In November, 1910, Leo Tolstoy lay dying in the stationmaster's house at Astapovo, a tiny railroad siding in the center of Russia. One of his children bent down to catch the almost inaudible last words of her aged father: "To seek, always to seek . . ." Then this articulate voice of the conscience of humanity, the symbol of mankind's endless struggle for moral improvement, ceased forever. The press of every country anxiously waited for information concerning the illness of the world's foremost literary figure. Finally, the flash came: "Tolstoy is dead!" A hush fell over hundreds of thousands of people who had been patiently standing before the news centers throughout the cities and towns of Russia. Young and old removed their hats. Many wept softly.
Tolstoy's voice as the conscience of humanity has become a still small one since 1910, although it resounded loudly once again among a group of distinguished thinkers, writers, and scholars, representing a dozen countries, who gathered in an international conference in November, 1960, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the great man's death. The setting was an austere hall of the ancient Benedictine monastery on the lovely little island of San Giorgio Maggiore, set like a bright jewel in the sun-drenched shimmering green lagoon directly opposite the fabulous San Marco shoreline of Venice, that "strange dream upon the water." High upon the back wall of the conference room an enormous canvas of the school of Tintoretto, depicting the mystic marriage of the Virgin, looked down piously on some fifty participants who for days poured forth a torrent of words in four languages on the art and thought of a man whom the Church, in his own day, had denounced as an "anathematized atheist and anarchist revolutionist" and "an accursed and most disdained Russian Judas." With his intense dislike of all organized efforts to honour him, Tolstoy — if he had been alive — would no doubt have pleaded that this conference be abandoned, as he publicly pleaded on the occasion of the vast national plans to celebrate his eightieth birthday. He would appreciate it more, he declared at that time, if the government would throw him into prison instead of persecuting his followers, and into "a real good stinking prison — cold and hungry." Tolstoy always felt humiliated at being a kind of modern-day Christ without a cross to bear.
The universal deterrence of fear which contributes so profoundly to our anxieties over the state of the world today no doubt served to focus the thoughts of many of the conference participants on Tolstoy's conviction that the tendency to replace moral and spiritual progress by technical progress is one of the main calamities of modern life. Indeed, the presence of several eminent Soviet Tolstoyan scholars inevitably resulted in the introduction into the discussion of cold-war overtones. Tolstoy's works are proudly acclaimed by the Soviet Union as among the greatest in the country's artistic heritage from the past. And 1960 was designated as the "year of Tolstoy" in the Soviet Union. Celebrations throughout the country were held, involving many fresh editions of his works and of books about him, theatrical performances, music, cinema, exhibitions, several thousand lectures, learned conferences, the unveiling of monuments, and a huge concluding commemorative meeting in the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, which was attended by government leaders and distinguished writers, artists, and scientists.
There can be no question of the reverence of Soviet people for Tolstoy, but the official position of the Communist party is compounded of praise and that familiar moral shuffling in ideological matters that is at once naive and offensive to all who pursue historical truth. If Soviet pundits praise him for subjecting the very foundations of his own society to devastating criticism, they condemn him for rejecting the historical necessity for real struggle.
It is safe to assume that Tolstoy, had he lived, would have discerned no essential difference between the authoritarian government of the tsars and that of the Kremlin. He fully realized that brutality, injustice, tyranny, and exploitation committed in the name of the "people" or religion or ideology were no better than brutality, injustice, tyranny, and exploitation perpetrated by feudal lords or capitalist exploiters. Economic ideals, he once said, could never be real ideals, and he saw that the mistake of the Marxists and of the whole materialist school was in believing economic causes to be at the root of all problems, whereas the life of humanity was really moved by the growth of consciousness and religion. And with surprising prescience he pointed out a further danger in communist revolution. The one sphere of human life which governmental power did not encroach upon — the domestic, economic sphere —
"thanks to the efforts of socialists and communists, will be gradually encroached upon, so that labour and recreation, housing, dress, and food (if the hopes of the reformers are fulfilled) will all gradually be prescribed and allotted by the government."
Soviet critics today either ignore this negative position on the future of communism or else adopt Lenin's line on Tolstoy of differentiating between the virtues of the artist and the faults of the philosopher. Occasionally they also profess to see in the novels an implicit faith in the triumph of a world-wide brotherhood of men which they hope the reader will identify with the ultimate aims of communism. To be sure, there is a certain identity in the final aim of both — a classless and stateless society. As one contemporary revolutionist put it to Tolstoy in his Marxian phraseology:
"You use the tactic of love and we use that of violence...."
But it was just this violence which creates violence, the evil-begetting power of evil, that Tolstoy could not tolerate as a substitute for his eternal law — the "tactic of love." He once coarsely explained to an eager antagonist, who insisted on the moral difference between the killing that a revolutionist does for the sake of the masses and that which a policeman does:
"There is as much difference as between cat shit and dog shit. But I don't like the smell of either one or the other."
Western critics today also tend to make an unfavourable distinction between Tolstoy, the supreme literary artist of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', and the Tolstoy who, after his spiritual revelation in 1880, turned his back on art and became the cranky preacher of an uncompromising and impractical moral philosophy, a kind of latter-day prophet tiresomely warning the world that if his prescriptions for its social and moral ills were not heeded, the very existence of civilization would be threatened.
As we have seen, Tolstoy did not actually turn his back on art after 1880. Many artistic works were still to come from his pen, including such memorable efforts as 'The Death of Ivan Ilych', 'Resurrection', 'Hadji Murad', his best plays, and the superb moral tales. It is nonsense to imagine that the great literary artist before 1880 suddenly transformed himself into a kind of intellectual crackpot once he began to seek an answer to that tremendous problem: What is the meaning of life? All the moral and spiritual searching and intellectual and artistic direction of his being after 1880 were plainly suggested in his youthful diaries, letters, and early artistic writings. After his spiritual revelation, however, these factors underwent, not a change, but a significant development. When Turgenev pleaded with him to return to the literary art that had first won him fame, he did not understand that for Tolstoy the measure of true greatness was not what we were but what we strove to be in the ceaseless struggle to achieve moral perfection. Nor did Turgenev comprehend that the same magnificent qualities that made Tolstoy's art immortal — his sincerity and love of truth — were the very qualities that drove him on in his religious and social mission. No, the search had to continue.
To some extent, the uncompromising intellectual quality of Tolstoy that so annoyed many of his contemporaries and has done much to persuade admirers of his fiction today to discount his theoretical writings was caused by the stubborn compulsion of his genius to think and to do things differently, to deviate always from accepted, conventional norms. The challenge of greatness left little room in his nature for humility before the greatness of others.
As Sir Isaiah Berlin has remarked, Tolstoy perceived with extraordinary clarity and penetration the total multiplicity of reality, yet he persisted in placing his faith in one vast unitary whole. This led him, in his tireless pursuit of truth, to search for absolutes in a world of gross uncertainty and erring men. And his inner need to achieve the ultimate in rational explanation often led him to push theory to the limits of absurdity, which he comes very close to doing in his views on history, education, and art. Yet the iconoclastic questions which his theories on these matters attempt to answer are nearly always profound and disturbing and compel the thoughtful reader to re-examine his own premises.
This is certainly true of the theories of 'What Is Art?'. For much of what he had to say in this book has a peculiar relevance nowadays when numerous so-called works of art would justify his findings in a very melancholy way. Counterfeit art he excoriated as pandering to the lowest taste, and with startling insight he predicted that it would eventually become the mass art of the future shamelessly exploited for commercial gain, a hideous menace to human sanity and culture. He clearly saw and condemned many abuses of art that have been attacked by progressive minds during the last few years, and his blistering repudiation of the middle-class cult of unintelligibility in art has frequently been echoed in our own times. If as a great literary artist he seemed to be wasting his time on mere criticism, he could jokingly pass off his early triumphs as the aberrations of youth. When an acquaintance remonstrated with him for not employing his artistic powers to create more such novels as 'War and Peace', he replied:
"Why you know, that is just like the former admirers of some ancient French whore repeating to her: 'Oh, how adorably you used to sing chansonettes and flip up your petticoats. '"
Tolstoy's faith in the innate artistic instincts of the people, uniting them in a community of feeling making for the brotherhood of man, was a conviction later shared by Lenin. In fact, Soviet critics make much of the identity of their own position and Tolstoy's insistence that when art ceases to be art for all the people and caters only to the wealthy and educated it ceases to be necessary and important and becomes an empty amusement. That art should be accessible to all was Tolstoy's contention, but he also demanded that the artist must be entirely free to "infect" his audience with any feeling what-ever — freedom was the core of Tolstoy's total thinking about the state of man.
Indeed, Tolstoy's image today in the Western world is largely identified with his God-given freedom to seek, mostly to seek for truth, whether the pursuit involved him in the complex lives of his imaginary men and women or in the controversial fields of religious, moral, political, or social thought. Truth, which in fiction had been Tolstoy's hero from the beginning, remained his hero to the end. For even after his conversion he never ceased to be a great realist in all questions related to art. His fiction marks the culmination of that development of Russian realism which began with Pushkin and included such great writers as Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Goncharov. Though Turgenev was known earlier in Western Europe, his works lacked the impact there of those of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. By the turn of the second half of the nineteenth century, French realism had begun to drift in the direction of Flaubert's conception of impartiality and the scientific theories of Zola and his followers. In 1850 Flaubert had already begun to complain that French realists lacked a comprehension of the inner life, of the soul of things.
It was just this comprehension that Tolstoy possessed and it enabled him to extend the horizon of the tradition of realism which he had inherited. He perceived clearly that the inner truth of a novel must come from life itself. In the real world, where everything for him was part of existence, he saw the danger that realistic fiction would lose its connections with the great problems of life and degenerate into the dehumanization of art, into extremes of arid naturalism or excessive and meaningless formalism and symbolism. It was a measure of his integrity as a literary artist that after his conversion, the views of imaginary characters were presented with fidelity to the circumstances of their lives and the psychological truth of their personalities, even though they contradicted or disproved his own views.
If a valid test of realistic fiction, which is supposed to give a private view of those individual experiences which are the source of reality and truth, is the authenticity of its report, then Tolstoy's fiction must be regarded as among the most convincing in world literature. And if the timelessness and universality of appeal of imaginary men and women are taken as further tests, then Tolstoy's artistic accomplishment must again be singled out as supremely great, for his characters are as much alive today as ever, and among all classes of society, and in many countries.
To have life and meaning, remarked Galsworthy, art must emanate from one possessed by his subject, and Tolstoy's finest novels seem to convey this utter absorption on the part of their author. Much of our pleasure in reading his stories today arises from the feeling that our own sense of reality is enhanced and enriched by the workings of an imagination and perception that probe beneath the ordinary surface of life in an effort to explain the unknowable and clarify the obscure in the infinite complexity of human relations. This is reality immeasurably intensified, in which art becomes more real than nature and more living than life.
The European doctrine of natural law, which Tolstoy had become interested in as a young man, is the starting point of the philosophy of life that he developed in his old age. That is, all man's moral, aesthetic, and spiritual values are objective and eternal, and his inner harmony depends upon his correct relation to these values. By practical example and the advocacy of his writings he held forth to all the possibility of the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of God, that is, of truth and good. Though thousands of adherents set up organizations to carry out his beliefs, he discouraged any "church" in his name, learned to detest "Tolstoyans," and sadly admitted in the end that the spirit of stupidity as well as the spirit of God lived in every man. On the other hand, the Russian government regarded Tolstoy as a dangerous force in the body politic, but unwilling to risk international indignation by making a martyr of him, it allowed him to enjoy a kind of extra-territoriality on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana and contented itself with jailing his followers and forbidding his "treasonable" books and pamphlets to be published in Russia.
It is perhaps ironical that Tolstoy's beliefs, derived primarily from the teachings of Christianity, as well as from other great religions, are today frequently dismissed as of no consequence precisely by the Christian West. In the East, and especially in India, Tolstoy's beliefs seem still to be very much alive. Gandhi regarded himself as a humble follower, and his tremendously effective civil disobedience campaign stemmed in large measure from Tolstoy's teaching. And Sarvodaya, the mass movement today headed by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Gandhi, aims at the creation of a social order based on the Tolstoyan principle of love inspired by non-resistance or non-violence. Though Tolstoy felt that the Japanese imitation of Western civilization would bring about their undoing, he prophesied a glorious future for the people of the Eastern world. In his "Letter to a Chinese" (1906), he wrote that
"in our time a great revolution in the life of humanity will be accomplished, and in this revolution China ought to play a tremendous role at the head of the Eastern peoples."
Perhaps the doctrine that more than any other damaged his reputation as a thinker was that of non-resistance, which for Tolstoy meant that no physical force must be used to compel any man to do what he does not want to do or to make him desist from doing what he likes. Few visitors to Yasnaya Polyana failed to confront him with the obvious conundrums that arose out of such an extreme position. This was especially true of Americans, whose practical-mindedness and lack of spiritual qualities he criticized, although he was devoted to certain American thinkers and writers, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry George, and he won a number of eager disciples in America. But it was the casual, curious American tourists who annoyed him:
"It is just as though they had learned about me in a Baedeker and had come to confirm it,"
he once remarked of two of them. William Jennings Bryan, however, he admired as "an intelligent and religious American," but when the Great Commoner confronted him on the problem of non-resistance with the stock argument: What would he do if he saw a bandit murdering or violating a child, Tolstoy gave his stock answer, that in all his seventy-five years he had never met anywhere this fantastic brigand who would murder or outrage a child before his eyes, whereas in war millions of brigands kill with complete license.
In reality, Tolstoy, though adamant about the theory and the ends of his faith, was anything but dogmatic about the means of achieving them. He realized that the goal he set was often perfection, and though he might be uncompromising about it as a goal, he never expected men to attain it.
"We search for mind, powers, goodness, perfection in all this," he wrote in his diary, "but perfection is not given to man in anything...."
It is perhaps only in this limited sense of his doctrines, this striving through individual effort to achieve a more perfect world, that Tolstoy's philosophy can have any meaning for us at this time of international chaos. Like many thoughtful people today, he questioned whether human progress could be measured by its technical or scientific achievements or that modern civilization in general was moving toward the greater good. Progress, he insisted, does not consist of an increase in knowledge or in the material improvement of life. There can be progress only in a greater and greater understanding of the answers to the fundamental questions of life. A popular worship of scientific progress in a society still incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong represented a terrible danger to Tolstoy. He persistently denounced the notion that mankind can be made eternally happy and virtuous by rational and scientific means.
"When the life of people is unmoral," he jotted down in his diary, "and their relations are not based on love, but on egoism, then all technical improvements, the increase of man's power over nature, steam, electricity, the telegraph, every machine, gunpowder, and dynamite, produce the impression of dangerous toys placed in the hands of children."
That governments in their systematic organization of society might logically strive to achieve righteousness, Tolstoy emphatically denied. When an American newspaper asked him in 1899 to comment on a proposal of the tsar for a "summit" conference of the great powers at The Hague to consider the question of disarmament in the interests of world peace, he replied:
"My answer to your question is that peace can never be achieved by conferences or be decided by people who not only jabber, but who themselves go to war.... All such conferences can be summed up in a single dictum: All people are sons of God and brothers, and therefore they ought to love and not kill each other. Forgive my sharpness, but all these conferences invoke in me a strong feeling of disgust over the hypocrisy that is so obvious in them."
The only tangible result of the Hague Conference was a series of conventions on the more "humane" conduct of war, and shortly after its conclusion the English plunged into a bloody struggle with the Boers.
The power that corrupts, Tolstoy asserted, was just as true of a democracy or a socialist state as of an absolute monarchy. For him political progress could not be measured in terms of democratic or socialist progress, for he saw in both the hypocrisy behind universal suffrage and the ever-present danger of power, even though held by the few elected by the many. His writings are full of warnings of the inevitability of both democratic and socialist states turning into monstrous dictatorships; of non-military democracies becoming powerful military states; of civilized countries championing fiendish theories of racial superiority; and of modern science being used to devise greater instruments of war to slaughter people more efficiently. All this, he foretold, will be achieved in the name of political, social, and scientific progress. And there will be no end of such "progress," he warned, as long as humanity continues to worship the law of men as higher than the law of God.
However one may regard Tolstoy's often highly original views, the various problems he wrote about have a striking relevance to burning issues today: the modernist movement in religion, war, peace and peace conferences, disarmament, underprivileged people, colonialism, capital punishment, governmental coercion, alcoholism, the perils of smoking, mass art, and non-violence and civil disobedience in the Negro struggle for civil rights. Perhaps we have something to learn from his abrasive ideas and uncompromising stands on such matters. At least one thing we may learn is the little progress that has been made over the last sixty or more years in solving these problems. On the resolution of some of them the future of our civilization depends. A few of his solutions, which were ridiculed as hopeless Tolstoyan ideals in his own day, have ceased to be regarded as idealistic today.
Tolstoyism was in no sense the Moral Rearmament movement of its time. Any careful and systematic study of the whole of Tolstoy's thought reveals that he was fundamentally working within the concepts of nineteenth-century liberalism. Carried to its logical and perhaps utopian conclusion, such liberal thought inevitably results in the doctrine of Karl Marx or in the doctrine of Leo Tolstoy, for the end-product of both is a classless and stateless society. Marx sought to achieve his objective by revolutionary action based on a materialist approach to history which sanctioned the use of violence.
Tolstoy believed that the whole history of the last two thousand years had consisted essentially in the moral development of the masses and the demoralization of governments. He placed his faith in the moral development of the masses as a final answer to the universal oppression of the many by the few. For him, the progressive movement toward a classless and stateless condition of mankind depended upon the growing moral perfection of every individual through strict observance of the supreme law of love and the consequent repudiation of every form of violence. The West, with its incomplete liberalism today, condemns Soviet Marxism, but it has also decided that Tolstoy, though he may have diagnosed the disease of society correctly, has prescribed a kind of incantation for a cure. His way of love and moral perfection, we say, is impractical. On the other hand, we must now decide how practical is a hydrogen-bomb war to end all wars — or civilization.
However much of an incantation his remedy may have been, nevertheless there was a certain strength in Tolstoy's unworldliness from which we can perhaps learn something, for it enabled him to stand above the turmoil of everyday life and reach beyond history, beyond time itself, to find universal answers to the problems of living which are not conditioned by materialistic factors of human existence. Nor did the seer of Yasnaya Polyana ever lose his wonderful optimism. Returning home one day after seeing a beautiful sunset, he wrote in his diary:
"No, this world is not a joke, and not a vale of trials or a transition to a better, everlasting world, but this world here is one of the eternal worlds that is beautiful, joyous, which we can and must make more beautiful and more joyous for those living with us and for those who will live in it after us."