Tolstoy’s Spiritual Journey: Varieties of Religious Experience #3

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Leo Tolstoy:  “Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life.”

Tolstoy, at the height of his powers and fame, underwent a profound spiritual crisis.  He chronicled his journey down to the suicidal depths and back to spiritual health in My Confession.  Such experiences are the grist of William James’s book, and he quotes Tolstoy at length.  Here, I have attempted to capture the essence of both Tolstoy’s journey and James’s observations.  Tolstoy’s crisis, and his ultimate resolution of it, speaks to my condition, today.

[pg 151 – 156]

In Tolstoy’s case the sense that life had any meaning whatever was for a time wholly withdrawn. The result was a transformation in the whole expression of reality.

“I felt,” says Tolstoy, “that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence, in one way or another. It cannot be said exactly that I wished to kill myself, for the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life.

“Behold me then, a man happy and in good health, hiding the rope in order not to hang myself to the rafters of the room where every night I went to sleep alone; behold me no longer going shooting, lest I should yield to the too easy temptation of putting an end to myself with my gun.

“I did not know what I wanted. I was afraid of life; I was driven to leave it; and in spite of that I still hoped something from it.

… 

“All this took place at a time when so far as all my outer circumstances went, I ought to have been completely happy. I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children and a large property which was increasing with no pains taken on my part. I was more respected by my kinsfolk and acquaintance than I had ever been; I was loaded with praise by strangers; and without exaggeration I could believe my name already famous. Moreover I was neither insane nor ill. On the contrary, I possessed a physical and mental strength which I have rarely met in persons of my age. I could mow as well as the peasants, I could work with my brain eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects.

“And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any actions of my life.  And I was surprised that I had not understood this from the very beginning. My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played upon me by some one. One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, drunk with life; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it is all a stupid cheat. What is truest about it is that there is nothing even funny or silly in it; it is cruel and stupid, purely and simply.”

[pg 155]

“…What will be the outcome of what I do to-day? Of what I shall do to-morrow? What will be the outcome of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?

“These questions are the simplest in the world. From the stupid child to the wisest old man, they are in the soul of every human being. Without an answer to them, it is impossible, as I experienced, for life to go on.

“ ‘But perhaps,’ I often said to myself, ‘there may be something I have failed to notice or to comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind.’ And I sought for an explanation in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully and protractedly and with no idle curiosity. I sought, not with  indolence, but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together.  I sought like a man who is lost and seeks to save himself, — and I found nothing. I became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought for an answer in the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, but that they have recognized that the very thing which was me to despair — the meaningless absurdity of life — is only incontestable knowledge accessible to man.”

To prove this point Tolstoy quotes the Buddha Solomon and Schopenhauer. And he finds only four ways in which men of his own class and society are accustomed to meet the situation. Either mere animal blindness, sucking the honey without seeing the dragon or the mice, — and from such a way,” he says, “I can learn nothing, after what I now know;” or reflective epicureanism, snatching what it can while the day lasts, — which is only a more deliberate sort of stupefaction than the first;  or manly suicide; or … weakly and plaintively clinging to … life.

Suicide was naturally the consistent course dictated by the logical intellect.

“Yet,” says Tolstoy, “whilst my intellect was working, something else in me was working too, and kept me from the deed — a consciousness of life, as I may call it, which was like a force that obliged my mind to fix itself in another direction and draw me out of my situation of despair. . . . During the whole course of this year, when I almost unceasingly kept asking myself how to end the business, whether by the rope or by the bullet, during all that time, alongside of all those movements of my ideas and observations, my heart kept languishing with another pining emotion. I can call this by no other name than that of a thirst for God. This craving for God had nothing to do with the movement of my ideas, — in fact, it was the direct contrary of that movement, — but it came from my heart. It was like a feeling of dread that made me seem like an orphan and isolated in the midst of all these things that were so foreign. And this feeling of dread was mitigated by the hope of finding the assistance of some one.”

[pg. 184-6]

... Tolstoy, pursuing his unending questioning, seemed to come to one insight after another. First he perceived that his conviction that life was meaningless took only this finite life into account. He was looking for the value of one finite term in that of another, and the whole result could only be one of those indeterminate equations in mathematics which end with 0 = 0. Yet this is as far as the reasoning intellect by itself can go, unless irrational sentiment or faith brings in the infinite. Believe in the infinite as common people do, and life grows possible again.

“Since mankind has existed, wherever life has been, there also has been the faith that gave the possibility of living. Faith is the sense of life, that sense by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but continues to live on. It is the force whereby we live. If Man did not believe that he must live for something, he would not live at all. The idea of an infinite God, of the divinity of the soul, of the union of men’s actions with God — these are ideas elaborated in the infinite secret depths of human thought. They are ideas without which there would be no life, without which I myself,” said Tolstoy, “would not exist. I began to see that I had no right to rely on my individual reasoning and neglect these answers given by faith, for they are the only answers to the question.”

Yet how believe as the common people believe, steeped as they are in grossest superstition. It is impossible. — but yet their life! their life! It is normal. It is happy! It is an answer to the question!

Little by little, Tolstoy came to the settled conviction — he says it took him two years to arrive there — that his trouble had not been with life in general, not with the common life of common men, but with the life of the upper, intellectual, artistic classes, the life which he had  personally always led, the cerebral life, the life of conventionality, artificiality, and personal ambition. He had been living wrongly and must change. To work for animal needs, to abjure lies and vanities, to relieve common wants, to be simple, to believe in God, therein lay happiness again.

“I remember,” he says, “one day in early spring, I was alone in the forest, lending my ear to its mysterious noises. I listened, and my thought went back to what for these three years it always was busy with — the quest of God.  But the idea of him, I said, how did I ever come by the idea?

“And again there arose in me, with this thought, glad aspirations towards life. Everything in me awoke and received a meaning. … Why do I look farther? a voice within me asked. He is there: he, without whom one cannot live. To acknowledge God and to live are one and the same thing. God is what life is. Well then! live, seek God, and there will be no life without him. . . .

“ After this, things cleared up within me and about me better than ever, and the light has never wholly died away. I was saved from suicide. Just how or when the change took place I cannot tell. But as insensibly and gradually as the force of life had been annulled within me, and I had reached my moral death-bed, just as gradually and imperceptibly did the energy of life come back. And what was strange was that this energy that came back was nothing new. It was my ancient juvenile force of faith, the belief that the sole purpose of my life was to be better. I gave up the life of the conventional world, recognizing it to be no life, but a parody on life, which its superfluities simply keep us from comprehending,” — and Tolstoy thereupon embraced the life of the peasants, and has felt right and happy, or at least relatively so, ever since.

[footnote]: I have considerably abridged Tolstoy’s words in my translation.

As I interpret his melancholy, then, it was not merely an accidental vitiation of his humors, though it was doubtless also that. It was logically called for by the clash between his inner character and his outer activities and aims. Although a literary artist, Tolstoy was one of those primitive oaks of men to whom the superfluities and insincerities, the cupidities, complications, and cruelties of our polite civilization are profoundly unsatisfying, and for whom the eternal veracities lie with more natural and animal things. His crisis was the getting of his soul in order, the discovery of its genuine habitat and vocation, the escape from falsehoods into what for him were ways of truth. It was a case of heterogeneous personality tardily and slowly finding its unity and level. And though not many of us can imitate Tolstoy, not having enough perhaps of the aboriginal human marrow in our bones, most of us may at least feel as if it might be better for us if we could.

James has one further critical observation about Tolstoy’s experience, found in a footnote [page 247]:  There was almost no theology in his conversion. His faith-state was the sense … that life was infinite in its moral significance.

Today, most discussions about religion concern theology, and the struggle to reconcile  old dogmas with the discoveries of modern science.  However, such discussions are irrelevant to faith such as Tolstoy’s.  His faith is a response to the human condition, the condition of finite man in relation to the infinite, a condition unchanged by technological advances.

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One thought on “Tolstoy’s Spiritual Journey: Varieties of Religious Experience #3

  1. Both Tolstoy and William James’ “Varieties” had a profound influence on me. “The Death of Ivan Illyich” was the only novel to ever make me cry.

    I think James was onto something in saying it’s not theological arguments that convert people, it’s an existential crisis—or whatever you want to call it—that brings about a need for religion or spirituality. Each individual has a different sort of constitution, and this brings about different aspects of religion depending on that individual’s needs. It’s a kind of balancing of excesses in some cases, but in most cases it seems to be a seeking of something outside, of something entirely different or “other”.

    Liked by 1 person

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