At more or less the peak of his literary career, after writing such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy largely renounced the life and privileges of a Russian nobleman that had enabled him to achieve such success, and he buried himself in religion and moral philosophy, seeking the true meaning and value of life.
Ultimately he determined that the correct path in life was to follow a kind of radical pacifist/anarchist conception of Christianity that took the Sermon on the Mount as literal and as the essence of Christianity. He discarded as ridiculous and dangerous superstition almost everything else in religion, including doctrines of the supernatural like the resurrection, and he eschewed ritual and church hierarchy. He advocated an ascetic life of simplicity and labor.
He didn’t always live up to his new ideals, but he was certainly passionate and intense about trying.
A Confession is a brief work that tells the tale of the transition from the old Tolstoy to the new Tolstoy. More about his internal life than his external life, it tells of years of anguish—anguish to the point of his being seriously suicidal—and his desperate quest for a way out of that anguish. The details of his eventual philosophy, and the arguments for it, are only hinted at; this is more about the journey and what motivated it than about the destination.
Tolstoy, or at least the way he chooses to present himself in writing, is sort of a humble person and sort of not. On the one hand he’s very self-critical and admits many errors and occasions of puzzlement. On the other hand, it reads as one of those religious tracts that plays up the sins and the uncertainty in order to provide a greater contrast with the eventual breakthrough into the light.
Not saying it’s all just a rhetorical device; I don’t know. But while the anguish feels real enough, the humility feels more suspect. Maybe it’s not phony, but it comes across as possibly a person who is naturally disposed toward dogmatism, is temporarily in a panic because he’s without something to be dogmatic about, and just in the nick of time struggles his way to a position that he can proclaim to be the absolute truth that everyone is obligated to live by if they want their life to have any meaning.
He presents his story as if he is some sort of an everyman. Multiple times he insists that everyone (though he sometimes amends this to mean every educated person of means; the peasants have the good fortune not to experience what he has had to experience) has this time of crisis where they torture themselves over how they’ve wasted their life, and they desperately seek the meaning of life.
In my experience, to the contrary the vast majority of people never struggle to anywhere close to this degree with philosophical, moral, or spiritual questions. For most people, matters such as this are way, way, way down their list of priorities, and if they are given reason to address them at all, they either fall back on whatever religion they were taught as children, or they adopt a skeptical or relativist stance and say there are no answers to such questions—or all answers are personal and equally valid—and are untroubled by this lack of truth.
But he is certainly troubled. He explains how he comes to see the pointlessness of all that he has done in the face of his mortality. What’s the difference how famous you are, or how much money you’ve accumulated, or what books you’ve written if you’re just going to die anyway? If you say that you do what you do for your family and those who will come after you, then that’s just kicking the can down the road, because those people will all die soon enough also.
This isn’t just an idle thought he has occasionally, but, by his account anyway, something that persists for years. He is very tempted to commit suicide, but manages to hold on just in case it turns out there is some answer to his questions, something to give life meaning after all.
There must be something, or at least he hopes there’s something, to connect us to the infinite, some way we can participate in something greater than us that gives our life meaning.
He looks to the scientists, but finds nothing there to satisfy him. He sees that they study only the finite, not the infinite. They can tell him everything he might ever want to know about the finite, but they can’t tell him how to transcend it.
(I wouldn’t put it in terms of finite versus infinite, but maybe descriptive versus normative, or “is” versus “ought,” but on the basic point I think he’s right: Science doesn’t directly address the kind of moral or spiritual questions he’s obsessed with.)
He next turns to philosophy. The philosophers seem to him to have understood the problem correctly, so unlike the scientists at least they’re addressing the right questions. But unfortunately they seem resigned to the meaninglessness of life. They’re more about accepting it than finding a way around it, but to him there’s no reason not to kill yourself if you really believe what they claim to.
(It sounds like he read and was influenced by a small number of people like Schopenhauer and the Buddha, and is generalizing their pessimistic views to all philosophy. In fact, the majority of philosophers work in areas—philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of science, etc.—that are not directly relevant to his questions, while those that do work on moral questions and such occupy a wide range of possible positions on these issues. Maybe none of their philosophies hold up, in his opinion, but they certainly don’t all take the stance that we should accept that life has no meaning or value.)
Conventional, organized religion seems to him to be another dead end. The church leaders and the people of his class that claim to be religious believers rarely seem at all influenced in their behavior by the supposedly lofty and idealistic views they espouse. Nothing in their religion apparently is able to dissuade them from pursuing money and power as if they were of the greatest value. They seem far more inclined to fight over nitpicky doctrinal matters in their religion than to love their neighbors.
He realizes that the people who seem to have the most insight into the matters he’s come to care about so deeply are the peasants. They have a simple faith in God that keeps them going from day to day. They’re content and their will to live doesn’t waver. They have confidence that of course their lives are meaningful.
Somehow they’ve managed to connect to the infinite in a way that he has not. It’s not perfect—their faith is encrusted with all kinds of silly superstitions—but at least they seem the closest to having found what he’s looking for.
Even insofar as it’s true that they are less inclined to doubt their faith or to have the kind of mid-life crisis of doubt and despair he thinks is nearly universal amongst his class, I don’t agree that this is necessarily a good thing, or evidence of some kind of spiritual insight.
First off, probably plenty of them weren’t even religious believers, though it may not have been safe for them to be too open about that. But even those who were believers, and who didn’t question their faith, probably rarely had any deep, profound spiritual understanding. Just like today, if they didn’t question their religion it’s probably either because they were too dumb, they were too busy trying to stay alive, or they just didn’t prioritize religion high enough to bother with it beyond paying it lip service.
One other quick point I want to make about the supposed lack of value of anything finite.
I’ve never found that claim very convincing. I’ve never bought this idea that only infinite things can have value, or that all that matters is how things turn out.
If I could cause great pain to a child, or I could bring joy to a child, surely those wouldn’t be equal in value (or lack of value) just because neither of us was going to be around for eternity. I’d say that even if I and the child only lasted five minutes, and were instantly forgotten as soon as we were gone, one of those choices would still be of greater value than the other.
And even if they weren’t, how would adding infinity to the mix change that? If you take something of zero value and multiply it by infinity, it seems to me it would still equal zero. If you think it’s impossible for life to have meaning if we cease to exist after our fifty or a hundred or however many years on Earth, then doubling or tripling that life span, or raising it to infinity, just turns a meaningless life into a really long meaningless life.
Just as a psychological study of someone going to the brink of suicide and backing off, and of someone struggling with the deepest questions of the seeming meaningless of life, A Confession is emotionally moving and worth experiencing. Insofar as it’s intended to show that Tolstoy was justified in where he ended up, and that the alternative possibilities were all more flawed than his eventual position, frankly the arguments are quite shaky.
I say that even though my own philosophy of life is actually pretty close to where Tolstoy ended up. So I’m a fan, and am bound to be sympathetic to what he writes. But that doesn’t mean I’m unable to recognize when he has made a case that is far less compelling than he thinks it is.