A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s Confession is an extended essay on his conversion from a typical debauched Russian aristocrat/artist to a rather unusual strain of Christianity, with a stopover in the Russian Orthodox Church along the way. It’s a rather typical conversion story: he thought he was in the right, and such-and-such is how he justified his actions, but was unfulfilled, and then he found God and learned the errors of his previous thoughts and ways. He struggled with finding God, but ultimately gave himself up to the mystery, and whatnot. In its broad structure the kind of conversion story you could hear from someone today.

This is perhaps its most disappointing aspect. If Tolstoy is really “the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction,” as Nabokov would have it in his Lectures on Russian Literature, you’d expect something at least a little bit spectacular, even if it isn’t fiction. But this is almost spectacularly ordinary.

Tolstoy’s youth and youthful misunderstandings are ordinary; he notes, mocking his former rationalizations of immoral behavior, that “I was paid money for doing this. I was provided with excellent food, lodgings, women, company, and I was famous. It must then be the case that what I was teaching was very good.” I find it hard to believe that the man who wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace was foolish enough at that time to think that success in the market indicated some kind of moral good. But then I also found it hard to believe that he categorized mathematics as “experimental knowledge,” in contrast to philosophy. And assumed economic activity to be zero-sum. Also the sophistry involved in this whole question of “why we are here,” a question Tolstoy wiggles and changes and massages so that he continually tries to answer something else, then is disappointed in his answer, never once asking himself whether his question even should have an answer.

His philosophizing leads him, midway through things, to the views, basically, of Schopenhauer. He believes his life is meaningless and has no purpose. But he is afraid of death, and can’t bring himself to commit suicide though he believes he should. Here he begins to sound a bit like Pozdnyshev:

I can now see that if I did not kill myself it was because of some vague awareness that my ideas were mistaken. No matter how convincing and irrefutable I felt my train of thoughts to be, as well as that of the wise ideas that had led us all to the conclusion that life is meaningless I still had some obscure doubts as to the validity of the final outcome of my deliberations.

It was expressed as follows: I, that is my reason, have acknowledged that life is irrational. If there is nothing higher than reason (and there is not, and nothing can prove that there is), then reason is the creator of life for me. Without reason I can have no life. How then can reason deny life when it is the creator of it? Or looking at it another way: if there were no life my reason would not exist, which must mean that reason is the offspring of life. Life is everything. Reason is the fruit of life and yet this reason rejects life itself. I felt that something was not quite right here.

I too feel that something is not quite right here, but it’s Tolstoy’s facility with deductive logic. “If there is nothing higher than reason, then reason is the creator of life for me”? Your conclusion does not follow from your premises, sir; this is the kind of squishy argument that I didn’t expect to find but found in abundance. In any case, even if reason is the fruit of life, it can still reject the value of life; just because Tolstoy is afraid to die doesn’t make it “not quite right.”

This all leads to a kind of reverence for the noble peasants, who toil honestly and believe simply in the value of life despite its pain and suffering. Tolstoy rejects the idea that such people simply haven’t asked themselves the questions at hand, and equally rejects the idea that he and Schopenhauer might be more intelligent. The peasants have asked all the questions of philosophy and they are answered by “irrational knowledge.” The same irrational knowledge that stopped him from killing himself, I’m sure.

There is some good in A Confession. It’s the first time I’ve understood someone’s explanation of why he believes “God is life,” and there are passages of interest. But the essay is strewn with inapt metaphors and analogies, misplaced worship of “the herd,” and a general sense that Tolstoy was in these regards a genuinely troubled but rather unimpressive man.

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