The Forged Coupon, And Other Stories : Introduction
(1828 - 1910) ~ Father of Christian Anarchism : In 1861, during the second of his European tours, Tolstoy met with Proudhon, with whom he exchanged ideas. Inspired by the encounter, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana to found thirteen schools that were the first attempt to implement a practical model of libertarian education. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "You are surprised that soldiers are taught that it is right to kill people in certain cases and in war, while in the books admitted to be holy by those who so teach, there is nothing like such a permission..." (From : "Letter to a Non-Commissioned Officer," by Leo Tol....)
• "The Government and all those of the upper classes near the Government who live by other people's work, need some means of dominating the workers, and find this means in the control of the army. Defense against foreign enemies is only an excuse. The German Government frightens its subjects about the Russians and the French; the French Government, frightens its people about the Germans; the Russian Government frightens its people about the French and the Germans; and that is the way with all Governments. But neither Germans nor Russians nor Frenchmen desire to fight their neighbors or other people; but, living in peace, they dread war more than anything else in the world." (From : "Letter to a Non-Commissioned Officer," by Leo Tol....)
• "People who take part in Government, or work under its direction, may deceive themselves or their sympathizers by making a show of struggling; but those against whom they struggle (the Government) know quite well, by the strength of the resistance experienced, that these people are not really pulling, but are only pretending to." (From : "A Letter to Russian Liberals," by Leo Tolstoy, Au....)
IN an age of materialism like our own the phenomenon of spiritual power is as significant and inspiring as it is rare. No longer associated with the “divine right” of kings, it has survived the downfall of feudal and theocratic systems as a mystic personal emanation in place of a coercive weapon of statecraft.
Freed from its ancient shackles of dogma and despotism it eludes analysis. We know not how to gauge its effect on others, nor even upon ourselves. Like the wind, it permeates the atmosphere we breathe, and baffles while it stimulates the mind with its intangible but compelling force.
This psychic power, which the dead weight of materialism is impotent to suppress, is revealed in the lives and writings of men of the most diverse creeds and nationalities. Apart from those who, like Buddha and Mahomet, have been raised to the height of demi-gods by worshiping millions, there are names which leap inevitably to the mind—such names as Savonarola, Luther, Calvin, Rousseau—which stand for types and exemplars of spiritual aspiration. To this high priesthood of the quick among the dead, who can doubt that time will admit Leo Tolstoy—a genius whose greatness has been obscured from us rather than enhanced by his duality; a realist who strove to demolish the mysticism of Christianity, and became himself a mystic in the contemplation of Nature; a man of ardent temperament and robust physique, keenly susceptible to human passions and desires, who battled with himself from early manhood until the spirit, gathering strength with years, inexorably subdued the flesh.
Tolstoy the realist steps without cavil into the front rank of modern writers; Tolstoy the idealist has been constantly derided and scorned by men of like birth and education with himself—his altruism denounced as impracticable, his preaching compared with his mode of life to prove him inconsistent, if not insincere. This is the prevailing attitude of politicians and literary men.
Must one conclude that the mass of mankind has lost touch with idealism? On the contrary, in spite of modern materialism, or even because of it, many leaders of spiritual thought have arisen in our times, and have won the ear of vast audiences. Their message is a call to a simpler life, to a recognition of the responsibilities of wealth, to the avoidance of war by arbitration, and sinking of class hatred in a deep sense of universal brotherhood.
Unhappily, when an idealistic creed is formulated in precise and dogmatic language, it invariably loses something of its pristine beauty in the process of transmutation. Hence the Positivist philosophy of Comte, though embodying noble aspirations, has had but a limited influence. Again, the poetry of Robert Browning, though less frankly altruistic than that of Cowper or Wordsworth, is inherently ethical, and reveals strong sympathy with sinning and suffering humanity, but it is masked by a manner that is sometimes uncouth and frequently obscure. Owing to these, and other instances, idealism suggests to the world at large a vague sentimentality peculiar to the poets, a bloodless abstraction toyed with by philosophers, which must remain a closed book to struggling humanity.
Yet Tolstoy found true idealism in the toiling peasant who believed in God, rather than in his intellectual superior who believed in himself in the first place, and gave a conventional assent to the existence of a deity in the second. For the peasant was still religious at heart with a naive unquestioning faith—more characteristic of the fourteenth or fifteenth century than of to-day—and still fervently aspired to God although sunk in superstition and held down by the despotism of the Greek Church. It was the cumbrous ritual and dogma of the orthodox state religion which roused Tolstoy to impassioned protests, and led him step by step to separate the core of Christianity from its sacerdotal shell, thus bringing upon himself the ban of excommunication.
The signal mark of the reprobation of “Holy Synod” was slow in coming—it did not, in fact, become absolute until a couple of years after the publication of “Resurrection,” in 1901, in spite of the attitude of fierce hostility to Church and State which Tolstoy had maintained for so long. This hostility, of which the seeds were primarily sown by the closing of his school and inquisition of his private papers in the summer of 1862, soon grew to proportions far greater than those arising from a personal wrong. The dumb and submissive moujik found in Tolstoy a living voice to express his sufferings.
Tolstoy was well fitted by nature and circumstances to be the peasant’s spokesman. He had been brought into intimate contact with him in the varying conditions of peace and war, and he knew him at his worst and best. The old home of the family, Yasnaya Polyana, where Tolstoy, his brothers and sister, spent their early years in charge of two guardian aunts, was not only a halting-place for pilgrims journeying to and from the great monastic shrines, but gave shelter to a number of persons of enfeebled minds belonging to the peasant class, with whom the devout and kindly Aunt Alexandra spent many hours daily in religious conversation and prayer.
In “Childhood” Tolstoy apostrophizes with feeling one of those “innocents,” a man named Grisha, “whose faith was so strong that you felt the nearness of God, your love so ardent that the words flowed from your lips uncontrolled by your reason. And how did you celebrate his Majesty when, words failing you, you prostrated yourself on the ground, bathed in tears” This picture of humble religious faith was among Tolstoy’s earliest memories, and it returned to comfort him and uplift his soul when it was tossed and engulfed by seas of doubt. But the affection he felt in boyhood towards the moujiks became tinged with contempt when his attempts to improve their condition—some of which are described in “Anna Karenina” and in the “Landlord’s Morning”—ended in failure, owing to the ignorance and obstinacy of the people. It was not till he passed through the ordeal of war in Turkey and the Crimea that he discovered in the common soldier who fought by his side an unconscious heroism, an unquestioning faith in God, a kindliness and simplicity of heart rarely possessed by his commanding officer.
The impressions made upon Tolstoy during this period of active service gave vivid reality to the battle-scenes in “War and Peace,” and are traceable in the reflections and conversation of the two heroes, Prince Andre and Pierre Besukhov. On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andre, talking with Pierre in the presence of his devoted soldier-servant Timokhine, says,—“‘Success cannot possibly be, nor has it ever been, the result of strategy or fire-arms or numbers.’
“‘Then what does it result from?’ said Pierre.
“‘From the feeling that is in me, that is in him’—pointing to Timokhine—‘and that is in each individual soldier.’”
He then contrasts the different spirit animating the officers and the men.
“‘The former,’ he says, ‘have nothing in view but their personal interests. The critical moment for them is the moment at which they are able to supplant a rival, to win a cross or a new order. I see only one thing. To-morrow one hundred thousand Russians and one hundred thousand Frenchmen will meet to fight; they who fight the hardest and spare themselves the least will win the day.’
“‘There’s the truth, your Excellency, the real truth,’ murmurs Timokhine; ‘it is not a time to spare oneself. Would you believe it, the men of my battalion have not tasted brandy? “It’s not a day for that,” they said.’”
During the momentous battle which followed, Pierre was struck by the steadfastness under fire which has always distinguished the Russian soldier.
“The fall of each man acted as an increasing stimulus. The faces of the soldiers brightened more and more, as if challenging the storm let loose on them.”
In contrast with this picture of fine “morale” is that of the young white-faced officer, looking nervously about him as he walks backwards with lowered sword.
In other places Tolstoy does full justice to the courage and patriotism of all grades in the Russian army, but it is constantly evident that his sympathies are most heartily with the rank and file. What genuine feeling and affection rings in this sketch of Plato, a common soldier, in “War and Peace!”
“Plato Karataev was about fifty, judging by the number of campaigns in which he had served; he could not have told his exact age himself, and when he laughed, as he often did, he showed two rows of strong, white teeth. There was not a gray hair on his head or in his beard, and his bearing wore the stamp of activity, resolution, and above all, stoicism. His face, though much lined, had a touching expression of simplicity, youth, and innocence. When he spoke, in his soft sing-song voice, his speech flowed as from a well-spring. He never thought about what he had said or was going to say next, and the vivacity and the rhythmical inflections of his voice gave it a penetrating persuasiveness. Night and morning, when going to rest or getting up, he said, ‘O God, let me sleep like a stone and rise up like a loaf.’ And, sure enough, he had no sooner lain down than he slept like a lump of lead, and in the morning on waking he was bright and lively, and ready for any work. He could do anything, just not very well nor very ill; he cooked, sewed, planed wood, cobbled his boots, and was always occupied with some job or other, only allowing himself to chat and sing at night. He sang, not like a singer who knows he has listeners, but as the birds sing to God, the Father of all, feeling it as necessary as walking or stretching himself. His singing was tender, sweet, plaintive, almost feminine, in keeping with his serious countenance. When, after some weeks of captivity his beard had grown again, he seemed to have got rid of all that was not his true self, the borrowed face which his soldiering life had given him, and to have become, as before, a peasant and a man of the people. In the eyes of the other prisoners Plato was just a common soldier, whom they chaffed at times and sent on all manner of errands; but to Pierre he remained ever after the personification of simplicity and truth, such as he had divined him to be since the first night spent by his side.”
This clearly is a study from life, a leaf from Tolstoy’s “Crimean Journal.” It harmonizes with the point of view revealed in the “Letters from Sebastopol” (especially in the second and third series), and shows, like them, the change effected by the realities of war in the intolerant young aristocrat, who previously excluded all but the comme-il-faut from his consideration. With widened outlook and new ideals he returned to St. Petersburg at the close of the Crimean campaign, to be welcomed by the elite of letters and courted by society. A few years before he would have been delighted with such a reception. Now it jarred on his awakened sense of the tragedy of existence. He found himself entirely out of sympathy with the group of literary men who gathered round him, with Turgenev at their head. In Tolstoy’s eyes they were false, paltry, and immoral, and he was at no pains to disguise his opinions. Dissension, leading to violent scenes, soon broke out between Turgenev and Tolstoy; and the latter, completely disillusioned both in regard to his great contemporary and to the literary world of St. Petersburg, shook off the dust of the capital, and, after resigning his commission in the army, went abroad on a tour through Germany, Switzerland, and France.
In France his growing aversion from capital punishment became intensified by his witnessing a public execution, and the painful thoughts aroused by the scene of the guillotine haunted his sensitive spirit for long. He left France for Switzerland, and there, among beautiful natural surroundings, and in the society of friends, he enjoyed a respite from mental strain.
“A fresh, sweet-scented flower seemed to have blossomed in my spirit; to the weariness and indifference to all things which before possessed me had succeeded, without apparent transition, a thirst for love, a confident hope, an inexplicable joy to feel myself alive.”
Those halcyon days ushered in the dawn of an intimate friendship between himself and a lady who in the correspondence which ensued usually styled herself his aunt, but was in fact a second cousin. This lady, the Countess Alexandra A. Tolstoy, a Maid of Honor of the Bedchamber, moved exclusively in Court circles. She was intelligent and sympathetic, but strictly orthodox and mondaine, so that, while Tolstoy’s view of life gradually shifted from that of an aristocrat to that of a social reformer, her own remained unaltered; with the result that at the end of some forty years of frank and affectionate interchange of ideas, they awoke to the painful consciousness that the last link of mutual understanding had snapped and that their friendship was at an end.
But the letters remain as a valuable and interesting record of one of Tolstoy’s rare friendships with women, revealing in his unguarded confidences fine shades of his many-sided nature, and throwing light on the impression he made both on his intimates and on those to whom he was only known as a writer, while his moral philosophy was yet in embryo. They are now about to appear in book form under the auspices of M. Stakhovich, to whose kindness in giving me free access to the originals I am indebted for the extracts which follow. From one of the countess’s first letters we learn that the feelings of affection, hope, and happiness which possessed Tolstoy in Switzerland irresistibly communicated themselves to those about him.
“You are good in a very uncommon way,” she writes, “and that is why it is difficult to feel unhappy in your company. I have never seen you without wishing to be a better creature. Your presence is a consoling idea . . . know all the elements in you that revive one’s heart, possibly without your being even aware of it.”
A few years later she gives him an amusing account of the impression his writings had already made on an eminent statesman.
“I owe you a small episode. Not long ago, when lunching with the Emperor, I sat next our little Bismarck, and in a spirit of mischief I began sounding him about you. But I had hardly uttered your name when he went off at a gallop with the greatest enthusiasm, firing off the list of your perfections left and right, and so long as he declaimed your praises with gesticulations, cut and thrust, powder and shot, it was all very well and quite in character; but seeing that I listened with interest and attention my man took the bit in his teeth, and flung himself into a psychic apotheosis. On reaching full pitch he began to get muddled, and floundered so helplessly in his own phrases! all the while chewing an excellent cutlet to the bone, that at last I realized nothing but the tips of his ears—those two great ears of his. What a pity I can’t repeat it verbatim! but how? There was nothing left but a jumble of confused sounds and broken words.”
Tolstoy on his side is equally expansive, and in the early stages of the correspondence falls occasionally into the vein of self-analysis which in later days became habitual.
“As a child I believed with passion and without any thought. Then at the age of fourteen I began to think about life and preoccupied myself with religion, but it did not adjust itself to my theories and so I broke with it. Without it I was able to live quite contentedly for ten years . . . everything in my life was evenly distributed, and there was no room for religion. Then came a time when everything grew intelligible; there were no more secrets in life, but life itself had lost its significance.”
He goes on to tell of the two years that he spent in the Caucasus before the Crimean War, when his mind, jaded by youthful excesses, gradually regained its freshness, and he awoke to a sense of communion with Nature which he retained to his life’s end.
“I have my notes of that time, and now reading them over I am not able to understand how a man could attain to the state of mental exaltation which I arrived at. It was a torturing but a happy time.”
Further on he writes,—“In those two years of intellectual work, I discovered a truth which is ancient and simple, but which yet I know better than others do. I found out that immortal life is a reality, that love is a reality, and that one must live for others if one would be unceasingly happy.”
At this point one realizes the gulf which divides the Slavonic from the English temperament. No average Englishman of seven-and-twenty (as Tolstoy was then) would pursue reflections of this kind, or if he did, he would in all probability keep them sedulously to himself.
To Tolstoy and his aunt, on the contrary, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to indulge in egoistic abstractions and to expatiate on them; for a Russian feels none of the Anglo-Saxon’s mauvaise honte in describing his spiritual condition, and is no more daunted by metaphysics than the latter is by arguments on politics and sport.
To attune the Anglo-Saxon reader’s mind to sympathy with a mentality so alien to his own, requires that Tolstoy’s environment should be described more fully than most of his biographers have cared to do. This prefatory note aims, therefore, at being less strictly biographical than illustrative of the contributory elements and circumstances which sub-consciously influenced Tolstoy’s spiritual evolution, since it is apparent that in order to judge a man’s actions justly one must be able to appreciate the motives from which they spring; those motives in turn requiring the key which lies in his temperament, his associations, his nationality. Such a key is peculiarly necessary to English or American students of Tolstoy, because of the marked contrast existing between the Russian and the Englishman or American in these respects, a contrast by which Tolstoy himself was forcibly struck during the visit to Switzerland, of which mention has been already made. It is difficult to restrain a smile at the poignant mental discomfort endured by the sensitive Slav in the company of the frigid and silent English frequenters of the Schweitzerhof (“Journal of Prince D. Nekhludov,” Lucerne, 1857), whose reserve, he realized, was “not based on pride, but on the absence of any desire to draw nearer to each other”; while he looked back regretfully to the pension in Paris where the table d’ hote was a scene of spontaneous gaiety. The problem of British taciturnity passed his comprehension; but for us the enigma of Tolstoy’s temperament is half solved if we see him not harshly silhouetted against a blank wall, but suffused with his native atmosphere, amid his native surroundings. Not till we understand the main outlines of the Russian temperament can we realize the individuality of Tolstoy himself: the personality that made him lovable, the universality that made him great.
So vast an agglomeration of races as that which constitutes the Russian empire cannot obviously be represented by a single type, but it will suffice for our purposes to note the characteristics of the inhabitants of Great Russia among whom Tolstoy spent the greater part of his lifetime and to whom he belonged by birth and natural affinities.
It may be said of the average Russian that in exchange for a precocious childhood he retains much of a child’s lightness of heart throughout his later years, alternating with attacks of morbid despondency. He is usually very susceptible to feminine charm, an ardent but unstable lover, whose passions are apt to be as shortlived as they are violent. Story-telling and long-winded discussions give him keen enjoyment, for he is garrulous, metaphysical, and argumentative. In money matters careless and extravagant, dilatory and venal in affairs; fond, especially in the peasant class, of singing, dancing, and carousing; but his irresponsible gaiety and heedlessness of consequences balanced by a fatalistic courage and endurance in the face of suffering and danger. Capable, besides, of high flights of idealism, which result in epics, but rarely in actions, owing to the Slavonic inaptitude for sustained and organized effort. The Englishman by contrast appears cold and calculating, incapable of rising above questions of practical utility; neither interested in other men’s antecedents and experiences nor willing to retail his own. The catechism which Plato puts Pierre through on their first encounter (“War and Peace”) as to his family, possessions, and what not, are precisely similar to those to which I have been subjected over and over again by chance acquaintances in country-houses or by fellow travelers on journeys by boat or train. The naivete and kindliness of the questioner makes it impossible to resent, though one may feebly try to parry his probing. On the other hand he offers you free access to the inmost recesses of his own soul, and stupefies you with the candor of his revelations. This, of course, relates more to the landed and professional classes than to the peasant, who is slower to express himself, and combines in a curious way a firm belief in the omnipotence and wisdom of his social superiors with a rooted distrust of their intentions regarding himself. He is like a beast of burden who flinches from every approach, expecting always a kick or a blow. On the other hand, his affection for the animals who share his daily work is one of the most attractive points in his character, and one which Tolstoy never wearied of emphasizing—describing, with the simple pathos of which he was master, the moujik inured to his own privations but pitiful to his horse, shielding him from the storm with his own coat, or saving him from starvation with his own meager ration; and mindful of him even in his prayers, invoking, like Plato, the blessings of Florus and Laura, patron saints of horses, because “one mustn’t forget the animals.”
The characteristics of a people so embedded in the soil bear a closer relation to their native landscape than our own migratory populations, and patriotism with them has a deep and vital meaning, which is expressed unconsciously in their lives.
This spirit of patriotism which Tolstoy repudiated is none the less the animating power of the noble epic, “War and Peace,” and of his peasant-tales, of his rare gift of reproducing the expressive Slav vernacular, and of his magical art of infusing his pictures of Russian scenery not merely with beauty, but with spiritual significance. I can think of no prose writer, unless it be Thoreau, so wholly under the spell of Nature as Tolstoy; and while Thoreau was preoccupied with the normal phenomena of plant and animal life, Tolstoy, coming near to Pantheism, found responses to his moods in trees, and gained spiritual expansion from the illimitable skies and plains. He frequently brings his heroes into touch with Nature, and endows them with all the innate mysticism of his own temperament, for to him Nature was “a guide to God.” So in the two-fold incident of Prince Andre and the oak tree (“War and Peace”) the Prince, though a man of action rather than of sentiment and habitually cynical, is ready to find in the aged oak by the roadside, in early spring, an animate embodiment of his own despondency.
“‘Springtime, love, happiness?—are you still cherishing those deceptive illusions?’ the old oak seemed to say. ‘Isn’t it the same fiction ever? There is neither spring, nor love, nor happiness! Look at those poor weather-beaten firs, always the same . . . look at the knotty arms issuing from all up my poor mutilated trunk—here I am, such as they have made me, and I do not believe either in your hopes or in your illusions.’”
And after thus exercising his imagination, Prince Andre still casts backward glances as he passes by, “but the oak maintained its obstinate and sullen immovability in the midst of the flowers and grass growing at its feet. ‘Yes, that oak is right, right a thousand times over. One must leave illusions to youth. But the rest of us know what life is worth; it has nothing left to offer us.’”
Six weeks later he returns homeward the same way, roused from his melancholy torpor by his recent meeting with Natasha.
“The day was hot, there was storm in the air; a slight shower watered the dust on the road and the grass in the ditch; the left side of the wood remained in the shade; the right side, lightly stirred by the wind, glittered all wet in the sun; everything was in flower, and from near and far the nightingales poured forth their song. ‘I fancy there was an oak here that understood me,’ said Prince Andre to himself, looking to the left and attracted unawares by the beauty of the very tree he sought. The transformed old oak spread out in a dome of deep, luxuriant, blooming verdure, which swayed in a light breeze in the rays of the setting sun. There were no longer cloven branches nor rents to be seen; its former aspect of bitter defiance and sullen grief had disappeared; there were only the young leaves, full of sap that had pierced through the centenarian bark, making the beholder question with surprise if this patriarch had really given birth to them. ‘Yes, it is he, indeed!’ cried Prince Andre, and he felt his heart suffused by the intense joy which the springtime and this new life gave him . . . ‘No, my life cannot end at thirty-one! . . . It is not enough myself to feel what is within me, others must know it too! Pierre and that “slip” of a girl, who would have fled into cloudland, must learn to know me! My life must color theirs, and their lives must mingle with mine!’”
In letters to his wife, to intimate friends, and in his diary, Tolstoy’s love of Nature is often-times expressed. The hair shirt of the ascetic and the prophet’s mantle fall from his shoulders, and all the poet in him wakes when, “with a feeling akin to ecstasy,” he looks up from his smooth-running sledge at “the enchanting, starry winter sky overhead,” or in early spring feels on a ramble “intoxicated by the beauty of the morning,” while he notes that the buds are swelling on the lilacs, and “the birds no longer sing at random,” but have begun to converse.
But though such allusions abound in his diary and private correspondence, we must turn to “The Cossacks,” and “Conjugal Happiness” for the exquisitely elaborated rural studies, which give those early romances their fresh idyllic charm.
What is interesting to note is that this artistic freshness and joy in Nature coexisted with acute intermittent attacks of spiritual lassitude. In “The Cossacks,” the doubts, the mental gropings of Olenine—whose personality but thinly veils that of Tolstoy—haunt him betimes even among the delights of the Caucasian woodland; Serge, the fatalistic hero of “Conjugal Happiness,” calmly acquiesces in the inevitableness of “love’s sad satiety” amid the scent of roses and the songs of nightingales.
Doubt and despondency, increased by the vexations and failures attending his philanthropic endeavors, at length obsessed Tolstoy to the verge of suicide.
“The disputes over arbitration had become so painful to me, the schoolwork so vague, my doubts arising from the wish to teach others, while dissembling my own ignorance of what should be taught, were so heartrending that I fell ill. I might then have reached the despair to which I all but succumbed fifteen years later, if there had not been a side of life as yet unknown to me which promised me salvation: this was family life” (“My Confession”).
In a word, his marriage with Mademoiselle Sophie Andreevna Bers (daughter of Dr. Bers of Moscow) was consummated in the autumn of 1862—after a somewhat protracted courtship, owing to her extreme youth—and Tolstoy entered upon a period of happiness and mental peace such as he had never known. His letters of this period to Countess A. A. Tolstoy, his friend Fet, and others, ring with enraptured allusions to his new-found joy. Lassitude and indecision, mysticism and altruism, all were swept aside by the impetus of triumphant love and of all-sufficing conjugal happiness. When in June of the following year a child was born, and the young wife, her features suffused with “a supernatural beauty” lay trying to smile at the husband who knelt sobbing beside her, Tolstoy must have realized that for once his prophetic intuition had been unequal to its task. If his imagination could have conceived in prenuptial days what depths of emotion might be wakened by fatherhood, he would not have treated the birth of Masha’s first child in “Conjugal Happiness” as a trivial material event, in no way affecting the mutual relations of the disillusioned pair. He would have understood that at this supreme crisis, rather than in the vernal hour of love’s avowal, the heart is illumined with a joy which is fated “never to return.”
The parting of the ways, so soon reached by Serge and Masha, was in fact delayed in Tolstoy’s own life by his wife’s intelligent assistance in his literary work as an untiring amanuensis, and in the mutual anxieties and pleasures attending the care of a large family of young children. Wider horizons opened to his mental vision, his whole being was quickened and invigorated. “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” all the splendid fruit of the teeming years following upon his marriage, bear witness to the stimulus which his genius had received. His dawning recognition of the power and extent of female influence appears incidentally in the sketches of high society in those two masterpieces as well as in the eloquent closing passages of “What then must we do?” (1886). Having affirmed that “it is women who form public opinion, and in our day women are particularly powerful,” he finally draws a picture of the ideal wife who shall urge her husband and train her children to self-sacrifice. “Such women rule men and are their guiding stars. O women—mothers! The salvation of the world lies in your hands!” In that appeal to the mothers of the world there lurks a protest which in later writings developed into overwhelming condemnation. True, he chose motherhood for the type of self-sacrificing love in the treatise “On Life,” which appeared soon after “What then must we do?” but maternal love, as exemplified in his own home and elsewhere, appeared to him as a noble instinct perversely directed.
The roots of maternal love are sunk deep in conservatism. The child’s physical well-being is the first essential in the mother’s eyes—the growth of a vigorous body by which a vigorous mind may be fitly tenanted—and this form of materialism which Tolstoy as a father accepted, Tolstoy as idealist condemned; while the penury he courted as a lightening of his soul’s burden was averted by the strenuous exertions of his wife. So a rift grew without blame attaching to either, and Tolstoy henceforward wandered solitary in spirit through a wilderness of thought, seeking rest and finding none, coming perilously near to suicide before he reached haven.
To many it will seem that the finest outcome of that period of mental groping, internal struggle, and contending with current ideas, lies in the above-mentioned “What then must we do?” Certain it is that no human document ever revealed the soul of its author with greater sincerity. Not for its practical suggestions, but for its impassioned humanity, its infectious altruism, “What then must we do?” takes its rank among the world’s few living books. It marks that stage of Tolstoy’s evolution when he made successive essays in practical philanthropy which filled him with discouragement, yet were “of use to his soul” in teaching him how far below the surface lie the seeds of human misery. The slums of Moscow, crowded with beings sunk beyond redemption; the famine-stricken plains of Samara where disease and starvation reigned, notwithstanding the stream of charity set flowing by Tolstoy’s appeals and notwithstanding his untiring personal devotion, strengthened further the conviction, so constantly affirmed in his writings, of the impotence of money to alleviate distress. Whatever negations of this dictum our own systems of charitable organizations may appear to offer, there can be no question but that in Russia it held and holds true.
The social condition of Russia is like a tideless sea, whose sullen quiescence is broken from time to time by terrific storms which spend themselves in unavailing fury. Reaction follows upon every forward motion, and the advance made by each succeeding generation is barely perceptible.
But in the period of peace following upon the close of the Crimean War the soul of the Russian people was deeply stirred by the spirit of Progress, and hope rose high on the accession of Alexander II.
The emancipation of the serfs was only one among a number of projected reforms which engaged men’s minds. The national conscience awoke and echoed the cry of the exiled patriot Herzen, “Now or never!” Educational enterprise was aroused, and some forty schools for peasant children were started on the model of that opened by Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana (1861). The literary world throbbed with new life, and a brilliant company of young writers came to the surface, counting among them names of European celebrity, such as Dostoevsky, Nekrassov, and Saltykov. Unhappily the reign of Progress was short. The bureaucratic circle hemming in the Czar took alarm, and made haste to secure their ascendancy by fresh measures of oppression. Many schools were closed, including that of Tolstoy, and the nascent liberty of the Press was stifled by the most rigid censorship.
In this lamentable manner the history of Russia’s internal misrule and disorder has continued to repeat itself for the last sixty years, revolving in the same vicious circle of fierce repression and persecution and utter disregard of the rights of individuals, followed by fierce reprisals on the part of the persecuted; the voice of protest no sooner raised than silenced in a prison cell or among Siberian snow-fields, yet rising again and again with inextinguishable reiteration; appeals for political freedom, for constitutional government, for better systems and wider dissemination of education, for liberty of the Press, and for an enlightened treatment of the masses, callously received and rejected. The answer with which these appeals have been met by the rulers of Russia is only too well known to the civilized world, but the obduracy of Pharoah has called forth the plagues of Egypt. Despite the unrivaled agrarian fertility of Russia, famines recur with dire frequency, with disease and riot in their train, while the ignominious termination of the Russo-Japanese war showed that even the magnificent morale of the Russian soldier had been undermined and was tainted by the rottenness of the authorities set over him. What in such circumstances as these can a handful of philanthropists achieve, and what avails alms-giving or the scattering of largesse to a people on the point of spiritual dissolution?
In these conditions Tolstoy’s abhorrence of money, and his assertion of its futility as a panacea for human suffering, appears not merely comprehensible but inevitable, and his renunciation of personal property the strictly logical outcome of his conclusions. The partition of his estates between his wife and children, shortly before the outbreak of the great famine in 1892, served to relieve his mind partially; and the writings of Henry George, with which he became acquainted at this critical time, were an additional incentive to concentrate his thoughts on the land question. He began by reading the American propagandist’s “Social Problems,” which arrested his attention by its main principles and by the clearness and novelty of his arguments. Deeply impressed by the study of this book, no sooner had he finished it than he possessed himself of its forerunner, “Progress and Poverty,” in which the essence of George’s revolutionary doctrines is worked out.
The plan of land nationalization there explained provided Tolstoy with well thought-out and logical reasons for a policy that was already more than sympathetic to him. Here at last was a means of ensuring economic equality for all, from the largest landowner to the humblest peasant—a practical suggestion how to reduce the inequalities between rich and poor.
Henry George’s ideas and methods are easy of comprehension. The land was made by God for every human creature that was born into the world, and therefore to confine the ownership of land to the few is wrong. If a man wants a piece of land, he ought to pay the rest of the community for the enjoyment of it. This payment or rent should be the only tax paid into the Treasury of the State. Taxation on men’s own property (the produce of their own labor) should be done away with, and a rent graduated according to the site-value of the land should be substituted. Monopolies would cease without violently and unjustly disturbing society with confiscation and redistribution. No one would keep land idle if he were taxed according to its value to the community, and not according to the use to which he individually wished to put it. A man would then readily obtain possession of land, and could turn it to account and develop it without being taxed on his own industry. All human beings would thus become free in their lives and in their labor. They would no longer be forced to toil at demoralizing work for low wages; they would be independent producers instead of earning a living by providing luxuries for the rich, who had enslaved them by monopolizing the land. The single tax thus created would ultimately overthrow the present “civilization” which is chiefly built up on wage-slavery.
Tolstoy gave his whole-hearted adhesion to this doctrine, predicting a day of enlightenment when men would no longer tolerate a form of slavery which he considered as revolting as that which had so recently been abolished. Some long conversations with Henry George, while he was on a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, gave additional strength to Tolstoy’s conviction that in these theories lay the elements essential to the transformation and rejuvenation of human nature, going far towards the leveling of social inequalities. But to inoculate the landed proprietors of Russia as a class with those theories was a task which even his genius could not hope to accomplish.
He recognized the necessity of proceeding from the particular to the general, and that the perfecting of human institutions was impossible without a corresponding perfection in the individual. To this end therefore the remainder of his life was dedicated. He had always held in aversion what he termed external epidemic influences: he now endeavored to free himself not only from all current conventions, but from every association which he had formerly cherished. Self-analysis and general observation had taught him that men are sensual beings, and that sensualism must die for want of food if it were not for sex instincts, if it were not for Art, and especially for Music. This view of life he forcibly expressed in the “Kreutzer Sonata,” in which Woman and Music, the two magnets of his youth, were impeached as powers of evil. Already, in “War and Peace” and in “Anna Karenina,” his descriptions of female charms resembled catalogs of weapons against which a man must arm himself or perish. The beautiful Princess Helena, with her gleaming shoulders, her faultless white bosom, and her eternal smile is evidently an object of aversion to her creator; even as the Countess Betsy, with her petty coquetries and devices for attracting attention at the Opera and elsewhere, is a target for his contempt. “Woman is a stumbling-block in a man’s career,” remarks a philosophical husband in “Anna Karenina.” “It is difficult to love a woman and do any good work, and the only way to escape being reduced to inaction is to marry.”
Even in his correspondence with the Countess A. A. Tolstoy this slighting tone prevails. “A woman has but one moral weapon instead of the whole male arsenal. That is love, and only with this weapon is feminine education successfully carried forward.” Tolstoy, in fact, betrayed a touch of orientalism in his attitude towards women. In part no doubt as a result of his motherless youth, in part to the fact that his idealism was never stimulated by any one woman as it was by individual men, his views retained this coloring on sex questions while they became widened and modified in almost every other field of human philosophy. It was only that, with a revulsion of feeling not seldom experienced by earnest thinkers, attraction was succeeded by a repulsion which reached the high note of exasperation when he wrote to a man friend, “A woman in good health—why, she is a regular beast of prey!”
None the less, he showed great kindness and sympathy to the women who sought his society, appealing to him for guidance. One of these (an American, and herself a practical philanthropist), Miss Jane Addams, expressed with feeling her sense of his personal influence. “The glimpse of Tolstoy has made a profound impression on me, not so much by what he said, as the life, the gentleness, the soul of him. I am sure you will understand my saying that I got more of Tolstoy’s philosophy from our conversations than I had gotten from our books.” (Quoted by Aylmer Maude in his “Life of Tolstoy.”)
As frequently happens in the lives of reformers, Tolstoy found himself more often in affinity with strangers than with his own kin. The estrangement of his ideals from those of his wife necessarily affected their conjugal relations, and the decline of mutual sympathy inevitably induced physical alienation. The stress of mental anguish arising from these conditions found vent in pages of his diaries (much of which I have been permitted to read), pages containing matter too sacred and intimate to use. The diaries shed a flood of light on Tolstoy’s ideas, motives, and manner of life, and have modified some of my opinions, explaining many hitherto obscure points, while they have also enhanced my admiration for the man. They not only touch on many delicate subjects—on his relations to his wife and family—but they also give the true reasons for leaving his home at last, and explain why he did not do so before. The time, it seems to me, is not ripe for disclosures of this nature, which so closely concern the living.
Despite a strong rein of restraint his mental distress permeates the touching letter of farewell which he wrote some sixteen years before his death. He, however, shrank from acting upon it, being unable to satisfy himself that it was a right step. This letter has already appeared in foreign publications,* but it is quoted here because “I have suffered long, dear Sophie, from the discord between my life and my beliefs.
* And in Birukov’s short Life of Tolstoy, 1911. of the light which it throws on the character and disposition of the writer, the workings of his mind being of greater moment to us than those impulsive actions by which he was too often judged.
“I cannot constrain you to alter your life or your accustomed ways. Neither have I had the strength to leave you ere this, for I thought my absence might deprive the little ones, still so young, of whatever influence I may have over them, and above all that I should grieve you. But I can no longer live as I have lived these last sixteen years, sometimes battling with you and irritating you, sometimes myself giving way to the influences and seductions to which I am accustomed and which surround me. I have now resolved to do what I have long desired: to go away . . . Even as the Hindoos, at the age of sixty, betake themselves to the jungle; even as every aged and religious-minded man desires to consecrate the last years of his life to God and not to idle talk, to making jokes, to gossiping, to lawn-tennis; so I, having reached the age of seventy, long with all my soul for calm and solitude, and if not perfect harmony, at least a cessation from this horrible discord between my whole life and my conscience.
“If I had gone away openly there would have been entreaties, discussions: I should have wavered, and perhaps failed to act on my decision, whereas it must be so. I pray of you to forgive me if my action grieves you. And do you, Sophie, in particular let me go, neither seeking me out, nor bearing me ill-will, nor blaming me . . . the fact that I have left you does not mean that I have cause of complaint against you . . . I know you were not able, you were incapable of thinking and seeing as I do, and therefore you could not change your life and make sacrifices to that which you did not accept. Besides, I do not blame you; on the contrary, I remember with love and gratitude the thirty-five long years of our life in common, and especially the first half of the time when, with the courage and devotion of your maternal nature, you bravely bore what you regarded as your mission. You have given largely of maternal love and made some heavy sacrifices . . . but during the latter part of our life together, during the last fifteen years, our ways have parted. I cannot think myself the guilty one; I know that if I have changed it is not owing to you, or to the world, but because I could not do otherwise; nor can I judge you for not having followed me, and I thank you for what you have given me and will ever remember it with affection.
“Adieu, my dear Sophie, I love you.”
The personal isolation he craved was never to be his; but the isolation of spirit essential to leadership, whether of thought or action, grew year by year, so that in his own household he was veritably “in it but not of it.”
At times his loneliness weighed upon him, as when he wrote: “You would find it difficult to imagine how isolated I am, to what an extent my true self is despised by those who surround me.” But he must, none the less, have realized, as all prophets and seers have done, that solitariness of soul and freedom from the petty complexities of social life are necessary to the mystic whose constant endeavor is to simplify and to winnow, the transient from the eternal.
Notwithstanding the isolation of his inner life he remained—or it might more accurately be said he became—the most accessible of men.
Appeals for guidance came to him from all parts of the world—America, France, China, Japan—while Yasnaya Polyana was the frequent resort of those needing advice, sympathy, or practical assistance. None appealed to him in vain; at the same time, he was exceedingly chary of explicit rules of conduct. It might be said of Tolstoy that he became a spiritual leader in spite of himself, so averse was he from assuming authority. His aim was ever to teach his followers themselves to hear the inward monitory voice, and to obey it of their own accord. “To know the meaning of Life, you must first know the meaning of Love,” he would say; “and then see that you do what love bids you.” His distrust of “epidemic ideas” extended to religious communities and congregations.
“We must not go to meet each other, but go each of us to God. You say it is easier to go all together? Why yes, to dig or to mow. But one can only draw near to God in isolation . . . I picture the world to myself as a vast temple, in which the light falls from above in the very center. To meet together all must go towards the light. There we shall find ourselves, gathered from many quarters, united with men we did not expect to see; therein is joy.”
The humility which had so completely supplanted his youthful arrogance, and which made him shrink from impelling others to follow in his steps, endued him also with the teachableness of a child towards those whom he accepted as his spiritual mentors. It was a peasant nonconformist writer, Soutaev, who by conversing with him on the revelations of the Gospels helped him to regain his childhood’s faith, and incidentally brought him into closer relations with religious, but otherwise untaught, men of the people. He saw how instead of railing against fate after the manner of their social superiors, they endured sickness and misfortune with a calm confidence that all was by the will of God, as it must be and should be. From his peasant teachers he drew the watchwords Faith, Love, and Labor, and by their light he established that concord in his own life without which the concord of the universe remains impossible to realize. The process of inward struggle—told with unsparing truth in “Confession”—is finely painted in “Father Serge,” whose life story points to the conclusion at which Tolstoy ultimately arrived, namely, that not in withdrawal from the common trials and temptations of men, but in sharing them, lies our best fulfillment of our duty towards mankind and towards God. Tolstoy gave practical effect to this principle, and to this long-felt desire to be of use to the poor of the country, by editing and publishing, aided by his friend Chertkov,* modern literature has awakened so universal a sense of sympathy and admiration, perhaps because none has been so entirely a labor of love.
* In Russia and out of it Mr. Chertkov has been the subject of violent attack. Many of the misunderstandings of Tolstoy’s later years have also been attributed by critics, and by those who hate or belittle his ideas, to the influence of this friend. These attacks are very regrettable and require a word of protest. From tales, suited to the means and intelligence of the humblest peasant. The undertaking was initiated in 1885, and continued for many years to occupy much of Tolstoy’s time and energies. He threw himself with ardor into his editorial duties; reading and correcting manuscripts, returning them sometimes to the authors with advice as to their reconstruction, and making translations from foreign works—all this in addition to his own original contributions, in which he carried out the principle which he constantly laid down for his collaborators, that literary graces must be set aside, and that the mental caliber of those for whom the books were primarily intended must be constantly borne in mind. He attained a splendid fulfillment of his own theories, employing the moujik’s expressive vernacular in portraying his homely wisdom, religious faith, and goodness of nature. Sometimes the prevailing simplicity of style and motive is tinged with a vague coloring of oriental legend, but the personal accent is marked throughout. No similar achievement in the beginning Mr. Chertkov has striven to spread the ideas of Tolstoy, and has won neither glory nor money from his faithful and single-hearted devotion. He has carried on his work with a rare love and sympathy in spite of difficulties. No one appreciated or valued his friendship and self-sacrifice more than Tolstoy himself, who was firmly attached to him from the date of his first meeting, consulting him and confiding in him at every moment, even during Mr. Chertkov’s long exile.
The series of educational primers which Tolstoy prepared and published concurrently with the “Popular Tales” have had an equally large, though exclusively Russian, circulation, being admirably suited to their purpose—that of teaching young children the rudiments of history, geography, and science. Little leisure remained for the service of Art.
The history of Tolstoy as a man of letters forms a separate page of his biography, and one into which it is not possible to enter in the brief compass of this introduction. It requires, however, a passing allusion. Tolstoy even in his early days never seems to have approached near to that manner of life which the literary man leads: neither to have shut himself up in his study, nor to have barred the entrance to disturbing friends. On the one hand, he was fond of society, and during his brief residence in St. Petersburg was never so engrossed in authorship as to forego the pleasure of a ball or evening entertainment. Little wonder, when one looks back at the brilliant young officer surrounded and petted by the great hostesses of Russia. On the other hand, he was no devotee at the literary altar. No patron of literature could claim him as his constant visitor; no inner circle of men of letters monopolized his idle hours. Afterwards, when he left the capital and settled in the country, he was almost entirely cut off from the association of literary men, and never seems to have sought their companionship. Nevertheless, he had all through his life many fast friends, among them such as the poet Fet, the novelist Chekhov, and the great Russian librarian Stassov, who often came to him. These visits always gave him pleasure. The discussions, whether on the literary movements of the day or on the merits of Goethe or the humor of Gogol, were welcome interruptions to his ever-absorbing metaphysical studies. In later life, also, though never in touch with the rising generation of authors, we find him corresponding with them, criticizing their style and subject matter. When Andreev, the most modern of all modern Russian writers, came to pay his respects to Tolstoy some months before his death, he was received with cordiality, although Tolstoy, as he expressed himself afterwards, felt that there was a great gulf fixed between them.
Literature, as literature, had lost its charm for him. “You are perfectly right,” he writes to a friend; “I care only for the idea, and I pay no attention to my style.” The idea was the important thing to Tolstoy in everything that he read or wrote. When his attention was drawn to an illuminating essay on the poet Lermontov he was pleased with it, not because it demonstrated Lermontov’s position in the literary history of Russia, but because it pointed out the moral aims which underlay the wild Byronism of his works. He reproached the novelist Leskov, who had sent him his latest novel, for the “exuberance” of his flowers of speech and for his florid sentences—beautiful in their way, he says, but inexpedient and unnecessary. He even counseled the younger generation to give up poetry as a form of expression and to use prose instead. Poetry, he maintained, was always artificial and obscure. His attitude towards the art of writing remained to the end one of hostility. Whenever he caught himself working for art he was wont to reproach himself, and his diaries contain many recriminations against his own weakness in yielding to this besetting temptation. Yet to these very lapses we are indebted for this collection of fragments.
The greater number of stories and plays contained in these volumes date from the years following upon Tolstoy’s pedagogic activity. Long intervals, however, elapsed in most cases between the original synopsis and the final touches. Thus “Father Serge,” of which he sketched the outline to Mr. Chertkov in 1890, was so often put aside to make way for purely ethical writings that not till 1898 does the entry occur in his diary, “To-day, quite unexpectedly, I finished Serge.” A year previously a dramatic incident had come to his knowledge, which he elaborated in the play entitled “The Man who was dead.” It ran on the lines familiarized by Enoch Arden and similar stories, of a wife deserted by her husband and supported in his absence by a benefactor, whom she subsequently marries. In this instance the supposed dead man was suddenly resuscitated as the result of his own admissions in his cups, the wife and her second husband being consequently arrested and condemned to a term of imprisonment. Tolstoy seriously attacked the subject during the summer of 1900, and having brought it within a measurable distance of completion in a shorter time than was usual with him, submitted it to the judgment of a circle of friends. The drama made a deep impression on the privileged few who read it, and some mention of it appeared in the newspapers.
Shortly afterwards a young man came to see Tolstoy in private. He begged him to refrain from publishing “The Man who was dead,” as it was the history of his mother’s life, and would distress her gravely, besides possibly occasioning further police intervention. Tolstoy promptly consented, and the play remained, as it now appears, in an unfinished condition. He had already felt doubtful whether “it was a thing God would approve,” Art for Art’s sake having in his eyes no right to existence. For this reason a didactic tendency is increasingly evident in these later stories. “After the Ball” gives a painful picture of Russian military cruelty; “The Forged Coupon” traces the cancerous growth of evil, and demonstrates with dramatic force the cumulative misery resulting from one apparently trivial act of wrongdoing.
Of the three plays included in these volumes, “The Light that shines in Darkness” has a special claim to our attention as an example of autobiography in the guise of drama. It is a specimen of Tolstoy’s gift of seeing himself as others saw him, and viewing a question in all its bearings. It presents not actions but ideas, giving with entire impartiality the opinions of his home circle, of his friends, of the Church and of the State, in regard to his altruistic propaganda and to the anarchism of which he has been accused. The scene of the renunciation of the estates of the hero may be taken as a literal version of what actually took place in regard to Tolstoy himself, while the dialogues by which the piece is carried forward are more like verbatim records than imaginary conversations.
This play was, in addition, a medium by which Tolstoy emphasized his abhorrence of military service, and probably for this reason its production is absolutely forbidden in Russia. A word may be said here on Tolstoy’s so-called Anarchy, a term admitting of grave misconstruction. In that he denied the benefit of existing governments to the people over whom they ruled, and in that he stigmatized standing armies as “collections of disciplined murderers,” Tolstoy was an Anarchist; but in that he reprobated the methods of violence, no matter how righteous the cause at stake, and upheld by word and deed the gospel of Love and submission, he cannot be judged guilty of Anarchism in its full significance. He could not, however, suppress the sympathy which he felt with those whose resistance to oppression brought them into deadly conflict with autocracy. He found in the Caucasian chieftain, Hajji Murat, a subject full of human interest and dramatic possibilities; and though some eight years passed before he corrected the manuscript for the last time (in 1903), it is evident from the numbers of entries in his diary that it had greatly occupied his thoughts so far back even as the period which he spent in Tiflis prior to the Crimean war. It was then that the final subjugation of the Caucasus took place, and Shamil and his devoted band made their last struggle for freedom. After the lapse of half a century, Tolstoy gave vent in “Hajji Murat” to the resentment which the military despotism of Nicholas I. had roused in his sensitive and fearless spirit.
Courage was the dominant note in Tolstoy’s character, and none have excelled him in portraying brave men. His own fearlessness was of the rarest, in that it was both physical and moral. The mettle tried and proved at Sebastopol sustained him when he had drawn on himself the bitter animosity of “Holy Synod” and the relentless anger of Czardom. In spite of his nonresistance doctrine, Tolstoy’s courage was not of the passive order. It was his natural bent to rouse his foes to combat, rather than wait for their attack, to put on the defensive every falsehood and every wrong of which he was cognizant. Truth in himself and in others was what he most desired, and that to which he strove at all costs to attain. He was his own severest critic, weighing his own actions, analyzing his own thoughts, and baring himself to the eyes of the world with unflinching candor. Greatest of autobiographers, he extenuates nothing: you see the whole man with his worst faults and best qualities; weaknesses accentuated by the energy with which they are charactered, apparent waste of mental forces bent on solving the insoluble, inherited tastes and prejudices, altruistic impulses and virile passions, egoism and idealism, all strangely mingled and continually warring against each other, until from the death-throes of spiritual conflict issued a new birth and a new life. In the ancient Scripture “God is love” Tolstoy discerned fresh meaning, and strove with superhuman energy to bring home that meaning to the world at large. His doctrine in fact appears less as a new light in the darkness than as a revival of the pure flame of “the Mystic of the Galilean hills,” whose teaching he accepted while denying His divinity.
Of Tolstoy’s beliefs in regard to the Christian religion it may be said that with advancing years he became more and more disposed to regard religious truth as one continuous stream of spiritual thought flowing through the ages of man’s history, emanating principally from the inspired prophets and seers of Israel, India, and China. Finally, in 1909, in a letter to a friend he summed up his conviction in the following words:—“For me the doctrine of Jesus is simply one of those beautiful religious doctrines which we have received from Egyptian, Jewish, Hindoo, Chinese, and Greek antiquity. The two great principles of Jesus: love of God—in a word absolute perfection—and love of one’s neighbor, that is to say, love of all men without distinction, have been preached by all the sages of the world—Krishna, Buddha, Lao-tse, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and among the moderns, Rousseau, Pascal, Kant, Emerson, Channing, and many others. Religious and moral truth is everywhere and always the same. I have no predilection whatever for Christianity. If I have been particularly interested in the doctrine of Jesus it is, firstly, because I was born in that religion and have lived among Christians; secondly, because I have found a great spiritual joy in freeing the doctrine in its purity from the astounding falsifications wrought by the Churches.”
Tolstoy’s life-work was indeed a splendid striving to free truth from falsehood, to simplify the complexities of civilization and demonstrate their futility. Realists as gifted have come and gone and left but little trace. It is conceivable that the great trilogy of “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace,” and “Resurrection” may one day be forgotten, but Tolstoy’s teaching stands on firmer foundations, and has stirred the hearts of thousands who are indifferent to the finest display of psychic analysis. He has taught men to venture beyond the limits set by reason, to rise above the actual and to find the meaning of life in love. It was his mission to probe our moral ulcers to the roots and to raise moribund ideals from the dust, breathing his own vitality into them, till they rose before our eyes as living aspirations. The spiritual joy of which he wrote was no rhetorical hyperbole; it was manifest in the man himself, and was the fount of the lofty idealism which made him not only “the Conscience of Russia” but of the civilized world.
Idealism is one of those large abstractions which are invested by various minds with varying shades of meaning, and which find expression in an infinite number of forms. Ideals bred and fostered in the heart of man receive at birth an impress from the life that engenders them, and when that life is tempest-tossed the thought that springs from it must bear a birth-mark of the storm. That birth-mark is stamped on all Tolstoy’s utterances, the simplest and the most metaphysical. But though he did not pass scathless through the purging fires, nor escape with eyes undimmed from the mystic light which flooded his soul, his ideal is not thereby invalidated. It was, he admitted, unattainable, but none the less a state of perfection to which we must continually aspire, undaunted by partial failure.
“There is nothing wrong in not living up to the ideal which you have made for yourself, but what is wrong is, if on looking back, you cannot see that you have made the least step nearer to your ideal.”
How far Tolstoy’s doctrines may influence succeeding generations it is impossible to foretell; but when time has extinguished what is merely personal or racial, the divine spark which he received from his great spiritual forerunners in other times and countries will undoubtedly be found alight. His universality enabled him to unite himself closely with them in mental sympathy; sometimes so closely, as in the case of J. J. Rousseau, as to raise analogies and comparisons designed to show that he merely followed in a well-worn pathway. Yet the similarity of Tolstoy’s ideas to those of the author of the “Contrat Social” hardly goes beyond a mutual distrust of Art and Science as aids to human happiness and virtue, and a desire to establish among mankind a true sense of brotherhood. For the rest, the appeals which they individually made to Humanity were as dissimilar as the currents of their lives, and equally dissimilar in effect.
The magic flute of Rousseau’s eloquence breathed fanaticism into his disciples, and a desire to mass themselves against the foes of liberty. Tolstoy’s trumpet-call sounds a deeper note. It pierces the heart, summoning each man to the inquisition of his own conscience, and to justify his existence by labor, that he may thereafter sleep the sleep of peace.
The exaltation which he awakens owes nothing to rhythmical language nor to subtle interpretations of sensuous emotion; it proceeds from a perception of eternal truth, the truth that has love, faith, courage, and self-sacrifice for the cornerstones of its enduring edifice.
NOTE—Owing to circumstances entirely outside the control of the editor some of these translations have been done in haste and there has not been sufficient time for revision. The translators were chosen by an agent of the executor and not by the editor.
From : Gutenberg.org
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