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by Count Leo Tolstoy
The original, squashed down to read in about 20 minutes
Leo and Sonya Tolstoy
His novels brought Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy great success, and his position in the Russian Aristocracy brought great wealth. Yet he came to reject both for a fervent anarchist and pacifist interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. This did not endear him to either government or church (he was excommunicated in 1901), but thousands tried to practice his principles in Tolstoyan communes throughout Russia and his ideas had a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Though reared in the faith of the Orthodox Church, I had by the time I left university ceased to believe what I had been taught. My faith could never have been well grounded in conviction. I not only ceased to pray, but also to attend the services and to fast. Without denying the existence of God, I cherished no ideas either as to the nature of God or the teaching of Christ.
I found that my wish to become a good and virtuous man, whenever the aspiration was in any way expressed, simply exposed me to ridicule; while I instantly gained praise for any vicious behaviour. Even my excellent aunt declared that she wished two things for me. One was that I should form a liaison with some married lady; the other that I should become an adjutant to the Tsar.
I look back with horror on the years of my young manhood, for I was guilty of slaying men in battle, of gambling, of riotous squandering of substance gained by the toil of serfs, of deceit, and of profligacy. That course of life lasted ten years. Then I took to writing, but the motive was grovelling, for I aimed at gaining money and flattery.
My aims were gratified, for, coming to St. Petersburg at the age of 26, I secured the flattering reception I had coveted from the authors most in repute. The war, about which I had written much from the field of conflict, had just closed. I found that a theory prevailed amongst the "Intelligentsia" that the function of writers, thinkers, and poets was to teach; they were to teach not because they knew or understood, but unconsciously and intuitively. Acting on this philosophy, I, as a thinker and poet, wrote and taught I knew not what, received large remuneration for my efforts with the pen, and lived loosely, gaily, and extravagantly.
Thus I was one of the hierarchs of the literary faith, and for a considerable time was undisturbed by any doubts as to its soundness; but when three years had been thus spent, serious suspicions entered my mind. I noted that the devotees of this apparently infallible principle were at variance amongst themselves, for they disputed, deceived, abused, and swindled each other. And many were grossly selfish, and most immoral.
Disgust supervened, both with myself and with mankind in general. My error now was that though my eyes were opened to the vanity and delusion of the position, yet I retained it, imagining that I, as thinker, poet, teacher, could teach other men while not at all knowing what to teach. To my other faults an inordinate pride had been added by my intercourse with these littérateurs. That period viewed retrospectively seems to me like one of a kind of madness. Hundreds of us wrote to teach the people, while we all abused and confuted one another. We could teach nothing, yet we sent millions of pages all over Russia, and we were unspeakably vexed that we seemed to gain no attention whatever, for nobody appeared to listen to us.
I travelled in Europe at this period, before my marriage, still cherishing in my mind the idea of general perfectibility, which was so popular at that time with the "Intelligentsia." Cultured circles clung to the theory of what we call "progress," vague though are the notions attaching to the term. I was horrified with the spectacle of an execution in Paris, and my eyes were opened to the fallacy underlying the theory of human wisdom. The doctrine of "progress" I now felt to be a mere superstition, and I was further confirmed in my conviction by the sad death of my brother after a painful illness of a whole year.
My brother was kind, amiable, clever, and serious; but he passed away without ever knowing why he had lived or what his death meant for him. All theories were futile in the face of this tragedy. Returning to Russia I settled in my rural home and began to organise schools for the peasants, feeling real enthusiasm for the enterprise. For I still clung to a great extent to the idea of progress by development. I thought that though highly cultured men all thought and taught differently and agreed about nothing, yet in the case of the children of the mujiks the difficulty could easily be surmounted by permitting the children to learn what they liked.
I also tried through my own newspaper to indoctrinate the people, but my mind grew more and more embarrassed. At length I fell sick, rather mentally than physically. I went off to the Steppes to breathe the pure air and to take mare's milk and to live the simple life. I married soon after my return to my estate. As time passed on I became happily absorbed in the interests of wife and children, largely forgetting during a happy interval of fifteen years the old anxiety for individual perfection. For this desire was superseded by that of promoting the welfare of my family.
All this time, however, I was writing busily, and was gaining much money as well as winning great applause. And in everything I wrote I persistently taught what was for me the sole truth - that our chief object in life should be to secure our own happiness and that of our family. Then, five years ago, supervened a mood of mental lethargy. I grew despondent; my perplexity increased, and I was tormented by the constant recurrence of such questions as-"Why?" and "What afterwards?" And by degrees the questions took a more concrete form. "I now possess six thousand desyatins of land in the government of Samara, and three hundred horses - what then?" I could find no answer. Then came the question, "What if I could excel Shakespeare, and Molière, and Gogol, and become the most celebrated the world has ever seen-what then?" Answer, there was none; yet I felt that I must find one in order to go on living.
Life had now lost its meaning, and was no longer real to me. I was a healthy and happy man, and yet so empty did life seem to me that I was afraid of being tempted to commit suicide, even though I had not the slightest intention to perpetrate such a deed. But, fearing lest the temptation might come upon me I hid a rope away out of my sight, and ceased carrying a gun in my walks.
It was in my 50th year that the question "What is life" had reduced me to utter despair. Various queries clustered round this central interrogation. "Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there any signification in life that can overcome inevitable death?" I found that in human knowledge no real answer was forthcoming to such yearnings. None of the theories of the philosophers gave any satisfaction. In my search for a solution of life's problem I felt like a traveller lost in a forest, out of which he can find no issue.
I found that not only did Solomon declare that he hated life, for all is vanity and vexation of spirit; but that Sakya Muni, the Indian sage, equally decided that life was a great evil; while Socrates and Schopenhauer agree that annihilation is the only thing to be wished for. But neither these testimonies of great minds nor my own reasoning could induce me to destroy myself. For a force within me, combined with an instinctive consciousness of life, counteracted the feeling of despair and drew me out of my misery of soul. I felt that I must study life not merely as it was amongst those like myself, but as it was amongst the millions of the common people. I reflected that knowledge based on reason, the knowledge of the cultured, imparted no meaning to life, but that, on the other hand, amongst the masses of the common people there was an unreasoning consciousness of life which gave it a significance.
This unreasoning knowledge was the very faith which I was rejecting. It was faith in things I could not understand; in God, one yet three; in the creation of devils and angels. Such things seemed utterly contrary to reason. So I began to reflect that perhaps what I considered reasonable was after all not so, and what appeared unreasonable might not really be so.
I discovered one great error that I had perpetrated. I had been comparing life with life, that is, the finite with the finite, and the infinite with the infinite. The process was vain. It was like comparing force with force, matter with matter, nothing with nothing. It was like saying in mathematics that A equals A, or O equals O. Thus the only answer was "identity."
Now I saw that scientific knowledge would give no reply to my questions. I began to comprehend that though faith seemed to give unreasonable answers, these answers certainly did one important thing. They did at least bring in the relation of the finite to the infinite. I came to feel that in addition to the reasoning knowledge which I once reckoned to be the sole true knowledge, there was in every man also an unreasoning species of knowledge which makes life possible. That unreasoning knowledge is faith.
What is this faith? It is not only belief in God and in things unseen, but it is the apprehension of life's meaning. It is the force of life. I began to understand that the deepest source of human wisdom was to be found in the answers given by faith, that I had no reasonable right to reject them, and that they alone solved the problem of life.
Nevertheless my heart was not lightened. I studied the writings of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. I also studied actual religious life by turning to the orthodox, the monks, and the Evangelicals who preach salvation through faith in a Redeemer. I asked what meaning was given for them to life by what they believed. But I could not accept the faith of any of these men, because I saw that it did not explain the meaning of life, but only obscured it. So I felt a return of the terrible feeling of despair.
Being unable to believe in the sincerity of men who did not live consistently with the doctrines they professed, and feeling that they were self-deceived, and, like myself, were satisfied with the lusts of the flesh, I began to draw near to the believers amongst the poor, simple, and ignorant, the pilgrims, monks, and peasants. I found that though their faith was mingled with much superstition, yet with them the whole life was a confirmation of the meaning of life which their faith gave them.
The more I contemplated the lives of these simple folk, the more deeply was I convinced of the reality of their faith, which I perceived to be a necessity for them, for it alone gave life a meaning and made it worth living. This was in direct opposition to what I saw in my own circle, where I marked the possibility of living without faith, for not one in a thousand professed to be a believer, while amongst the poorer classes not one in thousands was an unbeliever. The contradiction was extreme. In my class a tranquil death, without terror or despair, is rare; in that lower class, an uneasy death is a rare exception. I found that countless numbers in that lower mass of humanity had so understood the meaning of life that they were able both to live bearing contentedly the burdens of life, and to die peacefully.
The more I learned of these men of faith the more I liked them, and the easier I felt it so to live. For two years I lived in their fashion. Then the life of my own wealthy and cultured class became repellent to me, for it had lost all meaning whatever. It seemed like empty child's play, while the life of the working classes appeared to me in its true significance.
Now I began to apprehend where I had judged wrongly. My mistake was that I had applied an answer to my question concerning life which only concerned my own life, to life in general. My life had been but one long indulgence of my passions. It was evil and meaningless. Therefore such an answer had no application to life at large, but only to my individual life.
I understood the truth which the Gospel subsequently taught me more fully, that men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. I understood that for the comprehension of life, it was essential that life should be something more than an evil and meaningless thing revealed by reason. Life must be considered as a whole, not merely in its parasitic excrescences. I felt that to be good was more important than to believe. I loved good men. I hated myself. I accepted truth. I understood that we were all more or less mad with the love of evil.
I looked at the animals, saw the birds building nests, living only to fly and to subsist. I saw how the goat, hare, and wolf live, but to feed and to nurture their young, and are contented and happy. Their life is a reasonable one. And man must gain his living like the animals do, only with this great difference, that if he should attempt this alone, he will perish. So he must labour for the good of all, not merely for himself.
I had not helped others. My life for thirty years had been that of a mere parasite. I had been contented to remain ignorant of the reason why I lived at all.
There is a supreme will in the universe. Some one makes the universal life his secret care. To know what that supreme will is, we must obey it implicitly. No reproaches against their masters come from the simple workers who do just what is required of them, though we are in the habit of regarding them as brutes. We, on the contrary, who think ourselves wise, consume the goods of our master while we do nothing willingly that he prescribes. We think that it would be stupid for us to do so.
What does such conduct imply? Simply that our master is stupid, or that we have no master.
Thus I was led at last to the conclusion that knowledge based on reason is fallacious, and that the knowledge of truth can be secured only by living. I had come to feel that I must live a real, not a parasitical life, and that the meaning of life could be perceived only by observation of the combined lives of the great human community.
The feelings of my mind during all these experiences and observations were mingled with a heart-torment which I can only describe as a searching after God. This search was a feeling rather than a course of reasoning. For it came from my heart, and was actually opposed to my way of thinking. Kant had shown the impossibility of proving the existence of God, yet I still hoped to find Him, and I still addressed Him in prayer. Yet I did not find Him whom I sought.
At times I contended against the reasoning of Kant and Schopenhauer, and argued that causation is not in the same category with thought and space and time. I argued that if I existed, there was a cause of my being, and that cause was the cause of all causes. Then I pondered the idea that the cause of all things is what is called God, and with all my powers I strove to attain a sense of the presence of this cause.
Directly I became conscious of a power over me I felt a possibility of living. Then I asked myself what was this cause, and what was my relation to what I called God? Simply the old familiar answer occurred to me, that God is the creator, the giver of all. Yet I was dissatisfied and fearful, and the more I prayed, the more convinced I was that I was not heard. In my despair I cried aloud for mercy, but no one had mercy on me, and I felt as if life stagnated within me.
Yet the conviction kept recurring that I must have appeared in this world with some motive on the part of some one who had sent me into it. If I had been sent here, who sent me? I had not been like a fledgling flung out of a nest to perish. Some one had cared for me, had loved me. Who was it? Again came the same answer, God. He knew and saw my fear, my despair, and so I passed from the consideration of the existence of God, which was proved, on to that of our relation towards him as our Redeemer through His Son. But I felt this to be a thing apart from me and from the world, and this God vanished like melting ice from my eyes. Again I was left in despair. I felt there was nothing left but to put an end to my life; yet I knew that I should never do this.
Thus did moods of joy and despair come and go, till one day, when I was listening to the sounds in a forest, and was still on that day in the early springtide seeking after God in my thoughts, a flash of joy illumined my soul. I realised that the conception of God was not God Himself. I felt that I had only truly lived when I believed in God. God is life. Live to seek God and life will not be without Him. The light that then shone never left me. Thus I was saved from self-destruction. Gradually I felt the glow and strength of life return to me. I renounced the life of my own class, because it was unreal, and its luxurious superfluity rendered comprehension of life impossible. The simple men around me, the working classes, were the real Russian people. To them I turned. They made the meaning of life clear. It may thus be expressed:-
Each of us is so created by God that he may ruin or save his soul. To save his soul, a man must live after God's word by humility, charity, and endurance, while renouncing all the pleasures of life. This is for the common people the meaning of the whole system of faith, traditionally delivered to them from the past and administered to them by the pastors of the Church.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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