April 13, 2024

Tolstoy’s Confessions

Clifford Goldstein

One of the greatest writers in the last two centuries was Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). The Russian was world famous while alive and his legacy continues.

Though raised in “Orthodox Christian faith,” he abandoned religion young, seizing instead upon Enlightenment promises that through science, technology, and reason, humanity would progress toward utopia, a common theme in the late 19th and early 20th century, perhaps best expressed by Queen Victoria’s chaplain, Charles Kingsley: “The railroad, Cunard’s liners, and the electric telegraph are . . . signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a might spirit working among us . . . the ordering and creating God. Men and women, more than ever before or since, felt at home on earth and in control of their destiny.”[i]

World War I soon cured most everyone of that fallacy.

Tolstoy, however, didn’t need a world war (he died before the fun began, anyway); one chopped-off head sufficed. He wrote that “during my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed.”[ii]

So, seeking answers, he pursued science, art, philosophy, literature, anything, he hoped, to help. “I sought in all the branches of knowledge,” he wrote, “but far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing. And not only had they found nothing, but they had plainly acknowledged that the very thing which made me despair—namely the senselessness of life—is the one indubitable thing man can know.”

Ratty and morose stuff, to be sure. Yet the irony is that all this existentialist dread came upon him when his life, he admitted, was great: big loving family, plenty of money, fame, vibrant health, and boundless energy. “And in this situation I came to this-that I could not live, and, fearing death, had to employ cunning with myself to avoid taking my own life.”

Looking at the human dilemma, he saw only hopelessness, meaningless, futility. “What will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life. Expressed another way the question can be put like this: why do I live?  Why do I wish for anything, or do anything? Or expressed another way: is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death, which awaits me?”

Far from answering the most basic questions about life, the world itself was the problem because it eventually swallows everything up in death. If you want hope, you must find something that transcends this world and all that’s in it because this world and all that’s in it ends in oblivion. This is the only rational conclusion, Tolstoy thought, he could come to.

“From rational knowledge” he wrote, “it appeared that life is an evil, people know this and it is in their power to end life; yet they lived and still live, and I myself live, though I have long known that life is senseless and an evil.”

So, what happened? He moves beyond “rational knowledge” because reason and rationality were nowhere near as reasonable or as rational as he had thought. In fact, Paul expressed something similar when he wrote that “the natural man [or rational man] does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Foolishness? In the same way that “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18); and that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor. 1:25); and that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:19)?  Foolishness? As in not reasonable, as in not rational? Apparently so, at least as “the wisdom of this world” understands reason and rationality.

After all, how logical, how rational, at least as the “wisdom of this world” defines logic and rationality, are Paul’s words here? “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory’” (1 Cor. 15:51-55).

Christ returns? A trumpet sounds? The dead—the rotted, the dissipated, the worm-food or cremated dead will not only be raised but raised incorruptible?

What excursus on logic and reason can explain this? What branch of chemistry, biology, physics, physiology? Which philosopher, or researcher, or mathematician? None.

Tolstoy soon understood that by reaching out to God, by reaching out beyond what this world offers and grasping onto what the world deems “foolishness,” he wasn’t acting irrationally but, instead, rationally, because God is the only thing that can make sense of a world otherwise ends in death and destruction for all of us.

Though we as Seventh-day Adventists wouldn’t say it this way, or believe quite as Tolstoy did, he said: “Man’s purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul he must live according to God.”

Otherwise, what? Nobel laurate Steven Weinberg could write that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”[iii] Pointless? The entire cosmos, which means our lives as well, pointless? We see purpose, we see design, and we see intention all through the created world, and yet it is all pointless? That makes no sense; in fact, Weinberg words are  irrational and illogical.

Instead, reason itself points us to something beyond the world itself, beyond the immediate physical reality that we are confronted with. Reason implies that there’s something else because all this, because if all this is all that there is then all this is meaningless, fruitless, pointless, which make no sense when, again, meaning, purpose, and design scream out at us from just about every angle of the created world.

Here’s the irony: Tolstoy had to get rid of reason itself to understand life’s meaning. Yet it was his reason itself that showed him limits of reason, and that reason alone couldn’t answer life’s deepest questions because, whatever answer he found, it always wound up in the same place: death.         

Of course, Jesus came to answer, and to solve, death, the one thing that makes our life meaningless, absurd, pointless. Tolstoy eventually saw that, which is why he reached out to God and the promise of eternal life. It was, after all, the only rational thing to do.

[i] Charles Kingsley, Yeast: A Problem (London and New York: MacMillan, 1893).

[ii] Leo Tolstoy quotations are taken from his book A Confession (World Library Classics, 2009).

[iii] Steven Weinburg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (Basic Books, 1993).