Tolstoy’s “confession”


Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?


No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.


‘Tis just:
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye

– from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare


The general consensus of opinion appears to be that while Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist is beyond dispute, his polemics are a bit loopy, and are, on the whole, best ignored.

I think I probably subscribed to this also: after all, from what I knew of Tolstoy’s life, the moral and religious convictions of his later years brought happiness neither to himself nor to the people around him. And what great wisdom can it be that makes people unhappy?

So I, too, was content to think of his polemical writings as merely “loopy”; and so, I ignored them. But this won’t really do: his fiction, right to the end of a life, is quite clearly the product of an extraordinary mind; and that he should switch this mind off when writing polemics, and allow some inferior mind to take over, seems unlikely to say the least.

So I turned to the first of his major polemical writings of his late period, “A Confession”, written in 1879 shortly after the completion of Anna Karenina, while he was in his early 50s. Here, the writer who is perhaps equalled only by Shakespeare in his understanding of humanity in all its extraordinary diversity, turns the spotlight upon himself, and tries to understand the promptings of his own soul. The result is enthralling, but, as with the last section of Anna Karenina (which finds frequent echoes here), it is also, it seems to me, open-ended.

As is well-known, the depiction of the spiritual crisis Levin undergoes in Anna Karenina is almost entirely autobiographical. The details of Levin’s crisis, and that of Tolstoy’s as recorded here, seem virtually identical. Here too, we get the startling details of how he had kept away from ropes and knives and guns for fear that he might be tempted into suicide; here too is the realisation that there exist powerful forces other than reason that shape his thoughts. But before we get to this stage, Tolstoy tells us how his spiritual crisis had come about.

Although raised in the Orthodox Russian faith, he had not, he tells us, taken it very seriously. At first, he had accepted the outward shows without thinking too hard; but after a while, he couldn’t help but note the various absurdities of human life itself, and what struck him as its pointlessness. And set against this pointlessness, the rituals of the church seemed meaningless. All this may come as something of a surprise to those who know and love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as those books could only have been written by someone who loved life, who loved the constant flux that constituted living, who was dazzled by the sheer plenitude of it all. And yet, this same man, having already scaled some of the greatest peaks of artistic achievements, says this:

Before occupying myself with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. While I did not know why, I could not do anything. Amidst my thoughts concerning the farm, which at the time kept me very busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: “Well, fine, you will have 6,000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” And feeling completely taken back, I would not know what to think next. Or, beginning to reflect on the education of my children, I would ask myself, “Why?” Or deliberating how the peasants may achieve prosperity I would suddenly ask myself, “What concern is it of mine?” Or thinking about the fame my own writing had brought me, I would say to myself, “Well, fine, so you can be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

And I had absolutely no answer.

On reflection, perhaps it was precisely because Tolstoy loved so much that these questions were for him so terrible: only someone who loves life could be so horrified by the possibility of its futility. These questions, for Tolstoy, demanded answers: there had to be, for him, some meaning to his life, to his activities, that would not be obliterated by his physical death. In the absence of answers, his life became for him, he tells us, “hateful”; and this is why he had to keep himself away, like his creation Levin, from temptations of self-slaughter.

At this point, he introduces what he claims is a traditional fable. A man falls down the well, but manages to hold on to a branch projecting from the wall of the well. At the bottom of the well is a dragon. While he is holding on to this branch, he knows he is safe from the dragon, but two mice – a black and a white, night and day – are gnawing away at the branch, and he knows that eventually he will fall prey to the dragon. And the thought of this gives him no peace. Near where he hangs is honey which he can lick, but the thought of that dragon, and of the fate that awaits him, prevents him from enjoying this honey.

The meaning of the fable is obvious enough, but there is a contrivance about it that seems most unTolstoyan, and very far from the seemingly effortless simplicity of the fables he was later to go on to write (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, “What Men Live By”, etc.) How could other people enjoy the honey while being aware of the dragon? he asks himself. He describes some mechanisms whereby the question of the dragon may be avoided, but such mechanisms, he decides, are not for him: at the end of it all there’s that dragon, and that sucks out of life all possibility of meaning.

And yet, Tolstoy is not prepared to turn his back on life. He speaks of Socrates, of Buddha, and of Schopenhauer, all in their different ways turning away from this world, renouncing desire, abjuring the earthly. But the man who had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina couldn’t do that: even when he had renounced these works, he couldn’t do that: he loved life too much. And in any case, he reflected, even Socrates, Buddha and Schopenhauer, for all their renunciation, went on living. Tolstoy could not force himself into renunciation: to renounce life was unthinkable, and to go on living a life which one had renounced seemed to him yet another form of meaninglessness.

As ever with Tolstoy, the writing is extraordinarily simple and direct. Whether or not the reader shares Tolstoy’s outlook, the intensity and directness with which his crisis is described is startling:

My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing along the path of knowledge, other than negation of life. While in faith I found nothing other than a negation of reason, which was even more impossible than denial of life. According to rational knowledge life is an evil and people know it. They have the choice of ending their lives and yet they have always carried on living, just as I myself have done, despite having known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil. According to faith it follows that in order to comprehend the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which meaning was necessary.

Like Levin, Tolstoy saw the possibility of an answer – a possibility only – from the simple life of peasantry. Now, Tolstoy is frequently accused of idealising peasant life, and peasant wisdom; however, Tolstoy was close to the peasantry, while his accusers are almost invariably far removed from the lives of the illiterate and the impoverished. So perhaps we ought to give Tolstoy at least some benefit of the doubt when he says that in the lives of many peasants, poor, illiterate and uneducated, he had found a serenity and an equanimity that were so conspicuously lacking in his own life. And the possibility struck him that they may be in possession of something that had eluded him.

And there came to him a realisation also that there were powerful forces in his mind other than the rational:

Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which I had hitherto thought to be the only knowledge, I was inevitably led to acknowledge that there does exist another kind of knowledge – an irrational one – possessed by humanity as a whole: faith, which affords the possibility of living.

It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss this merely as sentimental religiosity, but perhaps, once again, we should not be so cavalier in rejecting this. For it is true that there is much we – even secularists, even atheists – hold on to that we have not arrived at through exercising our reason. For instance, I am convinced that slavery is a great evil; but did I reach this moral position through exercising my reason? Did I set out to myself what the objectives of human activities should be, and why, and then reason to myself why slavery hinders rather than helps us achieve our objectives? Of course I didn’t. I don’t know where my conviction comes from that slavery is evil, but it’s not through reason. Of course, we all know slavery is very cruel, but the conviction that cruelty is an evil is not, once again, one that I have arrived at through ratiocination. How I have arrived at it, I don’t know. But Tolstoy’s realisation that there are powerful forces at work in shaping our thoughts and our moral values that are not in themselves rational is one I find myself sympathetic with.

But I do find myself somewhat nervous, to say the least, in Tolstoy’s placing so much faith in the power on unreason – in his identifying our inner moral voice as divine. For inner moral voices have led people to commit all sorts of horrors. And I cannot believe that Tolstoy could have been unaware of this. Perhaps it is not surprising that Tolstoy’s religious conversion never brought him the serenity he so craved.

But, provisionally, his religious conversion gives him some semblance at least of answers to those questions which, for him, had to be answered:

…to the question: what meaning is there that is not destroyed by death? The answer is: unity with the infinite, God, heaven.

But Tolstoy was at least as complex a character as any that he had depicted in his work, and reading this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that perhaps he didn’t see himself to quite as much depth as he saw his own creations: as Brutus knew, the eye sees not itself. Tolstoy, by temperament, was a rational creature: accepting the irrational, though attractive, though seemingly the answer to the questions that so tormented him, was not easy. There was nothing of the mystical in Tolstoy: the heaven he yearned for was not the heaven in some promised life to come, but heaven in the here-and-now. And to this end, he went on to make moral demands of his fellow human beings that he must have known his fellow human beings could not live up to. He made these same moral demands of himself, and it seems he couldn’t live up to them either. Tolstoy was as fascinating a character as any he created.


I am not capable of providing a critique of “A Confession” from a philosophical or a theological point of view: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in either area. With hindsight, we can see that Tolstoy’s religious conversion had not brought him the peace and serenity he had so craved. That his questions remained unanswered, or, at best, only partially answered, was perhaps inevitable: the most profound questions about our lives will always elude us. But what I find particularly enthralling about “A Confession” is Tolstoy’s attempt, after having peered so deeply into the minds of others, to understand himself: The eye may not see itself, and Tolstoy’s vision of himself may have been incomplete; but it is, nonetheless, an extraordinary eye.

[All excerpts taken from the translation by Jean Kentish, published by Penguin Classics]

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Austin on April 28, 2013 at 8:13 am

    I am the sum of my influences, plus an unknown quantity, let’s call it “F”. This unknown quantity can vary in size and may be a positive, negative, or indeed have no value whatsoever. “F” is also a function of the influences on my life. I confess I have not read Tolstoy, I may now have to do so.
    You admit you lack the depth of knowledge of theology to critique “A Confession”, bearing in mind I have already admitted to not having read the orignal and only your passage, I do recognise in it, function “F”, let use now call it Faith. I have also heard it called both “Catholic” and “Jewish Guilt”.
    Ask anyone who was brought up in a faith system and who has since questioned that upbringing if they recognise Tolstoy’s difficulties. Dare I hazard a guess that his conversion left him unhappy because his new certainty also constrained him? Look for parallels with Joyce, back when the world was young you descibed to me the level of distaste that Joyce reserved for the Catholic Church, I relied that he must have at one point been a Catholic, there you have a -F.


    • Hello Austin, I think it gets even more complicated than that! The F-factor, as you describe, is what we are born with, and, undeniably I think, we are born with certain features: we do not come to earth as completely blank slates. However, how much of our natures is innate and how much is acquired is virtually impossible to untangle, and the nature vs nurture debate is never-ending. But whatever it is we are born with – this F-factor – is not immutable, as it changes over time, subject to our experiences. At the same time, what experiences we allow to influence us, in what way, and to what extent, seems to me a function of what we are born with. And so the two elements of us – the innate and the acquired, nature and nurture – and constantly influencing each other in all sorts of complex ways. We’ll never get to the bottom of it: our minds are as mysterious and, ultimately, as inscrutable as the universe itself. The writers who I think had the greatest understanding of human minds are, I think, Shakespeare and Tolstoy: they both found the workings of the human minds endlessly fascinating, and were dazzled by the sheer variety of human types.

      On James Joyce, I think my view of him as altered in certain ways since my early encounters with his works. While he clearly reacted against the Jesuit teachings he had grown up with, I don’t now think that his reaction was quite so violent violent ; and, even as a writer who did not profess adherence to any religious dogma, there are elements of Catholicism throughout Ulysses.

      On Tolstoy – he was never an orthodox, either with or without a capital “O”. At the end of “A Confession”, he speaks of his trying to accept the practices of the church, but soon feeling revolted by what he regarded as its empty rituals, and by its hypocrisy. Tolstoy was too much of an individualist to be part of any church, and it was not surprising that after his violent attack on the Orthodox Church in his late novel Resurrection, he was excommunicated. Tolstoy in his old age effectively became a sort of church himself: he was widely seen as a prophet and a seer, and troops of disciples came to visit him at his home in Yasnaya Polyana.

      Unlike Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy had no inclination towards the mystical: for him, religion was about morality in the here-and-now. In retrospect, Tolstoy was in a long line of prophets who made moral demands of the rest of humanity that the rest of humanity could not live up to. He made similar demands of himself: much to the distress of his family, he renounced his wealth, and tried to earn his living with honest labour (he tried to become a shoemaker). He advocated complete and unconditional non-violence, and was a huge influence on the young Gandhi, with whom he exhanged letters. And yet, as he himself realised (see his extraordinary late story “Father Sergius”) a proud man cannot will himself into humility. His own failure to live up to his own high moral imperatives, couples with increasingly bitter conflict with his family, caused him great anguish. Eventually, aged 82, he decided to take to the road: accompanied by his one daughter, he left. But at that age, this was too much for even his robust health. He collapsed soon after, and, seriously ill, was put up at the house of a local stationmaster. Soon, the whole thing became a media circus, as reporters from around the world descended to the place. Tolstoy refused resolutely to meet with his family, and died in the stationmaster’s house – one suspects, an anguished soul to the very end.

      Many of Tolstoy’s moral imperatives seem frankly loopy. However, he remained a supremely great writer to the very end. He developed this idea that art must have a moral purpose: to this end, he wrote fables – and they were the greatest fables ever written. (James Joyce once described the story “How Much Land Does a Man need?” as “the world’s greatest literature”.) His late stories such as “Father Sergius” and “Master and Man” are some of the most astounding things I have read. (As his his novella “Hadji Murat”, which he felt guilty writing as it did not have an overt moral purpose.) And his last full-length novel, “Resurrection”, while overtly didactic, bores into the very soul. Chekhov said after reading it that the old eagle had lost its feathers, but still soared higher than any other bird.

      Ibsen once said that Ibsen was a great writer when he was not being mad. To me, Tolstoy was a supremely great writer even when he was mad!


  2. I haven’t read A Confession, but I have read Tolstoy on Shakespeare and his polemics certainly take over his critical judgment. He condemns him for writing plays to entertain rather than plays to instruct or to express religious feeling. He is especially critical of Hamlet, contending that Shakespeare did not properly interpret what Hamlet really wanted to do. How he knew what Hamlet really wanted to do was not clear, or for that matter whether there was a Hamlet to want anything since he was a character created by Shakespeare:


    • Hello, and thank you for the link to your very interesting article. I have not yet read Tolstoy’s essays on Shakespeare, but intend to do so, as, frankly there is no writer whom I revere more than these two, and that one should so hate the other is intriguing, to say the least.

      Many of Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare that you highlight in your post could be met with the riposte “tu quoque”. Tolstoy criticizes Hamlet, for instance, for acting in contradictory manner. And yet, Tolstoy more than anyone knew that human beings are extremely complex characters, and that it is not surprising if ta single person is mean in one context and generous in another, emollient in certain situations but abrasive in others, and so on. The task of the writer who creates characters is to find an inner unity beneath the apparent contradictions. Shakespeare does this. Tolstoy does this as well. For instance, Karenin is distraught by his wife’s infidelity, but bursts spontaneously into a warm smile on seeing his wife’s illegitimate baby; Levin says quite sincerely that he cannot see how a fallen woman could be forgiven, and yet is tolerant and courteous in the presence of Anna; Maria Bolkonsky is kind and gentle, and yet is rude to Natasha at their first meeting; and so on. If a character is simply one thing all the way through, all you’d get would be a one-dimensional character. And neither Shakespeare nor Tolstoy is guilty of that.

      There must be some deep-seated reason behind Tolstoy’s dislike of Shakespeare and I’d hazard a guess that the reason was not purely literary. Orwell wrote an interesting essay on this called “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, but I really need to read Tolstoy’s criticism of Shakespeare myself. I frankly doubt it would diminish my reverence for either writer.


  3. Posted by alan on April 29, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    With regard to the criticism of Shakespeare: perhaps Tolstoy, being a man of his time, was less willing to see the implications of drama compared to his kind of novel with a god like perspective. I’m not taking the relativist view that any interpretation is reasonably possible, but that Shakespeare’s ambiguity is clearly intentional. Shakespeare, apart from the soliloquies, gives us the outside view of characters and that is a more realistic presentation of the problem that most of face: how do you know what someone’s motives are or even that you’ve understood what they are trying to say?
    With regard to the topic, I wonder if it might be useful to answer the following question:
    Can you create your own meaning and is that sufficient for you?
    Also, with your training as a scientist:
    Can you imagine a universe without death? What would it be like ?
    In my case the answer to the first question is yes and the second no.


    • Hello Alan, I think you’re right that Tolstoy did not really have the “feel” for drama. He wrote a couple of plays himself, and, while they can, I guess, be pretty effective, they do not contain anything of the genius of his novels and short stories. Ibsen’s somewhat cryptic comment on Tolstoy’s plays was “there are too many conversations and not enough scenes”.

      As to your questions: “Can you create your own meaning and is that sufficient for you?”
      My personal answer is, “Frankly, I don’t know.” I have so far managed to live without knowing. But Tolstoy’s temperament was such that his answer to this question was a decided “no”.

      On the second question, the issue of what immortality – based on the earthly concept of life, which, admittedly, is the only kind of life we can know about – is like has long been a theme of speculation. In Petronius’ “Satyricon”, a Sybil has been granted her wish that she may have as many years of life as there are grains of dust in her hand; but she forgets to ask for eternal youth, and is forever old and miserable, wishing only to die. (T. S. Eliot used the conversation with this Sybil as the epigraph for “The Waste Land”; the poem itself contains the striking line “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”)

      In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits a people who are immortal, and instead of finding them happy, he finds them utterly miserable, and wishing only to die. And in the twentieth century, there is a remarkable opera Věc Makropulos by Leoš Janáček (based on a play by Karel Čapek) about a woman cursed with eternal life, and who only finds release through death. So yes, there seems general agreement that eternal life, in the sense in which we understand life, is certainly undesirable. The problem is that the alternative isn’t very enticing either…

      Not that any of this matters, I guess, given that we don’t have the choice either way!


  4. Wait! Without reading your article here, H, I’m going to guess what Tolstoy’s confessing…

    He didn’t finish reading War and Peace, either. 😉


    • Ha ha! 🙂
      As you know, I actually find Tolstoy very readable. What I don’t get are those epic fantasy novels I see in the bookshops – those multi-volume series each of about a thousand pages each, any two of which would be enough to put me to sleep. Well, as Austen put it, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other! 🙂


      • I used to love epic fantasy like that. Tolkien got me hooked many, many years ago. Unfortunately, when greedy pig-dog capitalist 😉 publishers got involved and started forcing authors to spoon feed their output to their fans in biennial releases, I swore off that genre forevermore.

        The sad thing for me is that I love Tolstoy for what I know him to be, and for his impact on Literature and millions of his readers through the years. Unfortunately, my epic struggle to get past p.153 in War and Peace has soured me to any of his other, most likely, wonderful books. Maybe I should try W&P as an audio book one day.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: