A Confession (1882 / 2010)

Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession speaks to his search for the divine. He begins by telling how he lost the faith of his childhood in his late teens and how, as he aged, he became more and more convinced that life had no purpose. He was a successful artist, poet, and writer, but by age 30, he was severely suicidal. His disillusionment about life is summed up in a parable: a man is walking through the wilderness, fearing being eaten by an animal he jumps in a well, clinging to a bush growing out of a wall. There is a dragon at the bottom of the well, and two mice are eating at the branch the man is hanging onto. He knows it’s just a matter of time until he falls to the dragon. This was how Tolstoy had come to see life: nothing good is possible; only the dragon of death is inevitable. Something though kept him from killing himself.

He began to search for a meaning to his life in both experimental science and speculative philosophy; neither gave him anything other than the reality of death, which was affirmed by philosophy and ignored by science. Four philosophers in particular are cited by Tolstoy: Socrates (“the life of the body is evil and a lie”), Schopenhauer (life is evil; nothingness is only sacred thing), Solomon (all is vanity; death comes and nothing is left), and Buddha (suffering, illness, old age, and death make life impossible; must free ourselves from life); each he understood to affirm the meaninglessness of life and the preferability of death, nothingness. Tolstoy discerns four ways of escape from life: ignorance, epicureanism, strength, and weakness. He identified with the weak category: longing to die but to weak to bring death about.

Pretty dour reading for the first half of the book, but a spark:

I can now see that if I did not kill myself it was because of some vague awareness that my ideas were mistaken. No matter how convincing and irrefutable I felt my train of thoughts to be, as well as that of the wise ideas that had led us all to the conclusion that life was meaningless I still had some obscure doubts as to the validity of the final outcome of my deliberations (48).

Tolstoy began to think about the millions that had come before him and that lived now who found value in life and who regarded suicide not as a release but as an evil. He saw that they found meaning in their faith. “Rational knowledge, as presented by the learned and wise, negates the meaning of life, yet the vast masses — humanity as a whole — recognize that this meaning lies in irrational knowledge. And this irrational knowledge is faith…According to faith it follows that in order to comprehend the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which meaning was necessary” (54).

He then gives a lovely meditation on how faith relates the finite to the infinite. “For me, as for others, faith provided the meaning of life and the possibility of living.” He continues:

Having looked around further at people in other countries and at my contemporaries and predecessors I saw the same thing. Where there is life there is faith. Since the day of creation faith has made it possible for mankind to live, and the essential aspects of that faith are always and everywhere the same.

Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death. This means that only in faith can we find the meaning and possibility of life. I realized that the essential meaning of faith lies not only in the ‘manifestations of things unseen,’ and so on, or in revelation…; nor is it simply the relationship between God and man…; nor is it an agreement with what one has been told, although this is what faith is commonly understood to be. Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequence of which is that man does not kill himself but lives. Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. He does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live” (57–59).

Tolstoy found however that as much as he believed in the meaning wrought by faith, he would begin to despair again when he was around hypocritical Christians—often the clergy and people of his own station in life. But he found the laboring class had a life and faith that was authentic.

Reflecting on the moments of despair versus the moments of life, Tolstoy writes,

I remembered that I only lived during those times when I believed in God. Then, as now, I said to myself: I have only to believe in God in order to live. I have only to disbelieve in Him, or forget Him, in order to die….I live truly only when I am conscious of Him and seek Him. What then is it you are seeking? a voice exclaimed inside me. There He is! He, without whom it is impossible to live. To know God and to live are one and the same thing. God is life (75).

So, “man’s purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul he must live according to God. In order to live according to God one must renounce all the comforts of life, work, be humble, suffer and be merciful. This is the meaning the people have derived from all the religious teaching that has been handed down and communicated to them…” (78). One must live sincerely.

While faith became important to Tolstoy, the Church did too — or so he thought. But when he was honest with himself, he found it hard to believe in the sacraments of the church and of the clergy. One reason was the violence and hatred between Christian groups (i.e., Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). He suggests that Christians should agree on the essential teachings of the faith that are common to all and allow the disperencies to exist. He wants Christians to be one, as their faith says they should be. He says that no church has it all right and no church has it all wrong.

He concludes the book by telling about a dream he had. He was dangling from a cot that was floating very high in the air. When he looked down, he was filled with fear. When he looked up to the sky, he was filled with peace. After looking up, he realized he was being held up by a rope, and that it was secure.


I’ve wanted this book for a while. On the day before my last day of CPE, I found this in the “Alternative Spirituality” section of my favorite used bookstore — a section I’d never looked in prior to CPE. I am now better equipped to receive this message. It never ceases to amaze me how books appear when they need to. Blessed be God forever.

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