Egotism and Modernity in Leo Tolstoy
A talk held on 23 September 2009 at the Thomas More Institute, part of the 2009/2010 Ethics in Public Life series. It marks the British launch of Alexander Boot's book, God and Man According to Tolstoy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
We are here to talk about a man who elevated attacks on Christianity to a high art – or rather lowered his high art to attacks on Christianity. At age 50, Tolstoy declared he was giving up literature to teach the world how to live. Consequently, half of his life’s work is non-fiction – a 45-volume redundancy note to God. In producing it he left his natural habitat to enter fields he was manifestly unqualified to till. But his deserved reputation as the best novelist ever added gravitas to his most insane, and inane, ideas.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and until his death in 1910, Tolstoy was perhaps the best-known personality in the world, the universal proto-guru. People from four continents went on pilgrimage to his estate, hoping their lives would change. For many they did change. In fact, Tolstoy has changed all our lives since then. Even those who have never read a single word he wrote subsist every day on the fruits of his labour. For – quite apart from his impact on modern literature – Tolstoy made a formative contribution to our anomic, nihilist, touchy-feely counterculture with its leaning away from our religious roots and towards oriental-style agnosticism.
Theosophy and other occult movements, militant vegetarianism, animal rights, nihilism, anarchism, anti-capitalism, and back-to-nature populism were all influenced by Tolstoy. But for him, modern gurus spreading Zen and other Asian philosophies in the West would have a harder time. His rabid propaganda of anti-clericalism and vicious attacks on the state contributed to the bolsheviks’ victory. Gandhi largely based his life’s work, the destruction of the British Empire, on Tolstoy’s philosophy. And with Gandhi as the intermediate link, Tolstoy influenced Martin Luther King’s version of the civil-rights movement. The oxymoronic Christian socialists owe him a debt. Even the Nazis, though hardly proponents of non-violence, made use of Tolstoyan self-simplification accompanied by anti-capitalist and anti-church invective.
His attacks on the West (and things Western in Russia) were not unique in their targets: Christianity with its history and culture, the state in general and parliamentarism in particular, urbanism, capitalism, individualism, landed property, hedonism. But they were original in the platform from which they were launched: quasi-Asian agrarian primitivism. This was linked to a vaguely oriental rationalism married to a religion without God and Christianity without Christ. That particular tree has produced much poisonous fruit in the West, and it is still as fecund as ever. So Tolstoy deserves a serious argument, something my book purports to do. Unlike Malcolm Muggeridge, who thought that Tolstoy ‘was the best Christian ever,’ I set out to show he was no Christian at all.
Now, to paraphrase ever so slightly, all mediocre writers are alike; every great writer is great in his own way. Everything about Tolstoy’s life was confusion:
- Heir to his 4,000 rolling acres and 330 serfs, he renounced landed property.
- High aristocrat, he impersonated a poor peasant, complete with folk attire, a plough, bad teeth and no baths.
- The highest-paid and hardest-working writer in Russia, he advocated nothing but menial labour for one’s daily bread.
- Champion of celibacy, he spent his youth in brothels and the rest of his life pursuing serf girls, siring thirteen legitimate children (and at least as many illegitimate ones), and forcing on his exhausted wife what he described to Chekhov as his ‘insatiable’ sexual appetite.
- Sadistically cruel to animals, he became a self-righteous vegetarian.
- Having written immortal pages on love and family, he turned his back on both, not to mention on the immortal pages.
- Champion of reason, he denied science had any value.
- Philosopher of history, he denied history.
- Great artist, he mocked any art other than village songs.
- Calling himself a believer, he denied God.
- Calling himself a Christian, he denied Christ.
- Preaching a faith of love and tolerance, he attacked other people’s faith with venomous, offensive rudeness.
This sounds insanely contradictory, and I actually devote a chapter to a psychiatric report showing that mentally Tolstoy was no healthier than Dostoyevsky. Yet he was sane enough to reflect the modern Zeitgeist, with egotism as its main feature. Indeed, the last several centuries have seen a demise of theism as the principal dynamic of society. Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, Cartesian solipsism and the Enlightenment combined to move man from the periphery of God’s universe to the centre of his own. This created the modern world, of which Tolstoy was a prophet.
Once we have realised this, his life begins to make sense: everything he believed was self-centred. Tolstoy’s morality is a case in point. The greater his own vice, the more he would extol its opposite virtue. His sadism to animals became the sermon of vegetarianism. His priapism screamed for celibacy. His propensity for violence burnt out into non-resistance. Tolstoy’s virtues were his vices with the opposite sign; his characters were his vices externalised. He would create his protagonists, then take a step back and judge them, which is to say aspects of himself, pronouncing his verdicts.
‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,’ he quotes in the epigraph to Anna Karenina. True, according to the Old Testament, a woman taken in adultery must be stoned to death. Tolstoy develops this theme with sublime power, only replacing the old-fashioned stones with the technologically advanced locomotive that takes Anna’s life. The locomotive thus acts as an instrument of divine retribution so beloved of Kant – and so alien to Christ who treated adultery not with vengeance but with mercy. So God here acts as merely one of Tolstoy’s characters. It is not God’s vengeance that strikes Anna down but Tolstoy’s own.
This is how the careful reader first stumbles upon Tolstoy’s secret. He wished to be more than a novelist, even one of genius; more than even a seer or a prophet. He wished to be God. Tolstoy wanted to correct God’s mistakes in having allowed the world to become imperfect. He, Count Tolstoy, set out to do God’s job. But the job was already taken, and the deity stubbornly hung on to it. Therefore Tolstoy declared war on God.
Immediately after the publication of Anna Karenina, he launched the attack in the pamphlet, A Confession, loosely patterned on similar works by St Augustine and Tolstoy’s idol Rousseau. Literature and art, he declared, are frivolous. Only moral self-perfection can save the world. One cannot live without some faith, though Tolstoy is not sure which. He himself has tried several, including Christianity. All were found wanting, especially Christianity. We must create God’s kingdom on earth – ‘here and now’. Non-resistance will save the world. Formal learning is despicable. Atheists are better people than believers, unless believers are peasants. Only Russian peasants have virtue – a hard view to accept for anyone familiar with that social group, but there we have it.
A Confession is widely regarded as the watershed of Tolstoy’s life. After it came out he was no longer a mere novelist. He became a prophet in the eyes of the world. With apostles streaming in, Tolstoy outlined his solipsistic religion. Gorky recalls, ‘In the diary he gave me to read I was struck by the aphorism “God is my wish”… He has a very uncertain relationship with God, but sometimes they remind me of two bears in the same den.’ Gorky probably did not know Tolstoy’s theology well; otherwise he would have seen that ‘God is my wish’ was typical. Tolstoy often repeated the statement of one of his heroes, Kant: ‘God is not a being outside me, but only my thought'.
Tolstoy perceived his own reason above all else, including God. He often expressed this belief in so many words, unaware of how awful it sounds: ‘If there is no higher reason – and there is none – then my own reason must be the supreme judge of my life'. Expressing such sentiments in the context of everyday life is called arrogance. Expressing them in the context of religion is called atheism.
Who needed God anyway? Tolstoy himself was God-like in his goodness. In 1852 – at the age of 24! – he writes, ‘I’ve never met a person who is as good morally as I am.’ In 1857 came another pat on his own back, ‘I take delight in my moral movement – ahead and ahead.’ In 1874 he explains, ‘Whenever I do something, I am always certain… that the whole world would perish if I stopped.’ Well, he did and it did not, so there. But then hindsight is always 20-20.
Tolstoy claimed he was the most moral of men, but in fact he was only the most moralising. What is astonishing is that he made his claim in between visits to brothels, mercury treatments, all-night gambling sessions and repeated attempts to kill people in the duels he himself had provoked. Boys will be boys, and it is possible not to be too bad a person while doing such things, especially if one repents them afterwards. It is only the superiority claim that jars.
And saying there is no reason higher than one’s own is as clear a statement of atheism as shouting, ‘There is no God’. But Tolstoy was no run-of-the-mill atheist, for atheism is actually a kind of faith with the minus sign. The only unmistakable signs Tolstoy evinced were those of rampant egotism, but not without nuances.
While devoid of faith, Tolstoy was richly endowed with mysticism. He was a mystical rationalist. His mysticism resided in his mind, not intuition – he had to think through his life, find a rational justification for it. And he sensed that within rigid materialism the question of the meaning of life can neither be answered nor indeed asked. This longing can often lead people to God, but on Tolstoy it had the opposite effect.
However, he knew that his mostly Christian audience would not accept a sermon attacking Christ while proclaiming the truth of Buddhism, Hinduism or other oriental creeds so dear to Tolstoy’s heart. That left him only one option: to come up with his own religion, while claiming it actually was Christianity. And if people wondered why his Christianity was so different from what they knew, the only logical answer was that his Christianity was true, while everyone else’s was a lie.
This stratagem is used a lot these days, and we see hordes of unwitting Tolstoyans everywhere, Christianists rather than Christians. They claim they have their own faith; need no intermediaries between themselves and God; believe in an abstract deity, but not in any specific religion, even though they magnanimously recognise the social utility of Christianity. Looking for God only within themselves, they find only themselves there. Trying to concoct their own faith, they are left with none.
What Eric Voegelin called ‘the privatisation of the spirit’ first turns the man into his own priest and then, if he is consistent, his own God. And one’s own God demands one’s own creed. As Tolstoy was an early bloomer, he set out to found a new religion at the barely post-pubescent age of 26. His diary entry talks about ‘a great, immense idea, one I feel I can devote my whole life to fulfilling – founding a new religion in agreement with Christ’s religion, but cleansed of all faith and sacraments; a practical religion that, rather than promising future bliss, gives bliss on earth.’
If he thought such a religion had anything to do with Christianity, he was sorely misguided. Actually, it does not sound like a religion at all. It is suspiciously like Marxism and other secular utopias, draped in quasi-religious camouflage.
Tolstoy had to make the world accept him not just as a writer but as a God-like figure, a Christ surrogate. But he knew he would always remain only a parody of the real thing, no matter how loud his voice or apocalyptic his message. This explains his non-stop attempts to drag Christ down to earth, where the chasm between him and Tolstoy would be less noticeable. The trick he favoured was to ignore, or reject, the divine person of Jesus, while reducing him to the moral sermon that was not so different from Tolstoy’s own. And, while lowering Jesus down to his own level, Tolstoy had to raise himself up to what the public would perceive as some approximation of Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and Tolstoy knew his texts well. But that Word was uttered not in ink on paper but in the incarnated person of Jesus Christ. Tolstoy did not believe this for a second, but he knew most of his flock did. To sway them, he too had to embody his own Word in his person. Hence his public striving for what he saw as Christ-like self-simplification; his half-hearted attempts to give away his property; his appearance cultivated to resemble Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel; his propaganda of celibacy, which he did not practise, and of vegetarianism, which he did. And hence his vicious attacks on what he called ‘church Christianity’, which is to say Christianity.
Jesus too found himself on the receiving end of Tolstoy’s swipes. ‘When… the priest made me repeat that what I’ll swallow is the real body and blood, it was a cruel demand from someone who obviously never knew what faith was.’ Tolstoy must have known this ‘cruel demand’ came from Jesus himself. So it was Jesus who ‘never knew what faith was.’
Throughout his life, Tolstoy was scathing about the Incarnation, the Eucharist and the Resurrection. The first is the Word becoming flesh; the second, flesh becoming the Word; the third, flesh reviving. The common element is flesh: the same substance that dominated Tolstoy’s life, which he deplored, fought against, but could not change. Thus, his rebellion against Christian sacraments and dogma was as egotistical as the rest of his outlook: it was largely a rebellion against his own flesh, a form of intellectual asceticism.
When Tolstoy was excommunicated, he protested in an open letter to the Holy Synod. He was not only a good Christian, but the best Christian ever. Here is why: ‘That I’ve rejected the church is perfectly true… I’ve come to the conclusion that in theory the teaching of the church is a perfidious and harmful lie, while in practice it’s a collection of the crudest superstitions and sorcery, hiding completely the entire meaning of Christian teaching… It’s perfectly true that I reject the incomprehensible Trinity and… the blasphemous story of a god born of a virgin to redeem the human race… You say that I reject all the rituals. That’s perfectly true… The Eucharist is horrible!’
If this is protest, methinks the Count doth protest too little. Every word screams visceral hatred for Christianity. And Christ? ‘I believe,’ writes Tolstoy, ‘that God’s will is expressed most clearly and understandably in the teaching of the man Christ, whom I believe it to be the greatest blasphemy to worship and to pray to.’ Now Christ is neither Mohammed nor Confucius: his teaching is his person, not only – one is tempted to say not so much – his words. However, this was beyond Tolstoy’s reason and therefore unimaginable.
That he saw reason as an offensive weapon against God is confirmed by endless sources, such as his letter to the poet Fet: ‘Pray to whom? What is God when perceived so clearly that one can communicate with him? A God who could be asked or served is an expression of feeble-mindedness. May this page remain as a monument to my conviction of the power of reason.’ Yet again, this is a direct dig at Christ who not only told his followers to pray to God but, in the Lord’s Prayer, told them how to do so. Thus it is he who is ‘feeble-minded’.
What’s so special about Christianity anyway? ‘The main features of any faith,’ writes Tolstoy, ‘are always and everywhere the same.’ Again, the ‘main feature’ of Christianity is Jesus Christ, fully a man and fully God. I am not aware of any other faith that has this same ‘main feature’, and neither was Tolstoy, for there is none. What he meant was that he could find in any creed elements justifying his own religion ‘without faith or sacraments’.
As if to prove this, Tolstoy produced his own version of the Gospel, from which he expunged everything that even hinted at Christ’s divinity: his birth, miracles and resurrection. To counterbalance the omissions, he made some additions as well. Those the great writer integrated into the text so seamlessly that it takes a keen eye to see where, for example, Luke leaves off and Leo picks up.
The book was complete with Tolstoy’s commentary, mostly of the kind one would not expect even a sane atheist to commit to paper, such as impugning Mary’s virtue. But the effort was essential to Tolstoy. After all, he stated his attention to clean up the Gospel 30 years before he actually did so. At age 22 he put this with touching bluntness: ‘An idea came to me of writing a materialistic gospel, the life of Christ the materialist'.
For credibility’s sake Tolstoy felt he had to make continuous appeals to the Scriptures. But they stubbornly refused to show a Tolstoyan Christ – a mortal, agnostic, quasi-Buddhist preacher of touchy-feely morality. To someone as egotistic as Tolstoy, this could only mean one thing: where the Gospels disagreed with him, they were wrong. But he could not have said so openly, while still claiming to be a Christian.
Thus Tolstoy had to show that the New Testament was perverted by the dastardly Church. When that could not be claimed with any credibility, it was the apostles and the evangelists who either misunderstood or wilfully distorted Christ’s meaning.
As most of Tolstoy’s beliefs, his rebellion against Christianity was weak on positive content but strong on nihilism. The nihilism was reductionist: by ridding Christianity of ‘faith and sacraments’ Tolstoy boiled it down to the Sermon on the Mount – and even that he distorted by depriving the Christian ethic of its eschatology. But Christian ethic without Christian eschatology is like a chair without legs. One can find some use for it, but ultimately it will prove uncomfortable.
Tolstoy, with his artist’s eye, noticed the gap between the moral demands of the Gospels and the way people lived. That gave him an opening: ‘If life here and now can’t confirm Christ’s teaching on life, then this teaching is false.’ And since anyone could see that the world did not follow the Sermon on the Mount to the letter, then to Tolstoy the falsehood of the whole faith was beyond a shadow of doubt. QED.
And it is Christ personally who prevented the spread of Christian ethics. ‘Sometimes I think that if Christ’s teaching… had never existed, those who call themselves Christians would be nearer to the truth of Christ.’ So Christ gets in the way of his own truth, or rather Tolstoy’s version of Christ’s truth.
Tolstoy’s morals were tinged with hysterical sentimentality. Nowhere was it more apparent than in his vegetarianism, yet another part of his heritage welcomed by modern counterculture. Vegetarianism enables modern people to flirt with the super-personal without ascending to the supernatural. It is an ersatz faith for the faithless, and it was Tolstoy’s propaganda that gave it social respectability.
Yet his son Sergei describes Tolstoy’s cruelty to animals in the 1870s: ‘Having winged a bird, he’d finish it off by yanking a feather out of its wing and sticking that very feather into its head. He taught us to do the same.’ Once, having smashed a wolf’s skull with a club, Tolstoy himself admits ‘experiencing real rapture watching the dying animal suffer.’
But when he grew old, Tolstoy’s affection for animals knew no bounds. For example, he could not stand fly paper – he pitied flies so much – and preached that one ought to ‘get rid of them without killing… for, having permitted himself to kill insects, a man is ready to permit himself to kill animals or people.’ Some may regard this as an exaggeration: most of us kill our fair share of insects, but never animals or people.
Tolstoy also applied his moralising to sex, a subject that, along with death, was most important to him. We know already that Tolstoy’s take on anything at all was solely based on his own experience. Obviously, he never experienced death until his last moment, so his idea of it was chiselled in stone at a young age. Sex was different: Tolstoy’s experience there was greater than most people’s. The nature of that experience changed with age. So did his pronouncements.
And there were many, for Tolstoy always devoted much attention to that subject. This was another aspect of his work that had a profound effect on modern literature and, more broadly, modern obsession with the inner workings of human psychology.
At first he only talked about sex in general terms, at least outside his diaries. Then came the six-year period between his wedding and the publication of War and Peace, when his marriage was quite happy. This was reflected in everything Tolstoy wrote at the time, including the novel itself, where in the end all the main protagonists get married and live happily ever after. But then Tolstoy’s marriage began to go sour, and by the time he wrote Anna Karenina he had begun to have second thoughts about the whole institution. As a result, most marriages in the novel are unhappy, and only that of Lyovin and Kitty resembles the somewhat schematic fecund bliss depicted in War and Peace.
The time between the publication of Anna Karenina and The Kreutzer Sonata was when Tolstoy’s marriage hit the rocks. This is directly reflected in the latter work. Its principal character, Tolstoy’s mouthpiece, a sadistic misogynist and probably a latent homosexual, preaches an impassioned sermon of sexual teetotalism. From then on that theme became constant with Tolstoy and progressively grew in stridency.
Tolstoy, incidentally, had strong homosexual longings, which he describes frankly in his diaries and autobiographical novels. He did not act on such urges because, he says, his attraction to other men was shamefully physical, whereas he loved women for their spirituality. Most men would argue he got it the wrong way around, but then Tolstoy was not like most men. In any event, his feelings for women must have changed, as his wife testifies: ‘Now I see that he felt nothing towards me but sensuality'.
Tolstoy was sixty-one when he declared, in The Kreutzer Sonata, that a Christian should never have sex, even in marriage. Without missing a beat, in what his wife bitterly described as ‘the true postscript to The Kreutzer Sonata’, the Count then made his exhausted middle-aged bride pregnant yet again.
Tolstoy’s moralising philosophy came out of his fundamental metaphysical blunder: belief that man himself must build the kingdom of God – in this world, for there is no other. If we stopped copulating, drinking, smoking, eating meat and killing one another, the kingdom of God would come. We would then all live in bucolic communes, digging up just enough potatoes to keep body and soul together and loving one another to death. This is not just a figure of speech. For, as Tolstoyan love excluded procreation, the pastoral bliss of his imagination would only last one generation. The perfect humans of Tolstoy’s fancy would grow old in the state of ideal love and eventually keel over, their varicose hands dropping their Zimmer ploughs onto the shallow, zigzagging furrows.
Yet Tolstoy persisted in his metaphysical error, trying to build on it a philosophy and guide to everyday behaviour. But nothing can be built on rotten foundations. Logically, Tolstoy extolled the virtue of just that: nothing. He ended up espousing sweeping nihilism: he rejected marriage, the Church, the State, science, law, education, culture, history, defence of one’s own country. By way of justifying this ghoulish nihilism, he offered increasingly insane prescriptions for daily life.
For instance, in his propaganda of anarchism, which he believed was ‘right in rejecting everything [sic!] that exists’, Tolstoy invoked the Sermon on the Mount. But the Sermon does not reject the State – it ignores the State by never leaving the higher plane. Using it to justify anarchism is a swindle: Tolstoy tries to pull the Sermon down to earth, ignoring that Christ himself moderated his ethics when applying it to temporal existence. Thus, when Tolstoy states it is a sin for a Christian to pay taxes, he accuses Christ himself. That is nihilism – much as one wishes that our Chancellor were to adopt Tolstoy’s position.
Nor did Christ, unlike Tolstoy, believe that Christianity is incompatible with military service. In fact, Jesus praised the faith of the Capernaum centurion and did not demand he give up the service – even though one did not get to command a company in a Roman legion without being an expert killer. Christianity, while regarding wars as evil, recognises that some evils are even worse. If they can only be stopped by force, then, as Augustine showed, war can be just.
Or consider Tolstoy’s pronouncements on economics. ‘People can feed themselves in only three ways,’ he writes, ‘by robbery, begging or manual labour.’ Those chaps with cups, sitting at street corners, are not even aware they represent one of only three possible models of wealth generation. But left outside this tripartite economy are teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers. They are neither manual labourers nor beggars. So they must be thieves.
Tolstoy’s non-resistance was an extension of his rationalist, utilitarian morality. Thus, loving one’s enemy stopped being a condition for entry into the heavenly kingdom. It became a quid pro quo prescription for daily life. By loving my enemy, I can shame him into loving me. By offering no violence even to those who eminently deserve it, I shall receive none. And presumably if I do not eat animals, I shall not be eaten by them.
Yet morality can only conquer on earth if it comes from heaven. The blood-soaked 20th century was a direct result of the opposite belief, a vivid illustration of what happens when morality is divorced from faith. Tolstoy used his nimble mind to concoct this philosophical swindle, and he milked his popularity as an artist to spread it around. Thus the non-violent count can be held partly responsible for the violence that followed.
These days we are all Tolstoyans. We are all – well, most of us – ready to accept ersatz morals as real. Somehow we think it immoral to follow a genderless antecedent with a masculine pronoun. Our cripples are physically challenged. Our idiots are handicapped, as if they were race horses. We see egalitarianism in everything as the acme of goodness, a road to secular salvation. It is in the name of such bogus morality that we’ve destroyed our justice, education, family, language. But of course we have Posh and Becks to make up for it.
That is what happens when Tolstoyan ideas or something similar are repeated long enough and loudly enough. We buy them as real – and sell our souls in part exchange.
Everywhere we look, we can see how ideas similar to Tolstoy’s are destroying our society. If we believe, along with Tolstoy, that our religion, and the way of life based on it, is no better than any other and worse than some, then we cannot muster the resolve to defend it.
If there are people who, along with him, believe in the innate goodness of man, laws become evil because they presuppose the existence of evil-doers who can only be punished, not rehabilitated by a secular sermon.
If our judges believe, along with Tolstoy, that punishment is ipso facto immoral, they will try to keep it down to the barest minimum. And if they believe, as Tolstoy did, that punishment has no deterrent value, they will make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by imposing derisory punishments that do not indeed deter.
If our teachers believe, as Tolstoy did, that children ought to be given total freedom to do what they like and not to do what they dislike, then their pupils are bound to grow up illiterate and alienated from our civilisation.
If our governments believe, along with Tolstoy, that all private property is immoral, even if some of it regrettably has to be allowed, then they will feel self-righteous in plundering most of what we earn in the sweat of our brow.
If we believe, as Tolstoy did, that any war – regardless of who wages it and for what cause – is evil, then we shall not be prepared to do battle for our country or civilisation.
If we believe, along with Tolstoy, that all art must be equally accessible to everyone, then we shall end up with no art worthy of the name. We shall describe as music any cacophony produced by drugged, tattooed plankton. We shall regard pickled animals as art. And what we shall see as literature will in no way resemble War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
One would think that such beliefs could only be held by either a stupid or an evil man. However, as we know that the man who held them was far from stupid, and arguably not even evil, then we have to look for another explanation. And there is one: egotism as the main point of his character, and a gross metaphysical blunder as the starting point of his thinking. This proved to be Tolstoy’s undoing; and this is his unwitting lesson to us all.