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Tolstoy’s Philosophy of Life

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This chapter focuses on Tolstoy’s contribution to one of the most topical European debates of the second half of the nineteenth century: the debate on the meaning and value of life. The pioneer of the emergent idealistic current in Russian philosophy was a renowned physician and public educator Nikolai Pirogov, whose essay “Questions of Life,” meditated the problem of modern education, whose utilitarian bent encourages young people to adopt a purely pragmatic attitude to life. Pirogov’s experience as a military surgeon in Sevastopol lent authority to his pronouncements about the meaning of life and death, raising public awareness of the contemporary value crisis. Tolstoy, who served as an artillery officer in Sevastopol, was certainly familiar with Pirogov’s ideas. His turn to pedagogy was inspired both by Pirogov and by Pirogov’s teacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose ideal of liberal personality Pirogov and then Tolstoy tried to adapt to Russian reality. Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life and wisdom eventually brought him closer to professional philosophers. In 1887 at Nikolai Grot’s invitation, Tolstoy gave a lecture at the Moscow Psychological Society. This lecture, “On the Concept of Life,” became the basis for his only purely philosophical treatise On Life, which this chapter analyzes in detail.

For my brother Nikolai Roussanov

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  1. 1.

    This observation requires a qualification. Certainly, Tolstoy specialists cannot be accused of neglecting this side of his oeuvre. However, Soviet-era scholars suffering from ideological control had limited opportunities to discuss Tolstoy’s ideas. Émigré Russian philosophers in the first half of the nineteenth century and Slavic scholars in the West were in a much better position. However, linguistic and institutional boundaries reduced their impact on Slavic studies. Among non-Slavic scholars, only American pragmatists paid considerable attention to Tolstoy and acknowledged his influence. For a more detailed discussion of the American reception of Tolstoy, see Orwin 2003 and Menand 2001.

  2. 2.

    For an in-depth discussion of the reception of Tolstoy by Russian critics between the two Russian revolutions, see Denner 2010.

  3. 3.

    As Georgii Plekhanov suggested in 1928, the emergent Soviet culture could only accept Tolstoy “from here and to here” [otsiuda i dosiuda]. See Nickell 2006. This restrictive approach led to an overexploitation of War and Peace as a source of patriotic propaganda as well as to the canonization of late Tolstoy (as the author of The Resurrection) as a forebear of socialist realism. Only the most courageous critics could resist these pressures. For an example of a particularly daring non-dogmatic approach to Tolstoy as a psychologist, see Ginzburg 1971.

  4. 4.

    Eikhenbaum’sMolodoi Tolstoy was written as early as 1922. See Eikhenbaum 1974; see also Eikhenbaum 1972, 1982, as well as Shklovskii 1963.

  5. 5.

    See, in particular, Medzhibovskaya 2008; Paperno 2014; Kokobobo 2008; Klimova 2018. Contemporary philosophers have also been paying attention to Tolstoy. See, in particular, Pickford 2016, Goldie 2000.

  6. 6.

    This outdated image of Tolstoy has already been criticized by Berlin, whose essay “Tolstoy and Enlightenment” was one of the original inspirations behind my work on Tolstoy. See Berlin 1978; Steiner 2011b.

  7. 7.

    Ilya Vinitsky discusses the spiritual atmosphere of the epoch that shaped Tolstoy’s mindset and aroused his interest in the issue of the “soul” in “The Warm of Doubt: Prince Andrei’s Death and the Russian Spiritual Awakening.” See Vinitsky 2010.

  8. 8.

    Among more recent works on this topic, see, for example, Justin Weir’s essay “Turgenev as Institution: Notes of a Hunter in Tolstoy’s Early Aesthetics.” See Weir 2010a.

  9. 9.

    See the “Introduction” to the present Handbook.

  10. 10.

    Herzen adopts the term razumnoe soznanie in his essay on Robert Owen, which had a big influence on Tolstoy’s intellectual development. I adopt Constance Garnett’s translation of razumnoe soznanie as “rational consciousness” and use it throughout this chapter, not only because I consider it more elegant than the “reasonable consciousness” preferred by some Tolstoy scholars, but also because I wish to point out the philosophical continuity between Herzen and Tolstoy. See Herzen 1982; Steiner 2019. Aileen Kelly offers an illuminating analysis of Herzen’s intellectual path, which involved an immersion in German idealism, as well as an in-depth study of natural science under the famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov. See Kelly 2016.

  11. 11.

    For a more in-depth discussion of the incipient tradition of Bildung in Russia, see Steiner 2013.

  12. 12.

    In The Craft of Fiction Percy Lubbock summarized the charges against Tolstoy presented by nineteenth-century Western critics, starting with Henry James and Gustave Flaubert. “The well-made book is the book where the subject and the form coincide and are indistinguishable. […] In War and Peace the story suffers twice over for the imperfection of the form. […] Whether the story was to be the drama of youth and age, or the drama of war and peace, in either case it would have been incomparably more impressive if all the great wealth of the material had been used for its purpose, all brought into one design.” See Lubbock 1963, 40–41. Nikolai Mikhailovskii has both summarized and rebuffed similar aesthetic charges coming from Tolstoy’s Russian critics. See Mikhailovskii 1957.

  13. 13.

    For an illuminating discussion of Tolstoy’s emergence as the author of moral and religious tracts, see Chap. 2 of Irina Paperno’s recent book, Paperno 2014.

  14. 14.

    Inessa Medzhibovskaya discusses the genesis of Tolstoy’s treatise On Life in great detail in a book-length commentary to her and Michael Denner’s translation of Tolstoy’s treatise (Medzhibovskaya 2019). A shorter version of this text is published alongside the new translation: Tolstoy 2019.

  15. 15.

    Medzhibovskaya and Scanlan discuss the reception of On Life by contemporary Russian philosophers, covering practically the whole spectrum of contemporary philosophical opinion. See Medzhibovskaya 2019; Scanlan 2006.

  16. 16.

    An unfinished text from 1884, “Notes of a Madman” [“Zapiski sumashedshego”], is usually interpreted as an autobiographical work describing the experience that Tolstoy had dubbed his “Arzamas nightmare.” For an alternative interpretation of this work as a fiction, see Parthé 1985. I also discuss this text in Steiner 2011b.

  17. 17.

    The text of On Life appears in volume 26 of Tolstoy’s Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. The Jubilee Edition. However, throughout this chapter I will cite the English translation by Denner and Medzhibovskaya.

  18. 18.

    For Tolstoy (as for Herder on whom he evidently drew) consciousness is inner sense, self-consciousness. Thus, many animals are conscious, including Kholstomer in the eponymous story or the dog who befriends Platon Karataev in War and Peace and barks anxiously after his execution. As I will go on to explain, what animals lack is the wisdom of razumnoe soznanie, a product of reflection on lived experience over the course of one’s life that would enable them to change their instinctive behavior and gradually build the Kingdom of God on earth.

  19. 19.

    At this juncture, I should note that the gendered language I use corresponds not only to the nineteenth-century conventions, but also reflects Tolstoy’s own gender bias. As is well-known, for a long time Tolstoy did not believe in women’s political and economic emancipation. A change in his views can be detected in “Father Sergius,” The Resurrection, and a few other late fiction works where spiritually strong and independent (but not wholly emancipated) women are heroicized. Nevertheless, throughout my chapter I will stick to the gendered language Tolstoy used in his tracts.

  20. 20.

    Tolstoy’s friend and philosophical interlocutor Nikolai Strakhov describes the process of physiological growth and maturation as the beginning of what we would call a midlife crisis in Chap. 7 of The World as a Whole. As Strakhov puts it, a fully grown-up human being begins to “thirst after” a higher life (Strakhov 2007, 260). On Tolstoy’sConfession as a testimony to both an existential crisis caused by the fear of death and a valuecrisis spurred by Tolstoy’s activities as a social worker, see Shestov 1978, 20–72.

  21. 21.

    On the significance of Tolstoy’s epistolary dialogue with Strakhov, see Paperno 2014, 39–60.

  22. 22.

    Chapter II of Part One of Strakhov’s book, “The Denizens of (Other) Planets,” harkens back to the Enlightenment speculations on life on other planets and anticipates Russian Cosmism, as well as the actual scientific experiments of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

  23. 23.

    Eikhenbaum has written extensively on the significance of Karamzin for the then young Tolstoy. According to Eikhenbaum, it is through Karamzin that Tolstoy encountered Herder. I would add that Tolstoy might have first learned about Wieland, Kant, and other German and Swiss luminaries Karamzin had met and mentioned by reading his Letters of a Russian Traveller. The French philosophers were also known to Tolstoy since childhood and his student years. However, I agree with Eikhenbaum that through all his skeptical crises Tolstoy preserved a sentimental proclivity originally developed under the tutelage of Karamzin (and as I would like to add, Herder). See Eikhenbaum 1972; Steiner 2020. The significance of Karamzin for the entire tradition of Russian psychological prose has been recapitulated by Donna Orwin. See Orwin 2007.

  24. 24.

    Tolstoy’s epigraph is derived from the Conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason. He quotes only the first paragraph.

  25. 25.

    Tolstoy’s indebtedness to Herder’santhropology and philosophy of history has been discussed by several scholars, including, most recently, Vinitsky 2010, Steiner 2011a, Steiner 2013, and Steiner 2020.

  26. 26.

    See Berlin 1978. I also discussed Tolstoy’s forays into philosophy of education and their connections with War and Peace in Steiner 2011a and 2013.

  27. 27.

    Gary Saul Morson brilliantly demonstrates Tolstoy’s distrust of theory, which he attributes to the influence of Aristotle’sethics. See Morson 1987.

  28. 28.

    The allusions to Bildung [obrazovanie] throughout his pedagogical articles offer ample testimony to this. See Berlin 1978, 258; Steiner 2013.

  29. 29.

    In this work Tolstoy does not use Karamzin’s term gumannost’ (obviously borrowed from Herder), because he has consciously chosen a more recent term razumnoe soznanie (with its Hegelian baggage).

  30. 30.

    I have in mind, first of all, the impact of secret societies and literary associations of the pre-Decembrist period on Russian literary and political history. Scholarly literature on this topic is very rich. I would like to point especially to Yuri Lotman’s numerous essays and Karamzin’s intellectual biography, as well as to the monographs by Andrei Zorin and Maria Maiofis. See Lotman 1992, 1997, Zorin 2001, Maiofis 2008. For additional bibliography, see my essay, “The Russian Novel as a Medium of Moral Reflection,” in this Handbook.

  31. 31.

    In summarizing this discussion I draw on the original texts as well as on Chap. 4 of John Zammito’s Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Zammito 2002).

  32. 32.

    As Vinitsky has pointed out, this is not how Tolstoy understood Herder in War and Peace, where he seems to subscribe to the idea of palingenesis (see Vinitsky 2010, 131). However, as I will show, in later writings Tolstoy gets increasingly skeptical about the ideas fashionable among contemporary spiritualists and seeks to confine his “pious hopes” to this-worldly life.

  33. 33.

    Tolstoy, for most of his life, was a staunch conservative when it came to the “woman question” (at least until the 1880s and 1890s).

  34. 34.

    My understanding of Herder’s philosophy is indebted to Michael Forster. See Forster 2018. It is also indebted to Adler 1968, Heintz 1994, Zammito 2002 (among others).

  35. 35.

    The Tolstoy-Solovyov polemic is covered in detail in Medzhibovskaya 2019, 180–219.

  36. 36.

    For a discussion of epigenesis versus evolution (preformation), see Richards 2002, 416. Tolstoy probably first glimpsed the Romantic epigenetic view of nature in Goethe’s works, which he read in his youth. On Goethe’s role in Tolstoy’s development, especially with regard to his interest in nature, see Orwin 1993.

  37. 37.

    For an insightful discussion of The Death of Ivan Il’ich and Heidegger, see Repin 2002.

  38. 38.

    The Death of Ivan Il’ich, first published in 1886, was written within less than a year. See Polnoe Sobranie sochinenii 26: 69–111.

  39. 39.

    Tolstoy’s discussion of his brother’s undying “predisposition” or “attitude to life” recalls Kant’s discussion of the Anlage or Keime as the “birth place” of “pure concepts.” It is noteworthy that the term “seed” is also used by Tolstoy in chapter 9, which begins as follows: “Contemplating the passing of time, observing the manifestation of life in the human creature, we notice that true life is always preserved in man as it is preserved in a seed: the time arrives, and life is revealed. The manifestation of true life occurs when the animal individuality draws man toward its own happiness, while reasonable (or rational) consciousness demonstrates to him, on the other hand, the impossibility of individualhappiness and identifies another kind of happiness” (Tolstoy 2019, 85). In recent years, scholars have suggested that the theory of epigenesis played a big role in Kant’sunderstanding of grounding and self-generating. See Helbig and Nassar 2016. Given these Kantian echoes, I think we could see Tolstoy’s treatise as an attempt to reconcile transcendental idealist and sentimentalist approaches to morality. Nevertheless, I still believe that Tolstoy’s ethics is at base a sentimentalist ethics and that his best explanation for the “origins” of his “rational consciousness” is one that involves his earliest memories of a brotherly bond he had enjoyed as a child.

  40. 40.

    In a longer version of this chapter I discuss Tolstoy’s Memoirs recorded by Pavel Biriukov, in which he reveals his earliest and happiest memories in which his late brother Nikolai plays the key role. Anna Berman has discussed the role of brotherly love in Tolstoy’s ethics and politics in her recent book, Berman 2015.

  41. 41.

    On the role of early memories and memory in general in Tolstoy, see Ginzburg 1971 and Paperno 2014. Although I have no proof that Tolstoy had firsthand familiarity with Herder’s “On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul,” their views of selfhood strike me as kindred. Given that the two thinkers had a number of intermediaries (Karamzin, Radishchev, Hegel, and other German philosophers) insisting on historical/textological evidence seems arbitrary.

  42. 42.

    In a longer version of this work I discuss the differences between Tolstoy’s and Schopenhauer’sethics. In a nutshell, the former envisions the overcoming of individuality and the development of a compassionate attitude to other beings as a gradual process which all people (even women, who are more enslaved to the species than men) can potentially undergo, whereas the latter reserves ethical life for exceptional people, ascetic “saints.”

  43. 43.

    Tolstoy was familiar with the details of the French and German debates on the “beautiful soul.” In brief, this debate revolved around the question whether the beautiful soul was an innate or acquired virtue. While Rousseau and some German Enlightenment thinkers, including Mendelssohn, attributed the beauty of the soul to innocence, some others, for example, Schiller, saw it as a product of self-consciousness, or Bildung.

  44. 44.

    In contrast to Tolstoy’s early stories about peasant life, such as “Idillia” (1861) and “Tikhon and Malania” (1862), Tolstoy’s later works set in the peasant milieu are increasingly naturalistic and dark, culminating with the Power of Darkness (1902). For an insightful interpretation of Tolstoy’s drama, see Justin Weir 2010b.

  45. 45.

    See Tolstoy 1929–1958, 31: 6–46.

  46. 46.

    I thank Victoria Juharyan for reminding me that Hegel uses the metaphor of “swimming on dry land” in the Introduction to the Logic to emphasize the difference between scholasticism (which attempts to philosophize outside of experience) and his own method (which he compares to real swimming). One could speculate why this metaphor resurfaces in Tolstoy’s text precisely at this juncture. Having escaped from the world and even from the monastic community by becoming a hermit (like the Desert Fathers who were venerated by Orthodoxy as the ultimate model of Christian piety), Kasatskii himself was trying to “swim on dry land.” Meanwhile, Pashen’ka was living an ordinary human life, full of mistakes and trials that helped her develop true wisdom.

  47. 47.

    See Philip Stewart’s illuminating interpretation of Candide’s philosophy, Stewart 2009.


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Steiner, L. (2021). Tolstoy’s Philosophy of Life. In: Bykova, M.F., Forster, M.N., Steiner, L. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Russian Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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