Tolstoi, Leo Nikolaevich
TOLSTOI, LEO NIKOLAEVICH
Russian novelist and moralist; b. Yasnaya Polyana, his estate in the Tula province, Sept. 9, 1828; d. Astapovo, Nov. 20, 1910.
Tolstoi, who was of aristocratic landowning stock, received his early education from French tutors, matriculated at the University of Kazan in 1844, but left in 1847. After some dissipated years in Moscow, he joined the army (1851–57), then traveled abroad, and finally settled (1861) on his estate, where he experimented briefly in education for peasant children along lines similar to those of Rousseau. From then on, he was completely occupied in writing. His earlier works include Istori[symbol omitted]a veherashnego dn[symbol omitted]a (1851, The Story of Yesterday ), Detstvo (1852, Childhood ), Dva Gusara (1856, Two Hussars ), Lucerne (1857), Tri Smerti (1858, Three Deaths ), and Kholstomer (1861), all adumbrating the philosophy that was to come to flower in his masterpieces.
Tolstoi recollects in Ispoved (1879–82, My Confession ) that he had from conviction abandoned the Russian Orthodox faith when he was 16. Nevertheless pure reason held him to belief in God, and he even made several unsuccessful efforts to regain his lost faith. He denied Christ's divinity, the claims of Orthodoxy or of any organized religion to be true Christianity, and the immortality of the individual. He rewrote the Gospels according to his own rationalistic standards and founded his own religion, described as Christian naturalism. The Holy Synod finally excommunicated him in 1901.
The chief influences on Tolstoi's intellectual development were rousseau's belief in the natural goodness of man and the corruptive effects of society, schopenhauer's pessimism with regard to man's inability to understand the irrational forces in life, and Joseph Marie de maistre's distrust of secular and liberal reform programs. His two cardinal principles, to him the essence of the only true Christianity, were love of one's neighbor and nonresistance to evil. He idealized the simple life of the Russian peasant as an expression of the first, but rejected the authority of the state, which is based on force, as a violation of the second. Thus he was an anarchist and a religious populist. He inveighed against property, oaths, military service, war, and capital punishment. He also condemned contemporary art and literature for lacking popular moral and religious motivation.
Tolstoi is consistently didactic even in his novels. His greatest Voina i mir (1867–69, War and Peace ), records
the fate of the Russian gentry during the Napoleonic era, but it is also a philosophical argument by example, maintaining that great events, e.g., the battle of Borodino, are caused not by the conscious acts of history's heroes, but by the union of irrational forces and the unconscious acts of ordinary men. His other great novel, Anna Karenina (1875–77), contrasts the joys of simple country life with the evils of sophisticated Western society as these are embodied in Anna's illicit love. This novel enunciates Tolstoi's conviction of the unbreakable bond between human happiness and the observance of God's laws.
Bibliography: Works, tr. a. and l. maude, 21 v. (Oxford 1928–37). e. j. simmons, Leo Tolstoy (Boston 1946). i. berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (New York 1953). g. steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (New York 1959).
[w. j. mcbrearty]