Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity
August 15, 2010
After seeing several months ago the movie “The Last Station,” by the director Michael Hoffman, based on Leo Tolstoy’s final year of life and his death at the train station of Astapovo in 1910, I found my thoughts often turning to him. I’ve had a long interest in Tolstoy and his work, having spent considerable time as a student reading large swaths of his journals and other more obscure books during the early 1970s and repeatedly going back to him during intervening years. While the acting of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer was superb, the latter of whom I admire having seen Plummer perform live a couple of times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the movie left me with an uneasy feeling regarding the interpretation of Tolstoy. The film script was based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station, which may be part of the problem, in turn perhaps tracing back to the unsympathetic biographies by Henry Troyat and R. N. Wilson, both derisively presenting Tolstoy as a religious crank and fanatic. Neither biography understands the full weight of who Tolstoy was and what he actually believed and why. Touching on the problem, fearing other biographers would repeat the errors of Troyat, Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra wrote in 1968, in The Real Tolstoy, that “Troyat . . . shows no respect for Tolstoy’s inner life. He speaks about it in vulgar, cynical expressions…. I fear that the errors in Troyat’s book will be repeated in other works.” Beyond the biographies, skewing also the movie, lies the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of modernity that has no respect or appreciation for any spiritual vision of life, including even a highly universal one, such as Tolstoy’s, for he had embraced, by the last decade of his life, the universal principles and teachings, not only of Christianity, but of all the great religions. To see or set him in a more limited context is to fail to understand him within his own stated terms and the plenitude and scope of his work.
Born of aristocratic lineage, Tolstoy inherited his elite position in Russian society, along with the enormous estate of Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow. At thirty-four in 1862, he married Sophia Behrs, when she was eighteen years old. By all accounts they lived a happy domestic life together for many years. After his crisis of faith, discussed in My Confessions (1878), while he found the answers for his spiritual and intellectual struggles in his religious studies and books, they began to experienced an increasingly strained relationship. Sophia’s personality was much given, as she described herself, to the lightness of the social world she had been born into, growing up in Moscow in the circles of the Tsar’s court. By her own recognition, Tolstoy had a much deeper inner life of the mind and sensibility. Their relationship was often strained for the rest of their lives. Torn between love and gratitude to her and a desire to bring his life and ideals in line with his beliefs, he and Sophia struggled on together. In a letter dated June 8, 1897, found concealed in his study after his death, published in Paris in Figaro, December 27, 1910, which Tolstoy apparently had never sent to Sophia, Tolstoy dreamed about leaving her and explained his motives better than he eventually did when he actually left her more than a decade later:
For a long time, dear Sophie, I have been suffering from the discord between my life and my beliefs. I cannot force you to change your life or your habits. Neither have I hitherto been able to leave you, for I felt that by my departure I should deprive the children, still very young, of the little influence I might be able to exert over them, and also that I should cause you all a great deal of pain. But I cannot continue to live as I have lived, during these last sixteen years, now struggling against you and irritating you, now succumbing myself to the influences and the seductions to which I am accustomed and which surround me. I have resolved now to do what I have wished to do for a long time: to go away. . . . Just as the Hindoos, when they arrive at the sixtieth year, go away into the forest; just as every aged and religious man, wishes to consecrate the last years of hislife to God and not to jesting, punning, family tittletattle, and lawn-tennis, so do I with all my strength desire peace and solitude, and if not an absolute harmony at least not this crying discord between my whole life and my conscience. (Tolstoy, Romain Rolland, p. 181)
Tolstoy similarly once wrote to his sister, who was a nun in the Russian Orthodox Church, “How fine for the Buddhist when he grows old—he goes off to the desert.” It was to his sister and the Shamardino monastery that Tolstoy first fled in 1910, though he quickly gave up on the notion of staying there and headed south towards his summer home in the Crimea. What is often lost sight of in our disbelieving age is that religious retreat in advanced years was an ideal that Tolstoy respected and wished to honor in fact and deed. Sophia, it should be noted, was diagnosed by more than one doctor as mentally ill, a fact recognized by his son Sergei in a letter to his father, after his flight in 1910, acknowledging that it would have been better had they separated many years earlier. The movie fails to do justice to this complexity, presenting Sophia as far too much the victimized realist of an impractical zealot of a husband. What has come to be a common interpretation of Tolstoy is completely false. That Tolstoy could continue to study and write under such conditions is a testament to the strength and integrity of his character and soul.
Like many writers, Tolstoy anguished, for years, over his inability to bring his life into balance with his ideals. Alexandra quotes from his private diary the following passage:
If I heard about myself from the outside, as of a person, living in luxury, with police guards, grabbing all he could from the peasants, putting them in the lockup, and professing and preaching Christianity, and handing out small coins, and hiding behind a sweet wife while I did all these base things—I could not but call him a scoundrel! And that is what I have had to submit to, so that I could free myself from human fame and live for the sake of my soul. (Tolstoy: A Life of My Father, 1953, p. 466)
On another occasion, he writes, “Help me, O Lord. Again I yearn to go away, and I dare not. Nor can I give up.” These passages demonstrate the extent to which he fought for years with the dilemmas of his own existence, seeking resolution, some way out and forward. His inheriting great wealth and position became for him a burden and contradiction of the sincerity of his religious beliefs, as they developed and evolved, and weighed heavily upon him. Eventually, seeking to free himself, he legally passed ownership of his estate and holdings to Sophia and the family. All his religious writings, several books and many pamphlets, plays, and short stories can be properly understood only when approached in the light of this struggle. It explains why he lived in such a simple way that many visitors to Yasnaya Polyana recorded their surprise upon actually meeting him and witnessing it for themselves. The only solution for Tolstoy was what it was and is for all great writers. He had to write his way through his dilemmas, create for himself the role and persona that resolved his deepest conflicts, and those of his time. That is what all the religious works are about. By the end of his last decade, he’s achieved it, and then, finally, he’s ready, to follow the way of the ancients, set an example, remind the world, in deed as well as word, of the spiritual journey of life, round out the fullness of his own life.
By Tolstoy’s own testimony, after the years of happiness with Sophia, after writing his early novels and stories, including War and Peace and most of Anna Karenina, he experienced a searing spiritual crisis, feeling his life had become meaningless, which impelled him on a search for meaning and purpose. As recounted in My Confessions(1878), during his early years prior to his marriage, he states,
I killed people in war and challenged to duels to kill; I lost money at cards, wasting the labour of the peasants ; I punished them, fornicated, and cheated. Lying, stealing, acts of lust of every description, drunkenness, violence, murder — There was not a crime which I did not commit, and for all that I was praised, and my contemporaries have regarded me as a comparatively moral man.
He further emphasizes that he reached a point where “life had no meaning at all.” Overwhelmed by the emptiness of his existence, he turned to the study of philosophy, but eventually came to believe that there must be more than reason:
From the beginning of the human race, wherever there is life, there is the faith which makes life possible and everywhere the leading characteristics of that faith are the same.
From his study of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, as early as 1879, Tolstoy arrives at the understanding that he is “a part of the infinite whole” and in “the answers given by faith was to be found the deepest source of human wisdom,” while rejecting “the unnecessary and unreasonable doctrines” that had crept into all of the great religions. Initially, he returns to the Russian Orthodox Church, but soon finds it suffered from many irrational doctrines, what he would call after his 1901 excommunication “sorcery,” leading to his quest for the truth of Christianity, and all religions, that lasted until the end of his life in 1910.
A hundred years later, part of the difficulty many people may have in understanding Tolstoy involves today the pervasive nihilism of the academic and cultural establishment, which since Tolstoy’s death, has continued to drain away all spiritual import and nuance, not merely from Tolstoy’s work, but from literature and life. Western civilization itself has become suffused with nihilism, identified with it, the ruling myth celebrated everywhere has become the ascendance and triumphalism of a gloriously secular nihilism, passing the disease around the world, to all countries and cultures, so that the remedy can now only be found and administered in a truly global context. Far beyond the confines of the literary, intellectual, academic milieu, East or West, the ethos of nihilism, inculcated into the young and the general culture, pervades, in its local variants, every region of the globe. Tolstoy himself was highly aware that the general direction of culture was set in a direction away from religious belief and understood his efforts as a response to it, as when he said of Nietzsche, “What savagery! It is terrible, so to drag down Christianity!” Similarly, Tolstoy rejected the applicability of a solely materialistic understanding of the human being, whether by Marx or Thomas Henry Huxley’s defense of Charles Darwin in his Romanes Lectures of 1894. Tolstoy states, “the law of evolution runs counter to the moral law: This was known to the ancient Greeks and Hindus. The philosophy and religion of both those peoples brought them to the doctrine of self-renunciation.” It was often against the decline of a spiritual and moral understanding of the human being that Tolstoy understood himself as writing and working, though even he underestimated the force of nihilism as manifested in 1917. In a preface to Tolstoy’s short novels, Philip Rahv observed, “Tolstoy resisted the catastrophic ruin of the traditional order by straining all the powers of his reason to discover a way out.”
As recorded in an often-cited journal entry, the idea had already occurred to Tolstoy when he was twenty-seven years old that the world needed a new religion, one purged of the false doctrines of organized Christianity:
A new religion corresponding with the present state of mankind; the religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and mysticism–a practical religion, not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth.
After his religious crisis, as early as 1884, he took note of his intention of compiling the sayings of religious sages and thinkers into a single volume. During the last decade of his life, he finally began the compilation in earnest, resulting in several different versions of it, variously titled, Thoughts of Wise Men, A Calendar of Wisdom, A Circle of Reading, with the final edition in 1910, The Path of Life. Tolstoy spent much of his energy on the book, compiling and refining. He himself considered it as the most important work of his life, as he once wrote, “If it is granted me to finish this work, it will be a complete statement of my world outlook.” He continually simplified and revised the quotations and passages to the point that he advised translators not to look for the original pieces in Confucius, Buddhism, or wherever, but to base their translations on his own free-renderings. Near the end of his life, far ahead of his time, he couldn’t understand why people didn’t use The Circle of Reading more. While he understood that a writer cannot create his own religion, he was caught in the dilemma of finding all the existing forms unfulfilling.
Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Tolstoy was opposed to the violence in Russia advanced by the radicals, Marxists, and socialists of his time. In a journal entry he writes,
Socialists will never destroy poverty and the injustice of the inequality of capacities. The strongest and more intelligent will always make use of the weaker and the more stupid. Justice and equality in the good things of life will never be achieved by anything less than Christianity, i.e., by negating oneself and recognizing the meaning of one’s life in service to others.
His background in and experience of the ruling aristocratic class and ethos provided Tolstoy with an acute understanding of power and its endless corruptions. Far from being naive about power in society, he understood that human beings had to have a change of heart to influence society at the deepest level. The bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries were anathema to him and would produce only another tyranny, as they indeed did, one of the most horrible and blood-thirsty tyrannies in the history of humanity. Elsewhere, Tolstoy observed, “The object of socialism is the satisfaction of the lowest needs of man: his material well being. And it cannot attain even this end by the means it recommends.” Similarly, in “An Appeal,” “Even if that should happen which Marx predicted, then the only thing that will happen is that despotism will be passed on. Now the capitalists are ruling, but then the directors of the working class will rule.” In 1905 in “The End of the Age,” he wrote, “Nothing demonstrates so clearly the increasing enslavement of nations as the growth, spread, and success of socialistic theories.” By the last decade of his life, he had long since concluded that only a deep spiritual change could truly ameliorate the condition of humanity.
Arguing always against the violence of socialism and the Marxists, Tolstoy, unfortunately, interpreted the New Testament in such a way that non-resistance to violence prevented him from being sufficiently practical enough to recognize the value of a more democratic order, causing him to advocate a type of Christian anarchism and to repudiate Russian efforts to create a democratic body, the Duma, in the early years of the twentieth century. He also, unfortunately, aligned himself with much of the thinking of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the anti-tax thinker Henry George. Like Dostoyevsky, he really didn’t understand the West. As others have remarked, a few trips to Europe and England failed to take him deep enough into the social and political culture. Both he and Dostoevsky were too quick to resort to Catholicism as a whipping boy to explain every flaw of the West. I cannot but feel, given the subsequently bloody Soviet history, the country and people would have been better off had Tolstoy been more moderate and realistic about the necessities of life and government. Still, the Christian anarchism of Tolstoy was infinitely more gentle than what Lenin instituted in 1917. In the end, Russia has come full circle back to most of the issues that Tolstoy struggled with, as has the 21st Century.
Tolstoy significantly located what he believed the only way forward in universality—the recognition that the human being is a spiritual being, grounded in the necessity of moral choice and growth toward perfection, as in all the great religions. Our global, pluralistic age lives this truth even as it fails sufficiently to recognize and articulate it to the level required to help understand the nature of life in our time. Perhaps more than any other piece he wrote, published in 1902, Tolstoy explains the religious philosophy he came to hold in What Is Religion, and Wherein Lies Its Essence?
Religions differ in their external forms, but they are all alike in their fundamental principles. And it is these principles, that are fundamental to all religions, that form the true religion which alone at the present time is suitable for us all, and the adoption of which alone can save men from their ills….
Having by this time written several major books and numerous articles on religion, struggling with Christian history and doctrine, his own excommunication in 1901 by the Orthodox Church, Tolstoy was uniquely qualified by fiery experience and study to set forth his increasingly universal beliefs:
The principles of this true religion are so natural to men, that as soon as they are put before them they are accepted as something quite familiar and self-evident. For us the true religion is Christianity in those of its principles in which it agrees, not with the external forms, but with the basic principles of Brahmanism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hebraism, Buddhism, and even Mohammedanism. And just in the same way, for those who profess Brahmanism, Confucianism, etc.—true religion is that of which the basic principles agree with those of all other religions. And these principles are very simple, intelligible and clear.
In this sense, referring to the thinking of Tolstoy, as is often done, as Christian anarchism is a distortion of what the man really believed —spiritual universality, or Christianity universalized, might be better terms, represented best by the same universal spirit he labored to articulate in A Calendar of Wisdom (tr. Peter Sekirin, 1997). Defining universally held principles, he states,
These principles are that there is a God, the origin of all things; that in man dwells a spark from that Divine Origin, which man, by his way of living, can increase or decrease in himself; that to increase this divine spark man must suppress his passions and increase love in himself; and that the practical means to attain this result is to do to others as you would they should do to you. All these principles are common to Brahmanism, Hebraism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism. (If Buddhism supplies no definition of God, it nevertheless acknowledges That with which man commingles, and into Which he is absorbed when he attains to Nirvana. So, That with which man commingles, or into Which he is absorbed in Nirvana, is the same Origin that is called God in Hebraism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism.)
Repeatedly and everywhere in Tolstoy’s writing, clearing away the debris of such ephemera as anarchism, one finds his emphasis on the Golden Rule as the essential teaching of all wisdom traditions and religions. Just as lucidly and consistently, Tolstoy understood the importance of reason and that true religion does not subvert it to “sorcery” and other irrationalities:
Religion is not a belief, settled once for all, in certain supernatural occurrences supposed to have taken place once upon a time, nor in the necessity for certain prayers and ceremonies; nor is it, as the scientists suppose, a survival of the superstitions of ancient ignorance, which in our time has no meaning or application to life ; but religion is a certain relation of man to eternal life and to God, a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge, and it is the one thing that alone moves humanity forward towards its destined aim.
Tolstoy utterly opposed the caricatures of faith and religion by modern scientism, believing as Ernest J. Simmons remarked that “one of the main calamities of modern life” was “the tendency to replace moral and spiritual progress by technical progress.” His trust in and search for rational truth enabled him to see through both the irrationalities and blind-faith of organized religion and of modern science to the universality of the human spirit. He was, in a sense, an early modern seeker of the spiritual unity of the great religions, preceding and akin to the Perennial philosophy of Aldous Huxley and others, but less given to the esoteric, closer to the approach of Huston Smith, superior even to him, I would say, though admittedly their gifts are different.
When I think of Tolstoy’s spiritual journey and of earlier times and cultures, of writers struggling with what is universal in the human being, I think of Dara Shikoh in Mughal India, seeking unity of Hinduism and Islam, as in hisThe Mingling of the Two Oceans (1657), the universality of the Sufi poets, or of the Dali Lama’s recent book Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (2010). As reported by Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra, almost his last gasping words were “To seek, always to seek.” In the sense of the psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he was one who never ceased searching for truth. Far from a religious organization and all that that implies, Tolstoy conceived of religious belief in rational, reasonable terms, opposed to organized Christianity, as when he wrote, “Men of our modern world who profess this perverted form of Christianity really believe in nothing at all. And that is the peculiar character of our time.” That is why he relentlessly argued against the distortions that he believed had come to exist in the doctrines of institutional Christianity, in favor of a more humanistic, open conception of faith. In “The End of the World,” putting aside “false Christianity,” Tolstoy looked forward to “true Christianity,” one freed from “sorcery,” universal in scope and outlook:
I think that at present—at this very time—the life of the Christian nations is near to the limit dividing the old epoch which is ending from the new which is beginning. I think that now at this very time that great revolution has begun which for almost 2000 years has been preparing in all Christendom; a revolution consisting in the replacing of false Christianity and the consequent power of one portion of mankind and the slavery of another, —by true Christianity and the consequent recognition of that equality and true liberty which are natural to all rational beings.
All the more reason why the caricature of Tolstoy in “The Last Station” jarred so incongruously against my understanding of who the man actually was, in and of himself, as articulated in his own writings, over the entire last half of his life, especially the last decade. It was also the real Tolstoy who meant so much to Ghandi, the one who emphasized spirituality, love, peace, and non-resistance to evil. “His secret is that he is the last of the unalienated artists,” Philip Rahv insightfully observed. Similarly, Saul Bellow remarked on the extent to which Tolstoy was “healthy,” far from the “adversarial” writers of Lionel Trilling.
Now more than ever, after centuries of falling down into the bottomless pit of nihilism, the world needs to recover the vision of universality, what the great religions and people of the various countries and cultures have in common. For all too long, humanity has been obsessed with what distinguishes and separates, what divides people from one another, setting up our little racial, nationalistic gods and idols. Tolstoy was interested in what we have in common, what unifies our vision, hoping thereby to elevate and improve, to whatever degree possible, our actions. It is long past time that the world re-affirm human unity. Tolstoy provides a significant part of the perspective required to achieve it.
Alexandra reports in her book Tolstoy: A Life of My Father (1953) that he had a visitor in February of 1909 who was a Bahai, a member of a faith that emphasizes what is universal in all religions:
“Actually, when you think of it,” Father said, “you are always astonished that such a simple argument does not come to your mind. Take an Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, a Buddhist—all of them believing in what they hold to be the truth. Yet if I cross a certain boundary—I think that the one is a lie, the other the truth. What doubts that arouses, what need to search out the religion which would be common to all!” (472)
Alexandra continues that her father had worked unrelentingly on The Circle of Reading precisely because he was seeking “what was basic to all religions,” trying “to lay the foundation for one religion.” It is important to stress that the Bahai faith that Tolstoy responded to was not what is known to many people today as the Baha’i Faith, the highly organized hierarchy located in Haifa, Israel, merely one of several Bahai denominations, which has become exactly the kind of exclusive religious organization that Tolstoy vehemently condemned in all his writings. Rather, Tolstoy responded to the open and inclusive association and movement that existed under Abdul-Baha, the son of the founder of the Bahai faith, Baha’u’llah, who died in 1892 in present-day Israel. Until his own death in 1921, Abdul-Baha brought his father’s vision into the Western, modern world, showing the way beyond its Islamic and Sufi heritage, emphasizing universality, “spiritual democracy,” the “oneness of religion,” and the freedom of the individual soul in self-less love and service to humanity, as in other persuasions. Tolstoy’s papers establish that as early as 1894, he had heard of the Bahai movement, which traces its origin to 1863, with many Bahai contacts extending until the end of his life, including his receipt of books, letters, articles, and visitors familiar with the Bahai teachings, along with the droves of other people visiting Yasnaya Polyana. Reported by Tolstoy’s personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, in his diary, for May 15, 1910, Tolstoy observed in his presence that the Bahai movement was “Very profound. I know of no other so profound” (Vol. 4, p. 255). Honesty makes it incumbent on all trying to enlist him under their banner to recognize as well that Tolstoy is on record as writing, “I know the Bahai Teachings, and I am in agreement with its basic principles, except for the belief in the infallibility of its founders, and a few other details” (Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, Vol 81, p. 77).
Many people today still commonly think in terms of “your” religion, and “my” religion, as in “the” religion, “the” exclusive truth, while the deepest meaning of universality is “our” religion, not, to be clear, even “my” own personal Bahai persuasion, which is but one form of universality, conceived of as neutral territory, or “yours,” whether any type of transcendence, atheism, nihilism or whatever. Universality embraces all persuasions. That is its great challenge. And it is not relativism. The tendency always is to think of religion in terms of organized or institutional religion, which isn’t religion at all. True religion can only be personal, and as pluralistic as the Golden Rule. Take the person out of it and it is no longer religion. In the modern world, even throughout human history, true religion has never been organized. It is not the nature of spirituality to take over and dominate the communal, collective space. And it definitely can not ever be organized. For it is, as Tolstoy understood so well, about the individual soul and his or her inmost relation to the Divine. The astonishing development of religious history, I want to say revelation, is that it is the Will of God that religion not be organized. Everywhere people are against organized religion for countless good reasons, as was Tolstoy. He and most people, if interested in religion, not the falsities and sophistries of exclusive institutional doctrine, want the true thing of the heart. That doesn’t mean oppressively organized religion, anathema to the soul.
The deepest insight of human experience remains, “Truth is One; sages call it by many names.” The Divine Being transcends all human conceptions. We truly need every human attempt to understand Him, Her, It, yet even then, in all humility, have the dimmest hope of fully understanding. It is precisely the defense-reaction of the cynicism of modernity, as Victor Frankl insightfully observes, that rejects the meaningfulness of life, believing all religions are false, delusional, contemptible fantasies. From Freud, Marx, sundry sociologists and many others, science debased to the substitute religion of scientism, the verdict and message is almost invariably condescension and contempt. As Julien Benda observed in The Betrayal of the Clerks (1927), modernity derides any spiritual vision, including Tolstoy’s. Benda, though, remained limited by the exclusivism of his own Catholic universalism, a limited form of universality. Far from such a limitation, Tolstoy arrived at the last station of modernity, universality, long before he arrived at the station of Astapovo, long before the rest of humanity began to catch up. Though we may still first blow up much of the world, global modernity is increasingly catching up with Tolstoy, however unknowingly, pulling into the last station of humanity.