While going through my old laptop recently, I discovered a paper that I wrote several years ago about Tolstoy and his beliefs about nature, happiness, and the meaning of life. These beliefs have stuck with me to this day and have had a profound impact on the way I live life.
I have edited the original paper quite a bit (By about 60%), only including the most applicable pieces. Because of that, the essay may be a bit choppy, not to mention my writing has improved since then.
Reading this essay isn’t enough to understand Tolstoy, but it’s a good start. Hopefully it will inspire you to take on some of his classics:
Count Leo Tolstoy was one of the most brilliant men of 19th century Russia. His novels, works of short fiction, non-fiction and autobiographical works are all masterpieces in and of themselves. Tolstoy not only wrote brilliant and captivating pieces of literature, but in many of his works, especially later in his writing career, he discussed issues such as Christianity, the ‘women question’, and non-violent resistance. Many of his philosophical writings came during and after his spiritual awakening of the 1870’s, in which he not only reexamined his life, but the world around him.
One idea that Tolstoy sought to convey in a number of his works was the pursuit of happiness. While not explicitly written in his works, Tolstoy often discussed topics such as asceticism, isolation, and modernism all of which played a role in which Tolstoy believed was the path to true happiness. Tolstoy said,
“…one of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and Nature shall not be broken”.
Throughout Tolstoy’s works he seeks to express his belief that by returning to nature, seeking isolation, having faith in god, to always be seeking to better oneself, and to devote oneself to worthy causes, the greater happiness one may achieve within their lifetime.
The idea of isolating oneself, and removing oneself from the hustle and bustle of society was, according to Tolstoy, one of the most crucial actions one must take to achieve happiness. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy paints the picture that urban centers are hotbeds of corruption and destruction of morals, and the well being of individuals. While they are indeed trendy, fashionable, and cultural Mecca’s, it seems that nothing good ever comes from the characters being in the city.
To further understand this point, one can compare the characters of Anna and Levin. When Levin is in Moscow awaiting the birth of his and Kitty’s child, he is anxious and frustrated. Perhaps this can be seen as a result of the nearing arrival of his child, but Tolstoy portrays his behavior as being a result of him being in an urban environment. When Levin is in the countryside, he is at peace with himself and is calm and relaxed, the opposite of when he is in the city.
On the other hand, Anna seems to flourish in an urban environment (until she is driven out by society, which represents the destruction caused by society). She enjoys being in the city and enjoys taking part in all it has to offer like going to the opera.
Again, this comparison goes back to the original point that Tolstoy believes that the closer one is to nature, and the further they are from an urban environment and technology, the more enlightened the individual will be. While Tolstoy took measures to isolate himself from the world, he believed that asceticism is no way to achieve the quest for human perfection, rather what is most important is how one lives in the world as one can clearly see through the character of Father Sergius (Morris 120).
Tolstoy considered the acceptance and love for God, as well as living for God and others and not oneself as a crucial aspect towards achieving happiness. Many of Tolstoy’s characters undergo a profound religious experience at some point in their respective literary works. At the end of Anna Karenina, Levin speaks to the peasant Fyodor. Fyodor and Levin are discussing a local innkeeper and Fyodor explains that the innkeeper lives only for himself, and not God.
“Fyodor says that Kirillov the innkeeper lives for his belly. … That is clear and reasonable. None of us, as reasonable beings, can live otherwise than for our belly. And suddenly that same Fyodor says it’s bad to live for the belly and that one should live for the truth, for God, and I understand him from a hint! And I (Levin) and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language – we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good. I and all people have only one firm, unquestionable and clear knowledge, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason – it is outside it, and has no causes, and can have no consequences” (AK 795).
One of the most profound instances of paying tribute to nature is when Levin is farming:
“In this hottest time the mowing did not seem so hard to him. The sweat that drenched him cooled him off, and the sun, burning on his back, head and arm with its sleeve rolled to the elbow, gave him firmness and perseverance in his work; more and more often those moments of unconsciousness came, when it was possible for him to not think of what he was doing. The scythe cut by itself. These were happy moments” (AK 252).
In Tolstoy the Ascetic, G.W. Spence, sums up Tolstoy’s ideas on city and country life in Anna Karenina as such:
“In Anna Karenina the contrasts between the city and the land is, quite obviously, the axis around which the moral and technical structure of the novel revolves. The whole of Levin’s salvation is prefigured in his arrival in the country after the unsuccessful proposal to Kitty” (Spence 50).
An additional character Tolstoy includes in the discussion of nature is an old peasant Levin encounters, named Sviyazhsky. Tolstoy writes,
“Despite the old man’s complaints, it was clear that he was justifiably proud of his sons, nephew, daughters-in-law, horses, cows and especially that the whole farm held together” (AK 324).
Sviyazhsky focuses on family values, personal interest, and maintaining the land; this man has been able to live prosperously because he’s built everything from the ground up. This is the only instance we see this character, but is used in accordance with Levin to convey Tolstoy’s views towards nature and peasant life. Based on these characters, it seems that the closer the individual is to nature, the greater the individuals mental and emotional well being.
Not only did Tolstoy write of characters in his literary works abandoning their modern lives, he himself left his estate and became a wanderer at the end of his life. He felt that,
“It is in aspiring after this perfection, as individual pilgrims passing through the world, that our intrinsically imperfect natures can be redeemed, he insisted, and the world be made a happier, more just and more brotherly place to live” (Muggeridge 142).
Yet before Tolstoy, at the end of his life, abandoned his home, he spent the majority of his life at his family’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana. His residence at his birthplace provides us with a great deal of insight about his life. For example, Tolstoy was born, wrote his masterpieces, and is buried at Yasnaya Polyana. Living in the same place for ones entire life, when money is not an object, seems to be an act in humility (Chute 88). Tolstoy was not one who took part in the finer things in life, and while his estate is an impressive one no doubt, he could have easily moved elsewhere.
In addition to this, Tolstoy often worked in the fields with the peasants, both for physical exercise and to make his writing about peasant life more authentic. Tolstoy’s work with the peasants represents the fact that he truly believed that one should seek to become closer with nature. And lastly, Yasnaya Polyana served as an entity to enforce Tolstoy’s solitude. Tolstoy called Yasnaya Polyana his “inaccessible literary stronghold” and clearly achieved amazing success there (Chute 109).
Tolstoy’s views on Christianity, government, society and other major institutions shaped his views on how individuals should go about living their lives. While Tolstoy may not have always been one to lead by example, he was able to clearly exemplify his views in his novels and works of short fiction. In his farewell letter to his wife, he expressed his views by writing,
“I am doing what people of my age often do-giving up the world in order to spend my last days alone and in silence” (Muggeridge 142);
while this letter refers to the end of Tolstoy’s life, it can be said that he would not be opposed to applying this concept to his life as a whole.
Chute, Patricia. Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana: His Life and Work in the Charmed World of His Estate. New York, NY: Cornelia & Michael Bessie, 1991. Print.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and K. A. Lantz. A Writer’s Diary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1993.
Morris, Marcia A. Saints and Revolutionaries: The Ascetic Hero in Russian Literature. Albany: SUNY Albany, 1993. Print.
Muggeridge, Malcolm. A Third Testament. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. Print.
Spence, G. W. Tolstoy the Ascetic. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, NY: Penguin, 2000. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo, and Michael R. Katz. Tolstoy’s Short Fiction: Revised Translations, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1991. Print.