that the ideal we should strive after is a life where the spiritual penetrates and pervades everything, and where all that is carnal is eliminated. But in the “Sequel ” to the Sonata Tolstoy adds that great ideals are always unattainable, and affirms that no man can know, whilst yet striving, how nearly he approaches them. He is only conscious of his deviations.
The views of culture forming the basis of The Cossacks are yet further elaborated in What is Art? (1898), a sweeping criticism of the philosophy of aesthetics, to which he had devoted fifteen years of thought. He dismisses as inadequate Art the theories which define art as the pursuit of beauty, whether beauty be regarded with Shelley and Hegel as an approximation to archetypal perfection, and thus allied to God and goodness, or with Kant as that which gives disinterested pleasure. Tolstoy sets forth his own view that art is a human activity which aims at the transmission of emotion. He proceeds to demand that the emotion shall be actually felt and shall belong to the highest feelings to which men can rise. True art must appeal to the religious perception of the brotherhood of man, and it must find universal response. He asserts that exclusive art is bad art, and that such subjects as sexual love, patriotism and religious devotion should be avoided.
This brief Tolstoy biography was written by Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright and adapted by Excellence in Literature.
- For a charmingly descriptive article about Tolstoy and his country home, read “Count Tolstoy at Home” from an 1891 edition of The Atlantic magazine.
Tolstoy’s best-known works include
- War and Peace
- Anna Karenina
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich
You might also his enjoy one of his short stories, “Three Questions.”