The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 9

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London: Cassell, pages 88–94



From childhood Tolstoy had always inclined towards religion. This inclination was first stifled by the traditional rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church, then by the full play of his passions, his eventful life, his literary success and fame, by different philosophic theories, and finally by his family life. Nevertheless, this religious disposition was never quite extinguished, and from time to time it manifested itself. But when the ast illusion had gone, this powerful sentiment gathered up and, like a torrent, rushed along, sweeping aside every obstacle in its way.

The substance of religion, as Tolstoy had always faintly conceived it, was the relation of man to the fundamental principle of the universe; this relation, and his unity with it, produced in man the conviction of indestructibility, and belief in immortality. Without this belief, life, with the eternal dread of death, would be terribly absurd—even worse than annihilation itself. The conceptions which led to this belief in immortality were love, self-sacrifice, service to others, to the world, to God—generally, the sacrifice of the ego and devotion to humanity.

These thoughts were rising in his mind at the best moments of his life; his religious ideas were for the first time clearly formulated in the Caucasus, where the beauty of nature invigorated his soul and the doors of eternity seemed to open before him, shedding on him the rays of a heavenly light. But he was not yet ready to receive this light. He had to pass through many years of suffering before the momentary, passing recognition of the futility of worldly interests became a fixed conviction. Internal, secret growth of the spirit had to run parallel with physical development; inevitable conflicts between the physical personality and the religious conscience were necessary to decide once for all which was to predominate and influence his life. In this encounter victory remained with religion, and the power of the physical personality was broken for ever.

No illusion could ever restore the importance of the material side of life. In such a struggle souls often perish, and spiritual death is certainly the worst which may befall a man. Though Tolstoy did not perish spiritually, he lost much strength in this struggle, and when he triumphed, like a newborn child he scarcely could conceive the greatness of the existence he was entering upon. All the stages of this process are told with inimitable sincerity in his "Confession." The state of mind of a man who has lost all interest in a worldly life, but has not yet found anything to replace it, is described by Tolstoy in the images of an Oriental tale:

"To save himself from a wild beast, a traveller jumps into a dry well, but perceives at the bottom a dragon with open jaws, ready to devour him. Not daring to climb out of the well and in order not to be devoured by the dragon, the man catches hold of the branches of a wild shrub growing in a crack in the wall of the well. But his arms grow tired, and he feels that he must soon succumb to one or other of the menacing dangers. He holds on, however, when he sees two mice, one white and one black, at the foot of the shrub, steadily running around it and gnawing it through. He sees that at any moment the shrub may topple over, and he must drop into the jaws of the dragon. The traveller feels that he is inevitably lost; he gazes around and discovers a few drops of honey on the shrub. He can reach them with his tongue, and licks them up. Thus do I cling to the branches of

The life of Tolstoy 127.jpg

The Count and Countess in the Crimea.

life, knowing that the jaws of death may close on me at any moment, and I cannot understand why I am in such torture. I am trying to suck the honey which used to comfort me, but now I do not enjoy it. The black and white mice continue day and night to gnaw the branch to which I cling. I clearly see the dragon and the mice, and cannot take my eyes off them. This is not a fable, but a clear, indisputable truth, evident to everybody."

All the wise men of the world whom Tolstoy addressed with the question of the meaning of life answered that life was evil and meaningless; and he decided to quit life, and was near to suicide. But his love for the people, his interest in the life of the workers, who saw a meaning in life, saved him. He put to himself the question: "Is life perhaps evil and meaningless because I am living wrongly? That is to say, is my life evil and meaningless—my life and that of all those of my circle who, like myself, do not see any meaning in life?"

The question so sincerely put to himself brought him salvation. There was only one answer: working people, serving others, learn the meaning of life, love life, and are not afraid to die. This meaning of life for the people has taken the shape of religion. Tolstoy accepted this religion of the people, wishing to unite himself with them in their adoration of God. But the process of his regeneration was not yet complete. As he tells himself periodically, his soul was lifted up only to be cast down:

"What is the meaning of this spiritual ecstasy and death? I am not living when I lose belief in the existence of God, and long ago I would have killed myself but for the faint hope of finding Him. I only live when I seek and feel Him. But why am I yet seeking? a voice asked within me. Here He is. Without Him there is no life. To know God and to live are synonymous. God is life."

He was saved from despair, life returned to him—the very life force of his youth—but now it was a conscious life; he had found God, and had faith in Him. And his faith was one with that of the working people. Tolstoy himself describes the end of his search and doubts:

"I renounced the life of my circle, but I recognised that it was not life but an imitation; that the luxury in which we lived deprived us of the capacity to understand life, and in order to understand life I must understand not the mode of existence of us parasites of life, who are exceptions, but that of the toilers, those who create life and the meaning of life. The simple working people around me were Russians, and I addressed myself to them for the meaning which they give to life. Their meaning was the following: 'Man is created by God, and made in such a way that he can save or lose his soul. The problem for every man is to save his soul. To save his soul he must live according to God's will, and in order to live according to God's will he must renounce all the pleasures of life; he must labour, be humble, patient, and merciful.' The people gather this meaning of life from their religion, transmitted to them by their pastors, and preserved among them by tradition. This conception is clear to me, and near to my heart."

But this peaceful haven was only a stage on the road to his religious development. The form of the popular religion being the Greek Orthodox Church and its creed, Tolstoy, adopting it, came soon in direct collision with the established Church. For him, faith meant salvation from death. The Church creed, however, at its best was only serving the interest of the State. Soon Tolstoy recognised that his faith, purified by reason, had nothing in common with the Church creed but a, few religious terms. In order to have the right to assert this, he submitted the dogma of the Orthodox Church to severe examination. The results he published in his book, "A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology."

Freeing himself from the creed of the Church, he was inevitably led to examine the teaching of Christianity as contained in the Bible, and consequently the Bible itself. He did this in a lengthy work, "The Four Gospels Unified and Translated." In this work, step by step, he analysed the text of the Gospels, throwing aside that which was not clear or not directly connected with the main idea of Christianity. The passages clearly expressing this principal idea he arranged in a connected, easily understood form, and the whole teaching assumed a complete, harmonious, and popular character. Arriving at the very root of Christianity, Tolstoy undertook a new work to explain his conception of it: "What is My Faith?" It may be said that, with this book, the cycle of his religious development was accomplished.