• New Post Alerts By Email

  • Syndication

  • Tags

  • Archives

Russian Thought lecture 7: Tolstoy: from Christian love to Christian anarchism

Readings: L. N. Tolstoy, “A Confession” (1879), “The Law of Violence and the Law of Love” (1908), “Postface to The Kreutzer Sonata” (1889)

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910

We now move onto Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) who was not only one of the most important novelists in the nineteenth century, but also one of Russia’s most important thinkers. But while nobody would dispute his literary contribution, his position as a thinker has always been more questionable. On the one hand, his philosophy was very influential, inspiring doctrines of non-violence from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, and leading to the establishment of religious communities that aimed to lived according to his teachings. On the other hand, the idea that he was “an outstandingly good writer of fiction and a bad thinker,” as Mikhailovsky put it (cited in Berlin, p. 238 – both were criticizing this idea) often remains unchallenged. I think this is probably because when he discusses his ideas directly in his fiction – as in the long philosophical chapters in War and Peace – they seem very laboured in comparison with much of his fictional writing. I have to admit am one of many people who get impatient with Tolstoy on such occasions. I understand fully why such sections are there and the role they play in Tolstoy’s overall conception, but I can’t help thinking that most of the ideas themselves are much better conveyed in the course of the narrative than they are in the philosophical digressions, and I suspect that the latter are included because Tolstoy does not trust his reader to get the point merely from reading the story (the more common explanation is perhaps that Tolstoy did not trust himself to convey the ideas through their fictional representation alone). I will also admit that I’m prejudiced, as I’m definitely on the Dostoevsky side of the “Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?” debate (in fact, I’m not convinced there’s much of a debate to be had). Nevertheless I do believe Tolstoy was a significant thinker, and I think in many ways his philosophical writing is far better when he dissociates it completely from his fiction.

Tolstoy is not only an important but also a wide-ranging thinker contributed to many subjects, from history to art to education to religion. It is impossible to cover all aspects of his thinking in one lecture, so I will barely touch on important questions such as his philosophy of history or his educational theory, and instead will be focusing on questions that relate to the main topics we are studying this year. In particular, the question of love will therefore be central, but I’ll also touch on aspects of his thinking that relate to the work of other thinkers, including the question of the narod, the form of anarchism he develops, and the role of rationalism in his thinking. However, it is important to note that Tolstoy was very much on his own as a thinker, and did not fit into any of the groupings we have discussed so far, so it is a question of identifying both similarities and differences between his work and those of other thinkers.

I’m not going to go into Tolstoy’s biography from birth to death, but I think it is necessary to address in detail one question about his life: his so-called conversion, usually dated to 1878, when he finally rejected the material world and his role as an artistic writer, and turned to moral and didactic works. The notion of a conversion implies a sudden change, but for Tolstoy it was really a life-long process. His life was much like that of any man of his class, but from an early age there were signs of his ambivalence about his behaviour, and a sense of the need to reform himself morally. His diaries give a very good picture of this tension. On the one hand he tries to adhere to rules for his moral and intellectual development, as a few extracts from 1851 show:

8 March 1851. Keep a journal of my weaknesses (a Franklin journal). [See Dvoichenko-Markov on the connections between Tolstoy and Benjamin Franklin – SJY.]
22 March. Worked quite well except for a lack of firmness and a desire to show off. Dined at home. […] Self delusion. Wrote extracts, notes and my diary, all too hurriedly. […] Gymnastics is necessary for the development of all faculties. Learn something by heart every day. English.
23 March. […] Rule. Try to form a style: (1) in conversation, (2) in writing. […]
24 March […] Occupations for the 25th. From 10 to 11 – yesterday’s diary and reading. From 11 to 12 – gymnastics. From 12 to 1 – English. Beklemishev and Beer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4 – riding. From 4 to 6 – dinner. From 6 to 8 – reading. From 8 to 10 – writing. Translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style. Write an account of today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to. (Tolstoi’s Diaries¸ pp. 19-20)

However, contrary impulses are never far away:

27 March. […] Marya called for her passport. I feel I refrained from … only out of shame and the fact that she had pimples on her face. So I must note down sensuality.
6 April. Got nothing done. Lied and bragged a lot, was casual and absent-minded in my preparation for communion. […]
18 April. [Following a casual sexual encounter] It was vile and repulsive, I even hate her because I’ve broken my rules on her account. […] Terrible remorse; I’ve never felt it so strongly before. That’s a step forward. (Tolstoi’s Diaries, pp. 20-21)

So there’s always a strong sense of dissatisfaction with his own behaviour, and this gradually also included dissatisfaction with society that he viewed as encouraging that immoral behaviour. “A Confession” (1879) describes this process, as he comes to understand what is wrong with society, Those of you that have read Anna Karenina will also recognize that the figure of Levin goes through a similar process and arrives at a similar crisis about the meaning of life. Tolstoy was writing the novel as his sense of crisis was building, so it is unsurprising that it features so strongly in that novel, but the fact that more or less the same thing happens to the central character of Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, written in the previous decade, shows that this was not a sudden change in Tolstoi’s thinking.

Moreover, his conversion apparently did not stop him impregnating peasant girls, eating meat in front of the vegetarian followers he had inspired, or writing an adventure story, Khadzhi-Murat, that went against everything he advocated about the moral and didactic purpose of literature. So one could suggest that on the level of behaviour at least, his life was characterized by continuity rather than change. There certainly seems to have been a considerable degree of inner conflict that let to his crisis and the attempt to change his life, but that never disappeared despite his best efforts. And this is something we see repeatedly in his fictional works, where the epiphanies his characters experience, and the decisions they make about transforming their lives, never seem to make any difference whatsoever (Pierre in War and Peace is a case in point, while in his later work, the eponymous protagonist of “Father Sergius,” who remains full of pride and individualism to the end, is a good example). It’s the gradual, imperceptible changes that count in his fiction, and I think it’s quite telling that what he intuits in his fiction, on this absolutely crucial point, seems to go against what he attempted to do in his own life, and what he espoused in his theoretical writing. Again, this may be one of the reasons why his reputation as a thinker is somewhat mixed.

Even if Tolstoy’s “vivid tale of a repentant sinner” in “A Confession” was “a piece of artistic literature intended to shock readers into abandoning their own evil ways” that “undoubtedly exaggerated the suddenness and violence of the changes in his outlook” (Walicki, p. 328), it remains an important text, in that it allows us to set out some of the fundamental categories and approaches that inform Tolstoy’s thinking on every subject. In describing his loss of faith in this text he reveals a critique of society and human behaviour that underlies many of his ideas.

What he describes in this text is his growing disillusionment with the Western and rationalistic basis of society and education imposed on Russians from the upper classes. The rationalism of his education means that he can no longer believe in God, with the result that life loses its meaning. Attempts to replace this gap with faith in progress and learning fail and, he even realizes, are the cause of the problem in the first place. He identifies the simple life and faith of the peasantry as being more fulfilling, and is particularly impressed by the peasants’ instinctive understanding of the world that does not depend on learning, and their absence of individualism. We already see this ideal in Tolstoy’s fiction before “A Confession,” most notably in the figure of the peasant Platon Karataev in War and Peace, who inspires Pierre with his simple acceptance of life and death after their capture by the French. This again indicates that Tolstoy did not arrive at these ideas suddenly or dramatically, but rather that they evolved gradually as part of his world view.

But for all that Tolstoy admired the peasants’ simple, hard-working and non-individualistic way of life and tried to emulate it – a process we also see Levin undergo in Anna Karenina, as he goes out to work in the fields – his education rendered him incapable of fully embracing their beliefs, in particular on spiritual questions. So he accepted the idea of Christian faith, precisely because it ran counter to reason, but then found he could not accept anything supernatural or contrary to reason, and went through a process of stripping out anything that belongs to those categories, including the Holy Spirit, the divinity of Christ, and the miracles described in the Gospels.

He saw this as a process of returning Christianity to its fundamentals, but it is valid to question whether what remains is sufficient to continue to characterize it as Christianity (and he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901 for his radical beliefs and departure from canonical Christianity, as well as his criticism of the Church). In particular, one might well question whether there is any room for God in this conception of Christianity. It is hard to see in many ways what is left beyond love and compassion, and this is surely a problem. On the one hand, these qualities are hardly unique to Christianity – Tolstoy was heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings as well, and compassion plays a very important role there – and on the other, one could question the extent to which they conform to his idea of affirming the rational side of faith. In some ways love is surely the most irrational aspect of Christianity.

Whatever one’s answer to that question, the fact remains that Tolstoy’s entire conception represents quite a radical programme of transforming Christian faith: “He submitted his teachings on the church to rational examination in order to eliminate from them everything that was inconsistent with reason and had been imposed on it artificially.” (Walicki, p. 330), so reason retains an important place in his thinking on faith. There is, obviously, a tension here: “first reason capitulates before faith, and then it is set up as the arbiter in matters of faith,” as Walicki states (p. 331), but he notes that as Tolstoy’s thinking on this is dialectical, faith and reason are therefore not mutually contradictory, but part of the same process. There is also an opposition of individual and universal reason at work in Tolstoi’s thinking, so what is being rejected is individual reason (as part of the individualism he denounced), while universal reason is brought back into the equation.

This relates to an important aspect of his metaphysics. As Walicki puts it:

True life is not the world of phenomena but an invisible and impersonal “reasonable consciousness,” a universal force not bounded by space or time. Individuality is evil, an illusion that cuts man off from true life, imprisons him in the world of phenomena and condemns him to suffering and death. The way to transcend individuality is through love – love not as an emotional impulse, but as total submission to the tranquil clarity of the “reasonable consciousness” that enjoins men to renounce their individual welfare. (Walicki, p. 333)

This conception is very much developed under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but Tolstoy took it a lot further; for Schopenhauer is remained a philosophical construct that did not in fact have any particular impact on his everyday life whatever he advocated. For Tolstoy, on the other hand, the consequences of this philosophy meant the transformation of his personal existence and the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle. This led him to reject life as a nobleman, to some extent at least, and emulate the peasants’ simple life in order to come closer to the experience of life governed by the principle of non-individualism.

So while Tolstoy superficially resembles both the Slavophiles and the narodniki in basing a great deal of his thinking on faith in the peasantry, their role is in fact very different for Tolstoy, and it would be fair to say that for all different political perspectives, the narodniki and the Slavophiles more closely resemble each other on this question than either group does Tolstoy.

Tolstoy’s asceticism – which formed a very important part of his thinking and his wider influence – may have been inspired in part by the un-materialistic, un-individualistic lives of the peasantry, but this led to a broader philosophy of abstinence derived initially from Schopenhauer as a route to a spiritual life for the upper classes. As he describes it in the key essay “Why do men stupefy themselves?” (1890), man has two natures: the physical, which is blind, and the spiritual, which sees. The former relates to man’s animal side – eating, sleeping, procreation etc – while in relation to this:

The seeing, spiritual being that is bound up with the animal does nothing of itself, but only appraises the activity of the animal being; coinciding with it when approving its activity, and diverging from it when disapproving. (Tolstoy, “Why do men stupefy themselves?”, part 1)

Tolstoy describes the observing being as the

manifestation we commonly call conscience [which] always points with one end towards right and with the other towards wrong, […] one need only do something contrary to the indication of conscience to become aware of this spiritual being, which then shows how the animal activity has diverged from the direction indicated by conscience. (ibid.)

Thus he describes all human activity as either:

1. bringing one’s activities into harmony with conscience, or
2. hiding from oneself the indications of conscience in order to be able to continue to live as before. (ibid.)

The first is moral enlightenment, the second “to hide from oneself the indications of conscience” by external or internal means. The former involves amusements and occupations that divert the attention, the latter consists of darkening the consciousness itself, poisoning it temporarily by stopping brain activity. Both are wrong, in Tolstoy’s view, but while the external occupations will suffice for people of dull intellect or feelings, for people with more moral sensitivity it is the internal means of hiding from the conscience that dominate. So he states that,

The cause of the world-wide consumption of hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco, lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience” (“Why do men stupefy themselves?”, part 2),

and that if people want to do things that go against their consciousness, they blind themselves with these intoxicants. He sees these substances as increasing crime, and preventing useful activity and relations between people.

The terms of Tolstoyan abstinence grow wider, showing how different intoxicants (which are viewed quite broadly) act upon people. Thus eating meat is wrong because killing animals violates the spirit by reducing sympathy towards living creatures, making man more cruel and liable to behave cruelly in other ways. Even thinking becomes an intoxicant. For example, he cites Crime and Punishment, stating that Raskolnikov acts almost like an automaton when committing the murders; the damage to his consciousness was done before he actually went to commit the crime, when he was lying in his room thinking.

Sexual abstinence, meanwhile, was necessary because all sexual relations (including those within marriage) were based on lust, which distracted people from the higher purpose of life. The story The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) depicts a marriage based solely on the satisfaction of animal appetites, and offers a view of human relations governed purely by the material and the physical. Individualism is rampant, and the spiritual and inner life are ignored. This, he states quite openly, is what society demands – it is not simply the result of an accident or misunderstanding, but is the essence of the values society promotes – and ultimately it leads to destruction. As Hooper states,

In Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy links eros not only to the baseness of physical lust but also to the clouding of the vision. Romantic love in this novel is thus doubly suspect, for it suggests a combination of both carnal desire and self-deception. (Hooper, “Forms of Love,” pp. 360-1).

Although Tolstoy (rather grudgingly) allowed that sex for the purposes of procreation was admissible, as becomes clear in the notorious “Afterword” (or Postface) to The Kreutzer Sonata, he in fact viewed absolute abstinence as the ideal, whilst conceding that in practice (as indeed he found in his own life) this might be unattainable. But his views on chastity also indicate that while in some ways Tolstoy’s religion, by stripping out the supernatural and spiritual elements, seems to have a very practical emphasis, in fact his overall doctrine is one of renunciation of the flesh. And this is also important because of the contrast it represents to the ideas of Vladimir Solov’ev, who will be the subject of our next lecture. Solov’ev’s ideas about erotic love were formulated in part in response to Tolstoy’s rejection of sex, and involved transfiguration of the flesh instead of its denial (Hooper, p. 365).

I’ll discuss that in more detail in my next lecture, and we will examine Tolstoy’s critique of society in next week’s seminar. But for the last part of this lecture I want to return to the other dimension of love, the agape he emphasized as he rejected eros entirely, and outline some of the ways in which that principle developed.

Love, as we have seen, is what underlies Tolstoy’s advocacy of vegetarianism, because killing any living being undermines man’s conscience and increases the likelihood of further violence and cruelty towards others. The logical extrapolation of this is Tolstoy’s doctrine of pacifism, rejecting all violence, including as a form of self-defence or retaliation – hence its designation as a form of nonresistance. And it was this idea that inspired the hugely important Tolstoyan movement – this wasn’t a movement that Tolstoy started himself, but he gained many followers not only in Russia but internationally, who attempted to set up communities to live according to his ideals (you can read more about this in an article by Charlotte Alston in History Today). A central aspect of this doctrine was rejection of the state and all the institutions associated with it, because they inherently operated through violence and oppression. This involved not only institutions such as the police and army, but also, for example, tax authorities, because they entrenched inequalities and placed some in a position of power over others. The church was included as well, because it supported the other functions of the state (we will look at Tolstoy’s critique of these institutions in “The Law of Violence and the Law of Love” next week).

So Tolstoy’s advocacy of love necessarily – because he is so consistent in following ideas to their logical conclusion – becomes an anarchist doctrine. Again we can see a parallel between this logical conclusion Tolstoy reached and the ideas of the narodniki, but as in the case of the role of the peasantry in his thinking, the route by which Tolstoy arrived at this conclusion and his reasons for it differed markedly from the reasoning behind the Populists’ anarchism. Even though Tolstoy’s brand of Christianity is very far removed from our usual understanding of that religion, he is usually called a Christian anarchist. Perhaps that designation is one of the things we should discuss next week in the seminar, as part of the question of whether there is sufficient remaining within his form of faith to describe it as Christianity at all. We’ll also consider the role of reason in his thinking, and examine aspects of his critique of society (including the official church and the state) in more detail.


Alston, Charlotte, “Tolstoy’s Guiding Light,” History Today, 60/10 (2010)

Berlin, Isaiah, Russian Thinkers (London: Penguin, 1978)

Dvoichenko-Markov, Eufrosina, “Benjamin Franklin and Leo Tolstoy,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Apr. 21, 1952), pp.119-128

Emerson, Caryl, Solov’ev, “Solov’ev, The Late Tolstoi and the Early Bakhtin on the Problem of Shame and Love,” Slavic Review, 50.3 (1991), 663-71

Gustafson, Richard, Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger. A Study in Fiction and Theology (Princeton University Press, 1986)

Hooper, Cynthia, “Vladimir Solov’ev and Lev Tolstoi on Eros and Ego,” Russian Review, 60.3 (2001), 360-80

Tolstoy, Leo, A Confession and other religious writings, trans. Jane Kentish (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987) | Ispoved’ [Russian text]

Tolstoi, Leo, “The Law of Violence and the Law of Love,” (1908) in Edie, Scanlan, Zeldin | Zakon nasiliia i zakon liubvi [Russian text]

Tolstoy, Leo, “Postlude to the Kreutzer Sonata” in The Kreutzer Sonata, trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin, 1985)

Tolstoy, Leo, “Why do men stupefy themselves?” (1890) trans. Louise and Aylmer Maud  | Dlia chego liudi odurmanchivaiutsia? [Russian text]

Tolstoi’s Diaries, ed. and trans. R. F. Christian (London: Flamingo, 1994)

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1979)

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Links | XIX век

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *