Tolstoy, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich (1828–1910)

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Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the renowned Russian novelist, won worldwide fame as a moralist and sage for his antiecclesiastical interpretation of Christianity and fervent preaching of nonviolence. A well-read amateur in philosophy from the age of fifteen, Tolstoy displayed serious philosophical interests in his greatest novel, War and Peace (18651869), and in 1874 he began an increasingly anguished philosophical and religious quest, seeking a reason for living. His spiritual crisis, dramatically described in My Confession (1879), was resolved by a return to the Christian faith of his youth, but in a radically different form based on his reading of selected New Testament texts. The new creed, further elaborated in such works as What People Live By (1881) and What I Believe (1883), was the foundation for the philosophical and hortatory works on morality, society, and culture that dominated his writing during the last three decades of his life.

Philosophy of History

Tolstoy conceived War and Peace as a grand historical narrative embodying conclusions he had reached, partly under the influence of Schopenhauer, concerning causality in history and especially the interplay of freedom, chance, and necessity; the novel's two epilogues address these themes explicitly. It is in the nature of human consciousness, Tolstoy argued, to conceive of oneself and others as free agents whose actions may have a significant impact on the worldin the case of so-called great figures like Napoleon, a determining impact. Yet no individual is more than one node in a vast and unpredictable web of interacting forces, conscious and unconscious, contingent and necessary. Hence individuals cannot with any assurance foresee the effects of their own or others' actions (a point to which Tolstoy returned in his case against violence), and great men do not make history. He delights in describing, for example, how the tide of a decisive battle can be turned by the behavior of a single rank-and-file soldieralthough this example undercuts his own arguments against attributing a determining influence to any one person. Tolstoy's philosophy of history is analyzed insightfully in Isaiah Berlin's classic study, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1957).

Metaphysics and Epistemology

In My Confession Tolstoy expressed his disillusionment with all attempts by human reason, whether philosophical or scientific, to explain how life can have meaning when it inevitably ends in death. Meaning, he decided, can be imparted to a finite life only by linking it with an eternal, infinite realityby which he meant the spiritual reality of the Christian Godand such union with an infinite deity is achievable only through an act of faith. Though itself "unreasonable," the primitive act of faith answers the ultimate question posed by reason without disqualifying reason from serving as the standard of truth on other questions. Tolstoy accordingly sought to develop something he had dreamed of as early as 1855: a rational religion, one stripped of everything unreasonable, including miracles, sacraments, mysticism, clergy, rituals, special buildings, and dietary rules. Tolstoy's standard of reasonableness proved to be highly fluid and subjective, however. In a Rousseauian spirit he rejected much of modern science and technology as products of false reason, and the mysticism he condemns in some contexts appears to be embraced in others.

Tolstoy's metaphysical views are a form of Christian idealism based on a dualism of matter and spirit. Reality is bifurcated into an infinite, eternal divine world and a finite, temporal material world, with human beings mirroring this division in their possession of a body and a soul. The universal divine reality is manifested in the human soul in the form of love, so that only when people are vehicles of universal love are they living a "true" life, "a life divine and free" (Edie 1976, p. 218). In several respects, however, Tolstoy departed from the commonly accepted Christian versions of this picture, prompting the Russian Orthodox church to excommunicate him in 1901. He opposed Trinitarianism and denied the special divinity of the man Jesus, contending that he was no different in nature from any other son of God. Further, despite frequent references to God as a "Father," Tolstoy did not subscribe to a personal conception of God. His conception, rather, as Richard F. Gustafson has argued in Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger (1986), is panentheistic: God is both transcendent and immanent; He is "beyond the world of space and time but includes within Him all the world of space and time" (Gustafson 1986, p. 101). Tolstoy also rejects personal immortality in the sense of an individual life after death, holding rather that individuals attain immortality by merging with the infinite. Gustafson sees the influence of Eastern Christianity in Tolstoy's theology, whereas David Kvitko, in A Philosophic Study of Tolstoy (1927), argues that Tolstoy's metaphysical views in general were indebted more to Buddhism than to Christianity. Tolstoy's interest in and extensive knowledge of Chinese philosophy has been well documented by the sinologist Derk Bodde in Tolstoy and China (1950).


Tolstoy states that he found the true meaning of Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as reported in the gospel of Saint Matthew, the text that became the focal point of his thinking about personal and social morality. From the sermon he distilled a moral code consisting of five commandments: first, do not be angry; second, do not lust; third, do not take oaths; fourth, do not resist evil by force; and fifth, love all people, including your enemies. The first, fourth, and fifth commandments are expressions of what, to Tolstoy, was the unique Christian understanding of the universally recognized law of love (the Old Testament's injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself). All the great religions of antiquity, as he explained later in The Law of Violence and the Law of Love (1908), considered love a virtue, but only Christianity acknowledged it as a categorical demand, as "the supreme law of human lifei.e., in such a way as not to admit of exceptions in any case" (Edie 1976, p. 217). Christ, in other words, recognized the law as prohibiting all use of violence.

Tolstoy was called upon repeatedly to justify his absolutist interpretation of the law, and he did so consistently and with great vigor, not hesitating to condemn violence even when used in self-defense against a mad dog or against a savage who is preparing to slaughter one's children. To support his position he relies not simply on his religious faith but on two philosophical objections to violence that undeniably carry some weight, though perhaps not enough to justify his extreme stance. The first, echoing his skepticism about predictability in War and Peace, is that arguments for the use of violence to stop evil rest on the dubious assumption that we can reliably foresee and control the future. The second is that the use of force generates more force in return, making it counterproductive. As the acknowledged prophet of nonviolent resistance, Tolstoy found a devoted disciple in Mohandas Gandhi (with whom he corresponded) and a host of admirers among figures as diverse as Clarence Darrow and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Tolstoy's second commandmentdo not lustalthough logically unrelated to the law of love, was advanced with equal maximalism. He treated it as not only a condemnation of extramarital relations but also as a call for celibacy even in marriage. In defending the ideal of universal celibacy he was unmoved by the argument (offered before the development of artificial insemination) that if his ideal were realized, it would mean the end of the human race. His response was, first, that humanly irresistible lapses would more than suffice for the continuation of the species; and second, that in any event, physical extinction would eliminate only the troublesome animal dimension of humanity and thus would be no great loss. Tolstoy's interest in the themes of sexuality and sexual misconduct (to which he himself confessed) gave him literary subjectsespecially in later works such as The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) and Resurrection (18951899)and some awareness of feminist issues.

Social and Political Thought

As the institution that claims a monopoly on the use of violence in society, the state was an obvious target for Tolstoy's moral indignation, and his antistate position ranks as one of the most sweeping in the annals of nonviolent anarchism. He opposed not only serving in the military or the police but also all activity that promotes or supports state force indirectly, such as paying taxes, serving on juries, and holding public office. Moreover, he condemned private ownership and other institutions that are sustained by the threat of state force. Tolstoy saw the gospel injunction against oath-taking (the third of his five commandments) as a recognition of the evils of acknowledging state authority; it confirmed his conviction that there was divine sanction for civil disobedience.

Although Tolstoy himself held a minor position as a justice of the peace in the early 1860s, his other civic activities after his army service (which ended in 1856) were outside any official sphere. In 1859 he founded a school for peasant children on his estate at Iasnaia Poliana and for the next few years devoted much attention to pedagogical theory and practice, producing essays (discussed in Charles Baudouin's Tolstoi: The Teacher [1923]) of interest to historians and theorists of education. During the famines of 1873 and 18911892, he worked tirelessly in the Russian countryside to organize relief efforts, publicly castigating the tsarist government for its incompetent handling of the crises. Later in the 1890s he provided moral and material support to the Dukhobors (literally, "spirit wrestlers"), a Russian sect that attempted to practice Christian anarchism on principles paralleling his own, and he spearheaded the successful drive to arrange for their mass relocation to Canada to escape tsarist persecution. Tolstoy's criticisms and civic initiatives angered the authorities, but he was protected from serious reprisals (other than excommunication) by the enormous popular respect he enjoyed.


The most professional and enduring of Tolstoy's philosophical writings, despite its eccentric conclusions, is his book What Is Art?, originally published serially in 18971898 in the leading Russian journal of philosophy. The work is valued for its systematic approach to aesthetic philosophy, beginning with a critical survey of earlier attempts to define art and ending with a clear and forceful presentation of an expressionist theory centering on the notion of the communication of emotion from artist to audience.

"Art begins," Tolstoy wrote, "when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications." The aim is achieved when the feeling is successfully transmitted or, as Tolstoy puts it, when "the spectators or auditors are infected by the feeling which the author has felt." The feeling transmitted, he adds, may be "very strong or very weak, very important or very insignificant, very bad or very good"; any feeling will do as far as art per se is concerned (pp. 121123). From a strictly aesthetic point of view, then, the worth of art depends simply on its emotional infectiousness, which Tolstoy traced to the individuality, clarity, and sincerity of the feeling conveyed.

Tolstoy is by no means satisfied with a merely aesthetic approach to art, however, and the center of gravity of his treatise soon shifts to the moral demands that art, like every other aspect of culture, must satisfy. Art, according to Tolstoy, must reflect the loftiest religious perception of its time, which means in the modern day that the artist is called upon to communicate feelings flowing from "a perception of our sonship to God and of the brotherhood of man" (p. 240). This does not imply, as some of Tolstoy's critics have charged, that art can be of value only if it transmits specifically religious emotions. Tolstoy indeed esteems religious art as the highest form, but he also strongly commends the whole range of what he calls "universal" art, or art that simply promotes "the loving union of man with man" by transmitting "even the most trifling and simple feelings if only they are accessible to all men without exception, and therefore unite them" (pp. 240241). What even the most generous critic finds hard to accept, however, is that on Tolstoy's criteria (and by his own admission) simple folk songs are greater music than Beethoven symphonies, and Uncle Tom's Cabin is a greater novel than War and Peace.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Anarchism; Art, Expression in; Art, Value in; Life, Meaning and Value of; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Violence; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


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Berlin, Isaiah. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. New York: Mentor Books, 1957.

Bodde, Derk. Tolstoy and China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950.

Edie, James M., James P. Scanlan, Mary-Barbara Zeldin, and George L. Kline, eds. Russian Philosophy. Vol. 2, The Nihilists; the Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.

Egan, David R., and Melinda A. Egan, eds. Leo Tolstoy: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources to 1978. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.

Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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Tolstoy, Leo. The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy. 24 vols, edited and translated by Leo Wiener. Boston: Dana Estes, 1904.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life. Translated by Constance Garnett. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Tolstoy, Leo. My Confession, My Religion. Midland, MI: Avensblume Press, 1993.

Tolstoy, Leo. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii [Complete collected works]. 90 vols. Moscow: Gos. izd. khudozhestvennoi literatury, 19281958.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York: Modern Library, n.d.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? Translated by Alymer Maude. London: Oxford University Press, n.d.

James P. Scanlan (2005)

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Tolstoy, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich (1828–1910)

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