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Vol. IX • 1987

The "Conversion" of Leo Tolstoy
Ellen Myers

In the late 1870s Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), author of the great novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, underwent a severe inward crisis. His life, the existence of all mankind and the universe, seemed completely futile to him. He overcame his despondency by thinking his way through to a religion of "the infinite" as God, and morality demanding simplicity of daily life, non-violence, and the abolition of government, church, science and industry. He spoke of this development as his conversion. However, his extensive diaries kept between 1847 and his death, and his Confession, the record of his crisis and conversion, show that both before and afterwards his all but exclusive and obsessive concern was with his own self.

Let us observe Tolstoy's crisis and "conversion" in detail through his Confession. He was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, but had lost it by the time he attended university.

He says this was usual among educated people, for whom "religious doctrine [was only] an external phenomenon disconnected from life[1]." He vaguely believed in an undefined God and devoted himself to physical, mental and social self-perfection. In his circle worldly ambitions and desires were respected and moral goodness despised.He says that he later acquired from his fellow writers "abnormally developed pride and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what"[2]. He found this same belief among the leading and learned men of Western Europe, together with faith in "progress" expressed in evolutionist terms: "Everything evolves and I evolve with it: and why (this is so) will be known some day."[3] Only when Tolstoy tried to teach the peasant children on his country estate did he realize that he could not do so without knowing what to teach. This impasse, he says, might have brought him "to the state of despair I reached fifteen years later,"[4] had it not been for his happy marriage and family life, and his writing to gain wealth and applause. His "only truth" was then that "one should live so as to have the best for oneself and one's family."[5]

Then his inward crisis began. At first rarely, then more and more often he was perplexed and dejected by the questions why he lived, and what he lived for. He would dismiss them from his mind, but later understood that they were important and had to be resolved. In the midst of his daily affairs he would suddenly wonder what it all mattered, and

He came to see life as a stupid and spiteful joke played on him by "someone," even though "I did not acknowledge a 'someone' who created me." Sickness and death, "stench and worms"' would come; "my affairs ...will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?"[7] All the joys of life including family and art could soothe him only "when in the depth of my soul I believed that my life had a meaning."[8]

Tolstoy sought an answer in natural science. It only spoke of the overall change and evolution of infinitely small particles in infinite space, time and complexity, entirely missing the point. As for the social sciences, in particular philosophy, they could only admit they had no answer. In view of this dead end to human inquiry after life's ultimate purpose, Tolstoy, quoting Socrates, Schopenhauer, the book of Ecclesiastes and Buddha, reaffirmed that life is evil and absurd, and that death and nothingness are preferable to it.

At this crucial point Tolstoy, though clinging to his faith in reason, felt that perhaps the masses of simple, uneducated people were wiser than he:

Having humbled himself in going to the simple and uneducated, Tolstoy asserted that they received the meaning of life in "irrational knowledge," and

This categorical rejection of the Triune God and Creator of the Bible is in itself unreasonable, for it is a rejection of possible rational testing. Might not Tolstoy have reasoned something like this: "Perhaps these simple believers are not so irrational as I think, and the God they believe in and pray to really does exist. How can I test this?" Then he might have done as did an unbelieving Chinese professor of psychology who was urged by a Christian friend to pray "O God, if there is no God, then my prayer is useless and I have prayed in vain; but if there is a God, then somehow make me know it." The professor then asked himself:

Tolstoy, however, did not test the Christians' belief, or his own unbelief. He reasoned instead that the solution lay in "a relation between the finite and the infinite" which was the center of faith.[12] Faith itself he defined as "a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives."[13] He felt the people of his circle led useless, parasitic lives, whereas the poor, the simple and the uneducated lived as one should, even though superstitions were mixed with their truths. By this standard he felt he was bad, "and to feel myself to be good was for me more important and necessary than for two and two to be four."[14] Attempting to define his relations to God, he again denied that God is "the Creator and Preserver." feeling this concept made him dejected and took away what he needed to live. Then he "became terrified and began to pray to Him whom I sought. But the more I prayed the more apparent it became to me that He did not hear me...[15] This experience was repeated many, many times. Having first rejected the God of Scripture, Tolstoy received no answer from "Him whom I sought," that is, not the transcendent, sovereign, personal God whom he loathed, but a vague deity of his own desire. His experience was of necessity that of the priests of BaaI at Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:26-29).

Finally Tolstoy thought out his solution: "Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God." He felt that this formulation, whose lack of logic and reason he never saw, was the same as his childhood belief that he should live in accord with "that Will which produced me... I can find the expression of that Will in what humanity... has produced for its guidance"[16]. The meaning of life was to "save [one's] soul, and to save his soul he must live 'godly' and to live 'godly' he must renounce all the pleasures of life, must labour, humble himself, suffer, and be merciful."[17]

With this conclusion Tolstoy arrived in essence at the religion he was to practice and preach the rest of his life. He called it "Christianity," but designed it as a combination of all he considered reasonable in all religions and philosophies. He denied Christ's deity and resurrection, all miracles and the supernatural, and rewrote the Gospels accordingly. He insisted man must perfect himself by his own unaided efforts, and saw prayer as "calling forth in oneself the divine element while renouncing... all which can distract one's feelings, [and] testing oneself, one's actions, one's desires... according to the highest demands of the soul."[18] His followers were mostly educated people like himself, and most were unhappy at heart as was he His later diaries abundantly prove that his inner misery after his "conversion" was outwardly due to his family's refusal to share his new ascetic moralism, but inwardly and chiefly to his daily and hopeless failure to perfect himself despite continuous, sincere and scrupulous efforts. At first he briefly rejoined the Orthodox Church and diligently observed its rituals as the peasant believers did. However, when he received Communion for the first time after many years, he "felt a pain in my heart"; only his determined "feeling of self-abasement and humility" helped him endure it, and he "could not go a second time."[19] The Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1901, a belated acknowledgment of his apostasy.

Tolstoy's Confession shows that he was in no way converted away from his own self, certainly not to the sovereign, transcendent ("other-than-self") Creator and Redeemer of the Bible whom he rejected with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength Instead, he was "converted" from periodical to full-time, singleminded dedication to his own self and its moral perfection by his own efforts In that self-willed "goodness" without the grace of God he could not but fail, and did fail. "All things work for harm to them that do not love God," a paraphrase of Romans 8:28, which is borne out by his unconverted later life.


[1] - Leo Tolstoy. A Confession, The Gospel In Brief, and What I Believe, transl. with an Introduction by Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p.4.
[2] - lbid,, p.10.
[3] - lbid., p.13.
[4] - lbid.. p.14.
[5] - lbid., p.15.
[6] - lbid., pp.17-18.
[7] - lbid., pp.19-20.
[8] - lbid.. p.22.
[9] - lbid.. p.43.
[10] - lbid., p.47.
[11] - Watchman Nee. What Shall This Man Do? (Fort Washington. PA: Christian Literature Crusade, Paperback Edition 1965), pp. 50-52.
[12] - Tolstoy. Confession. p.49.
[13] - lbid.. pp. 50-51.
[14] - Ibid.. p.59.
[15] - lbid., p.63.
[16] - lbid., p.65.
[17] - lbid.. p.67.
[18] - Leo Tolstoy [Lyof N. Tolstoi], The Kingdom of God is Within You. What is Art? What Is Religion? (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925). pp.368-369.
[19] - Tolstoy. Confession. pp.72-73.

"The 'Conversion' of Leo Tolstoy"
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