Religious and Philosophical Writings
(Full name Count Leo [Lev Nikolaevich] Tolstoy. Also transliterated as Lyof; also Nikolayevich; also Tolstoi, Tolstoj, Tolstoï). Russian novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and critic. See also Smert Ivana Ilyicha Criticism, The Kreutzer Sonata Criticism, and Khozyain I rabotnik Criticism.
Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the history of world literature. His Voina i mir (War and Peace) and Anna Karenina are almost universally acknowledged as all-encompassing documents of human existence and supreme examples of the realistic novel. Tolstoy is also considered a major religious and philosophic thinker, germs of which can be seen in his earlier fiction, but which ultimately came to fruition after the spiritual crisis he underwent beginning with deep depression in 1875. Characterized chiefly by his devotion to a close and literal reading of the Gospels of Christ, Tolstoy's religious convictions led him to a life of personal asceticism and social action that influenced Christian thinking around the world, and had a major impact on the thought and works of such social activists as Mohandas K. Gandhi in India and Jane Addams in the United States.
Tolstoy was born in 1828 to a wealthy family who resided just outside of Moscow. After his mother died in 1830 and his father in 1837, Tolstoy's upbringing and education fell into the hands of relatives, who hired private tutors for him. In 1844 he entered Kazan University, but failed to earn a degree. He returned to the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1847 to manage the affairs there. Dissatisfied, Tolstoy joined the army in 1851, seeing active service in the Caucasus and in the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, which he later wrote about in his Sevastopolskiye rasskazy (Sevastopol Sketches). While in the army, Tolstoy began to write and publish fiction, which met with much success. He left the army in 1856 and traveled through Europe before returning to Yasnaya Polyana, where he lived for the rest of his life. At this point, he became interested in social reform, focusing his efforts on educational and philanthropic work with the peasants around his estate. In 1862 he married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs, and began working on his two greatest works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Beginning around 1875, Tolstoy was plagued by depression and an obsession with death that lasted until his final spiritual crisis-a "conversion" to the orthodoxy of his youth-in 1878. Concentrating for the next several years on intensive study of theology and the Christian scriptures, Tolstoy developed his own interpretation of Christianity based on an ethical foundation of universal love and brotherhood, which eventually led to his renunciation of the aristocratic lifestyle. Rather than enter the secluded monastic life he admired, Tolstoy chose to remain at his estate and devote himself to public service, wearing peasants' clothing, doing manual labor, and practicing a strict regimen of pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. He turned away from writing the kind of novels that had won him worldwide fame and concentrated instead on writing philosophical and religious works, many designed to educate the masses. While several of Tolstoy's thirteen children sympathized with him, his spiritual rigor created tension in the family, especially with his wife. Government harassment and excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 increased tensions in the family, and Tolstoy found that by 1905 his stance of pacifism and nonresistance were running counter to the realities of poverty and government-sanctioned slaughter of early Russian revolutionaries, many of them strongly influenced by Tolstoy's own banned writings. Beset by family problems, and overwhelmed by the responsibility of upholding his teachings in the face of massive social upheaval, Tolstoy fled from his home in 1910, dying in a railway station in Astapovo.
In Ispoved (A Confession), Tolstoy outlined the spiritual upheaval that caused him to question the basis of his existence. The piece is considered among the great literary works of personal conversion that include St. Augustine's Confession and Rousseau's Confessions. Tolstoy's attempt at a solution to this crisis took the form of a radical Christianity whose doctrines ultimately included pacifism, vegetarianism, and sexual abstinence. At this point in his career, Tolstoy was concerned with producing two types of fiction: simple tales written in a folk tradition for uneducated readers and more literary works focusing on his moral preoccupations of this period. The folktales, such as "Brazhe iepko, a bozhe krepko" ("Evil Allures but Good Endures"), were designed as examples of "universal art" and have often been praised for delivering their didactic point in an artful manner. Much the same estimation has been accorded Tolstoy's literary fiction of this time, including Smert Ivana Ilyicha (The Death of Ivan Ilitch) and Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata). If the moral stance of these fictional tracts on death and sex has been criticized as simplistic or severe, the two works have also been considered among the best examples of Tolstoy's art of storytelling. However, Tolstoy's longest work of his post-conversion period and his last major novel, Voskresenie (Resurrection), is considered far less successful than his early masterpieces. Although Tolstoy's genius for description and characterization are still evident in this work, the intrusion of social and moral issues is regarded as detrimental to the novel's artistic value. Among the later novels, Khadzhi Murat (Hadji Murad) is more often viewed as the work that shows the extent and endurance of Tolstoy's narrative power. During his later period Tolstoy also produced a number of dramatic works in an attempt to express his post-conversion ideas in a genre outside fiction. Like many of his other works, these dramas are often highly regarded for their vivid and compelling sense of realism, and for the sincere and sometimes overwhelming urgency of the author's concerns. The chief work among these plays is Vlast tmy (The Power of Darkness). The somber action of the drama-including adultery, murder, and religious torment-culminates in the redeeming vision of Christian faith that was a spiritual focus of the older Tolstoy. In the social comedy Plody prosvesh cheniya (The Fruits of Enlightenment), the object of Tolstoy's criticism is aristocratic society, and in the unfinished drama I svet vo tme svetit (The Light That Shines in Darkness), it is the author's own life. The latter play is of particular interest for Tolstoy's view of his sprirtual conversion and its effect on the people around him. The artistic repercussions of his conversion are spelled out in Chto takoe iskusstvo (What Is Art?). The major concern of this essay is to distinguish bogus art, which he called an elitist celebration of aesthetics, from universal art, which successfully "infects" its recipient with the highest sentiment an artist can transmit-that of religious feeling. This conception of art led Tolstoy to dismiss most of history's greatest artists, including William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner, and to repudiate all of his own previous work save for two short stories. During this period Tolstoy also wrote his many moral and theological tracts, for which he was eventually excommunicated. His pamphleteering on social, political, and economic subjects also resulted in the censorship of his work by the government.
As a religious and ethical thinker Tolstoy has been criticized for the extremism, and sometimes the absurdity, of his ideas. Many critics have also found it difficult to reconcile Tolstoy's lifestyle with his profession of such an extreme ethical code. Tolstoy himself was acutely aware of the contradiction between his aristocratic upbringing and his later renunciation of elitism, and some critics have speculated that this is the reason for his doctrine of often excessive asceticism. However, he has also been admired for the gigantism of his ambition to discover absolute laws governing humanity's ethical and spiritual obligations amid the psychological and social complexities of the world. Whatever form Tolstoy's doctrines took, they were always founded on his expansive humanitarianism and based on one of the most intensive quests for wisdom in human history. Although Tolstoy ultimately believed that art should serve a religious and ethical code, he himself serves primarily as a model of the consummate artist, and his greatest works are exemplary of the nature and traditions of modern literature.