Tolstoy’s Confession

A Confession
By Leo Tolstoy

The Man Behind the Icon

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers, and his most famous works, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) are considered two of the greatest novels ever written, [1].  Authors as diverse as Anton Chekov, William Faulkner, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have acknowledged his literary contributions. James Joyce has called his story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ the greatest story in world literature, [2] and Virginia Woolf regarded him as the greatest of all novelists, [1] 

Critics have commented on his acute powers of observation, an ability marshalled into an uncompromising examination of the human condition, an examination so realistic that one reviewer has commented that it extends past the written word and into the reader himself or herself.  His body of work has also led some view him as the ‘incarnation of the world’s conscience [1].

In1879, a mere two years after the publication of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suffered what one would probably call today a nervous breakdown.  Severely depressed he contemplated his purpose, the meaning of life—his life, and life in general. After years of searching, during which he contemplated suicide on a number of occasions, he became a devout follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ, particularly of The Sermon on The Mount, found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  What caused this radical transformation, a transformation in which he eschewed his past literary successes, his circle of friends and colleagues, his considerable influence, to become the purveyor of a religious philosophy that would ultimately lead to his excommunication from the Orthodox Church, and at the same time fundamentally impact a religious movement–as well as one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century?  The answer is laid out succinctly in his treatise, A Confession (Dover Publications, 2005).

As a child Tolstoy was raised an Orthodox Christian but drifted away from the faith.  As a teenager and as a young man he ‘yielded’ to numerous passions—ambition, love of power, covetousness, lasciviousness, pride, anger and revenge, p5   Yielding to these passions led to the following: ‘I killed men in war, and challenged men to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was no crime I did not commit…and for all that people praised my conduct,  and my contemporaries considered  and consider me to be a comparatively moral adult’,  p6.

This is a period on which he would later look back in horror.

His friends and colleagues included writers, whose underlying aim, he claims, was to obtain as much money and adulation as possible. And he was no exception.  He was obviously successful at it; his work was very profitable and garnered him a great degree of fame, p8.

However he came to realize that this circle of authors, colleagues, were nothing more than ‘frauds’, p7-8.

He began to teach.  By this time he married and had children and his main objective was now to secure the best conditions for himself and his family. He wrote even though he regarded ‘authorship as of no importance’, p12

Emotional Crisis

He kept writing, primarily, he says, to support his family.  Periods where he experienced a sense of loss and despondency became more and more frequent, manifesting themselves in the questions ‘What’s it for? What’s it lead to?’ p13   When contemplating the success from his novels—enabling him to have a 15,000 acre estate, 300 horses, and  the possibility of fame greater than ‘Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere’—the  central  question remained: ‘What of it?’  He adds:

I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed, and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left to live on, p14.

Searching for Answers – The Sciences

He began to search for a way to escape this crisis.  Initially this search led him to the sciences, which he classifies as one of two types, the first being the ‘experimental’ sciences, an example of which is evolution. The other type is what he refers to as abstract sciences, represented by metaphysics, or philosophy.   Neither held the answers to his questions: What will come of what I’m doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?

He initially considered evolution as the means for unlocking the answers to his questions. He states:

Everything develops and differentiates itself, moving towards complexity and perfection, and there are laws directing this movement. You are part of a whole. Having learnt as far as possible the whole, and having learnt the law of evolution, you will understand also your place in the whole, and will know yourself.

This natural progression of improvement, he felt, should apply to the person as well.  He adds:

Ashamed as I am to confess it, there was a time when I seemed satisfied with that [analysis]. It was just the time when I was myself becoming more complex and developing, p22.

But then there came a time when this journey towards perfection ceased. He stopped ‘developing’, his muscles were weakening and his teeth were ‘falling out’.  It became clear to him that the idea of continual growth, the constant drive toward perfection, at least in his life, was not happening.  And as a result his fundamental question—why was he here?—would remain unanswered by this branch of science.

My interpretation of his argument is this: the physical sciences can describe the physical aspect of life and the surrounding environment, but it cannot answer the fundamental question of ‘why’.  What was the original cause for man to be here in the first place?  Again, why am I here? Why am I likely to be here tomorrow?

He then searches in the ‘abstract’ sciences, or philosophy.  He proffers this interpretation:

All humanity lives and develops on the basis of spiritual principles and ideals, which guide it…These ideals become more and more elevated, and humanity advances to its highest welfare.  I am part of humanity, and therefore my vocation is to forward the recognition and realization of the ideal of humanity,

But a natural extension of this idea is this: what are the ideals of humanity? Different humans may have divergent ideals on what the ideals of humanity should be.  He adds:

To understand what he is, man must first understand all this mysterious humanity, consisting of people such as himself, who do not understand one another, p24

This I believe is the essence of his argument on philosophy. While it seeks to answer man’s singular reason for being; it is unable to answer the question of the objective of humanity as a whole. And if that is true, of what relevance is an individual’s contribution to that humanity?  He sums up his frustrations with both the ‘experimental’ and ‘abstract’ sciences this way:

[I]n the sphere of man’s experimental knowledge one who sincerely inquires how he is to live  cannot be satisfied with the reply—‘Study in endless  space the mutations, infinite in time and in complexity, of innumerable atoms, and then you will understand your life’—so also a sincere man cannot be satisfied with the reply: ‘Study the whole of humanity of which we cannot know either the beginning or  the end, of which we do not even know a small part, and then you will understand your own life, p25.

Tolstoy then turns to the writings of   specific individuals for answers. He refers repeatedly to the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as to Socrates, Buddha, and even Solomon of the Old Testament, whose name has become synonymous with wisdom.  But the works of these ‘wise men’, these philosophers if you will, only deepened his depression.

He summarizes his interpretations in this way:

Socrates: The life of the body is an evil and a lie. Therefore the destruction of the life of the body is a blessing, and we should desire it.

Schopenhauer: Life is that which should not be—an evil; and the passage into nothingness is the only good in life.

Solomon: All that is in the world—folly and wisdom and riches and poverty and mirth and grief—is vanity and emptiness. Man dies and nothing is left of him. And that is stupid.

Buddha: To live in the consciousness of the inevitability of suffering, of  being enfeebled, of old age and of death, is impossible—we must free ourselves from life, from all possible life, p29-33

Searching for Answers –His Social Circle

Dissatisfied with the arguments of these individuals, he then turned to his personal surroundings, his friends, people whom he later referred to as his ‘narrow’ circle of ‘rich, learned, and leisured people’, p42. He observes four methods through which the meaningless of life are dealt with. First, ignorance. Those in this category cannot see the hopelessness of life, but cling to the passing, trivial ‘drops of honey’ they encounter along life’s journey.    Second, ‘epicureanism’, those in this category are aware of the meaninglessness of life but willfully turn a blind eye to it and make use of the advantages they have.  Third, suicide. He describes those in this category as having ‘strength and energy’, and characterizes suicide as the ‘the worthiest way of escape.’ Finally, there are those who acquiesce to life. They know that nothing will come of it but are too weak to pursue the ‘worthiest’ of means of escape. This is the category in which he placed himself, p37-38.

Discovering Faith

He began to look farther outwards for answers, beyond his immediate circle of friends and colleagues, and soon obtained his answers.  The peasants, the laborers with whom he had longstanding contacts, provided the answers. These people—‘milliards’, he calls them—did not fit into any of the four categories he had previously identified: they were clearly aware of life’s evils—not ignorant of them; they were not reliant on the life’s benefits available to the leisured classes; they were not suicidal; and they did not acquiesce to life’s hardships because of a weakness to end it by suicide, p43.

The question, for him then, was how? How were these laborers, these ‘masses’ able to find a meaning for their lives, a meaning that had escaped his group of friends? The answer lay in what he refers to as ‘irrational knowledge’, or ‘faith’—that very thing which he had before rejected. The answer to his ’finite’ question ‘what is the meaning of life beyond time, cause and space’ lay not in a finite response—the physical makeup of our bodies, the musings of philosophers, or the behavior of his colleagues—but in an infinite one, the faith in an infinite being, God, p43-44, and for him, it was that faith that made life possible.

With this new appreciation of faith as being the key to the meaning for life, he turned to the Church—to the learned class: the theologians, the monks, the Evangelicals. However he became ‘repelled’ by this group, repelled by the ‘fact that these people’s lives were like [his] own, with only this difference—that such a life did not correspond to the principles they expounded in their teachings, [he] clearly felt that they deceived themselves and that  they, like [himself], found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one’s hands can seize,’  p50  He unequivocally rejected the beliefs of these people: their faith was not what he sought. Their ‘faith was not a real faith, but an epicurean consolation in life,’ p51.

He drew closer to the poor, simple, unlettered folk, their attraction being an authentic faith, a faith that gave their lives meaning, p52 He sums up his discovery, the meaning of  life,  in this dramatic distinction between the ‘poor unlettered’ folk and his cadre of  friends. Of the poor he says:

I came to love these people…The more I came to know their life…the more I loved them and the easier it became for me to live.

Of his former friends, he says:

It came about that the life of our circle, the rich and learned, not merely became distasteful to me, but lost all meaning in my eyes. All our actions, discussions, science and art, presented itself to me in a new light. I understood that it is all merely self-indulgence, and that to find a meaning in it is impossible…p53-54

After this revelation he reflected on his previous beliefs on the evil and absurdities of life, then discovered a fundamental mistake inherent in that way of thinking. In a nutshell he seems to suggest that, one determines that life is evil and absurd simply because your life is evil and absurd. He later finds confirmation in the scriptures and he adds:

I understood the truth, which I afterwards found in the Gospels, ‘that men loved darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil. For everyone that doeth ill hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved’, p54.

Even after this realization, there were lapses in his new-found relationship with God. A relationship at times close-nit and fervent, at other times distant and detached,  where the presence of God ‘melted like a block of ice’ and the ‘spring of life’ again dried up within him, p59. What was the cause of this rollercoaster ride?   H seems to suggest that it was determined by the degree to which his awareness, his focus, was on God. He says: ‘I need only to be aware of God to live; I need only to forget Him, or disbelieve in Him, and I died,’ p60.

After his identification with the poor, the peasants, one senses a freedom, emancipation from past doubts and depression, and a full-bodied embrace of God, of faith in God, and a jubilant understanding of life’s meaning, of life’s purpose—all of which, in his view, are one and the same.

Disillusion with Theology

He turned from his cadre of friends and identified more with the poor ‘simple laboring’ folk. But this new found faith and relationship with God inevitably led to conflicts with theology, with the Orthodox Church. Issues arose with the prayers  that were said, some of the holy  holidays–including the day commemorating the’ Resurrection’ which he couldn’t understand, p67– and the sacraments. Finally the relationship with the Orthodox Church became no longer tenable due to the Church’s relationship with other denominations—Catholics, Protestants, and others. Also discord among denominations was a cause of disillusionment.

Another reason for the severing of the relationship with the Church was due to war and executions. Russia was at war and prayers were said in the church in support of that effort. For Tolstoy killing ‘is an evil repugnant to the first principles of any faith’, p74 He was horrified that teachers of the faith supported war and the inevitable killing that was part of it, and also supported killings that occurred in disturbances after the war.

After his conversion Tolstoy became a devout believer on a number of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’, ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…’  The teachings dovetail completely with Tolstoy’s new interpretation of the meaning of life—on the virtuousness of the poor simple folk, the peasants, whom he has come to so closely identify. There is little in A Confession however that suggests a conventional acceptance of a Christian God.  The hallmark of Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God, who came to this world  to sacrifice himself for man’s sins, the only acceptable payment  for man’s transgressions, so that whomever believes in him and his message, would live forever in paradise.  A Confession does not suggest that Tolstoy’s beliefs extended this far.  As noted earlier he rejected the sacraments, including Holy Communion—which is based on Jesus’ words the night before he was crucified, and which is held to this day to commemorate his sacrifice. No, Tolstoy’s beliefs center on Jesus’s words, rather than on whom most Christians believe He was.


This ardent belief on Jesus’ teachings however fostered in him revulsion to war, and an ardent belief in pacifism. He wrote numerous treatises on his newfound beliefs, notably, The Kingdom of God is Within You, which Mahatma Gandhi would later say was one of the three greatest influences on his life. In his book, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi states that The Kingdom of God is Within You, ‘overwhelmed’ him through its ‘independent thinking’, ‘profound morality’ and its‘truthfulness’ [3].

Tolstoy eventually found what he felt was the true meaning of life through observation of the surrounding peasant folk—through their simplicity and their unquestioning acceptance of their lot in life. It is ironic however that he does not appear to take this simple, benign acceptance of life to his acceptance of Christianity.  He seems to apply his uncanny and considerable intellect to decipher from the Bible what is truth, what is not truth, and what we cannot know. This suggests that Tolstoy did not totally surrender himself to the beliefs of the peasants, but, instead, utilized their understanding of the scriptures into his own original, intellectual belief system.

A Confession
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Aylmer Maude
Dover Publications, 2005
Republication of the Aylmer Maude translation, published by Oxford University Press, 1921


[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Leo Tolstoy”, accessed May 28, 2015,

[2] The James Joyce Centre, accessed May 28, 2015,

[3] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma), 2012, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth,
Renaissance Classics, p104.

Copyright © Weldon Turner, 2015 All Rights Reserved

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