The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 13

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London: Cassell, pages 118–123



In his book "On Life," Tolstoy defines the conditions under which a man's regeneration to a new life begins. Every conscious man must observe that in his endeavour to acquire personal happiness he finds himself in direct conflict with those around him, who are also struggling for happiness, and this strife gives him no rest—even poisons his efforts for well-being. Besides, if man succeeds in snatching a particle of happiness, it ceases very soon to satisfy him, because he understands its illusory character. The more he experiences the satisfaction of reaching personal well-being, the more he recognises its ephemeral character, and this conclusion does not allow him to enjoy happiness when obtained. And, further, however stable and complete the material well-being may appear, a conscious man cannot help seeing death ready at any moment to devour him and thus destroy all his illusion of acquired happiness.

There is no way out of it. Life becomes paralysed, and what remains—the inertia of life—may suffice only to make an end of this absurd contradiction of life.

There is only one way of salvation—to renounce material pleasures, to be re-born, and to adopt love as the principle of life. Love—not in the sense of a physical preference for one over another, but a love which has as its dominating impulse the welfare of others and loving service to them rather than making one's own personal happiness the chief end. Such love solves all contradictions of life. Love ends the struggle, and replaces it by mutual concessions and brotherly assistance. Love's realm is unlimited and without disillusion and satiety, because moral happiness is independent of our physical personality. Love does not fear death, because the aim of love, service to others, is immortal and cannot be interrupted by one of the disciples falling out of the ranks. Love, by its substance, unites man to eternity.

This idea is developed by Tolstoy with a deep, psychological analysis, and, demonstrating the groundlessness of the fear of death, he concludes by saying:

"What man needs is given to him—life which cannot be death, and happiness which cannot be evil."

Russian censorship found this work harmful also, and the first edition was burnt. But now it is freely sold, in complete and in abridged editions. At that time Tolstoy turned his attention to human excesses, such as smoking, drunkenness, the eating of meat, and sexual intemperance. On these questions he wrote a series of articles. Smoking and drinking he dealt with in "Why do Men Intoxicate Themselves?" It appeared as the introduction to the book by Dr. Alexeef. Tolstoy explained vegetarianism in an article entitled "The First Step," also written as an introduction to a book ("The Ethics of Food"), translated into Russian under his supervision. In addition, he wrote short, popular articles on the same theme, and even gave it an artistic expression. He also organised a temperance society. Persons desiring to enter this society were asked to sign the following form:

"Recognising the great evil and sin of drunkenness, I, the undersigned, decide never to drink any alcohol, vodka, wine, or beer; not to buy or offer it to others; with all my strength I will convince others, especially young people and children, of the evils of drunkenness and the advantages of a sober life; and I will gain members for our society. We beg all agreeing with us to keep this form, to write down on it the names of new members, and to communicate with us. If any intend to give up this pledge, we beg him to communicate with us."

These forms were distributed promptly and covered with signatures, and towards the end of the first year there were over a thousand members. It is understood that Tolstoy himself was the first to set the example. He gave up smoking, and neither meat nor wine appeared again on his table.

Especially, however, he devoted his pen to the fight against sexual excess. This question, in its general aspect, he had touched already in his drama, "The Power of Darkness," in which crime is committed by a man not evil by nature, but who has become entangled in an illicit alliance. With special vigour he drew in "The Kreutzer Sonata" a picture of the dreadful consequences of such sinful relations. He presents to his readers three stages in those relations. The first is the full submission of woman to man, in whose sensual power she is, and who exacts from her absolute chastity; the second is the antithesis of the first—a liberal recognition of the equal rights of woman in sin; and the third is the semi-patriarchal respectability which is the hypocritical family morality practised by the majority of married persons in the middle and upper classes, and at the bottom of which lies, not spiritual union between man and woman, but crude sensuality in the guise of conventionality. This sensuality begins to manifest itself in youth, and poisons the purity of the relations between man and woman. Hence jealousy, unfaithfulness, and often tragedies. There is only one way of salvation—absolute chastity, and "let him who can practise it, do so." The most a Christian ought to permit himself is monogamy. The artistic form of this story, the dialogue, and the first person being employed throughout, misled not a few readers into the belief that it was an autobiography. Needless to say, this belief is absolutely unjustifiable.

At the end of 1889, Tolstoy finished his comedy, which at first he had called "Too Cunning," but rechristened "The Fruits of Enlightenment." In this comedy he again ridiculed the indolence of Russian high society and the would-be scientific solemnity with which they treat trivial affairs. The last touches to the comedy were given by Tolstoy at the request of his daughter, who wanted the piece for a performance at home, in Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy took great interest in the work, assisted at the rehearsals, and gave his advice to the actors. When he was alone, however, he felt depressed by the extravagance and futility accompanying those preparations. The whole house was topsy-turvy with the great number of guests, the performance, and the entertainment of the young people. He wrote in his diary at that time:

"I am ashamed of all these expenses in the midst of poverty."

The painter Gay, more and more carried away by Tolstoy's conception of Christianity, sought to express it in pictures. The first of these was "Christ and Pilate," with the motto, "What is truth?" In this picture, very highly appreciated by Tolstoy, the idea was expressed that Pilate's words "What is truth?" were not a question directly addressed to Christ, but an ironical observation of Pilate's implying that it is not worth while to speak the truth as Christ preached it. Indeed, looking at the figure of the well-fed Roman patrician, and then on that of Christ, exhausted by a whole night of torture, his feverish, brilliant eyes full of thought, it becomes clear that for Christ truth is everything, for Pilate nothing.

So Tolstoy's days were passed. But the dark years of threatening famine were approaching to call forth his practical activity.