An Hour with Tolstoy

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Ernest Howard Crosby

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There is a little book by Tolstoy entitled "On Life," which gives succinctly his central thoughts in so direct and simple a way that to many it seems the most important of his works. In it he allows the reader to travel with him in his search for an answer to the question, "What is Life?" In looking back through his own experiences he first concludes that life is an expression of desire, personal desire, the child's constant thought being, "I want this," or "I don't like that;" and the outcome of it all he finds to be some particular ambition on the part of the man. But in the course of things man some day discovers that the attainment of his goal does not satisfy him, and he also realizes that those who succeed are really no happier than those who do not gain their point; so that Tolstoy's conclusion is that personal ambitions do not serve as an outlet for life. Yet the life energies must find a channel for expression, and so in time man begins to serve general rather than individual good, and in doing this he is lifted up and actually becomes a new creature. Tolstoy states it as a fact that when he began to let his love go out to all men he began then to experience, not simply to think, immortality.

Now, there is nothing new in this discovery of the great Russian Quaker, as Tolstoy is sometimes called; but, as far as his own work goes, it is an independent and original contribution to the world's knowledge.

All the eccentricities of this man will find a simple and satisfactory explanation when you look upon him as an original investigator and one who actually tries to live up to his lights [...]

Tolstoy's life presents in a strikingly dramatic form almost all the great living issues of the day; and each of the radical changes in his career has been brought about, not as is often the case through reading some book, but because of something he saw. The story told of how he came to leave his university after only six months of study is a case in point. While attending a ball at the home of a nobleman near the town and to whose house he had been driven by a peasant, the hardships of the peasantry impressed him in a most effective way, his driver having nearly frozen to death while he had been in the warmth and gaiety. The inequalities of life took hold of him with such force that he decided to give up his useless life and devote himself to bettering the condition of his fifteen hundred serfs.

Yet he had no sooner gone down to his home than he found himself face to face with the great question of landlordism. He struggled on for a few years trying to benefit his serfs, only to find that his best efforts were misunderstood and that he had practically done nothing. Later in life he gives in the book entitled "Resurrection" his conclusions on the land question, which are substantially those held by Henry George.

In his disappointment in regard to his serfs he rushed off to join the artillery and fight at the front in the Crimean war. He was in the siege of Sebastopol, taking part in the defense of the city, and we have the satisfaction of knowing that when in later life he declared unequivocally that war is always wrong he knew from practical experience what it was he denounced.

Returning to Moscow, he soon found that the career of an author was open to him; accordingly, he moved to St. Petersburg and joined the literary and social life of that city. It is during these few years that he is said to have led a rather wild life, as most of the young men of his class are apt to do. But this could not hold him, and soon he began a tour of Europe, [...] ann Yet nowhere did he find anything that satisfied him, and it was another dramatic incident that turned his energies into a new channel. Witnessing an execution in Paris one day, he declares that it made a much deeper impression on him than he had expected; for, as the head and body fell separately into the box prepared for them, he said he felt, not simply in his mind and soul but throughout his whole body, that such things were wrong. He declared stoutly that if the whole world said that that thing was right, he, Tolstoy, would nevertheless know it to be wrong. From this incident sprang all of Tolstoy's conclusions on criminal law, on which subject he takes so radical a position, declaring plainly that our treatment of criminals does little or nothing toward protecting the public, but has the effect instead of spreading the very disease we would cure.

About this time, while Tolstoy was in Paris, the Russian serfs were liberated, and he hurried home in order to do what he could toward fitting those who had been his serfs for their newly acquired freedom. With his usual thoroughness in whatever he undertook, Tolstoy entered heartily into the work of opening schools for the children; and he also established a paper devoted to educational subjects, in which the teachers were free to give their experiences and so help one another.

Tolstoy himself taught in one of his schools and tried in every way to work out practically his own theories. One of them was that it was not wise to teach children subjects that did not interest them; and so he would begin in the morning with whatever study came first to hand, and if the children did not feel in the mood for it he would put it aside for another, and so on through the whole list of subjects until he found something that held the children's attention easily. This method he found to be very inconvenient at times, for it often

Another of Tolstoy's convictions was that a child should not be kept in school against his will, and so about twice a week some one of the urchins would rise, take his cap, and go out, without so much as an "if you please," which naturally influenced the whole school to do likewise. This would have been enough to make most men change their theories, but notwithstanding the frequent half holidays Tolstoy held firmly to his position, comforting himself with the thought that the hours that the children spent in the schoolroom were willingly so spent, and grounding himself on the belief that whatever was learned under such conditions was well learned. Tolstoy's whole concept of education is the exact opposite of that formerly held by so many of the New England worthies—that character is developed through a discipline that consists in making a child do that which is disagreeable to him, Tolstoy on his part holding firmly to the belief that character is developed in freedom.

Shortly after this episode in his life, Tolstoy married and thereafter devoted himself for fifteen years to writing and to managing his estates and household. It was during this period that he published his "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," the latter book being somewhat of an autobiography, as it recounts in the characters of Lavine and Kitty his own courtship and marriage.

When he reached middle life he realized keenly that he must frankly face the great question of life and find a satisfactory answer for himself. So seriously did he regard the various problems that, though he would seem to have had everything to make him happy, being at this time a most famous author, occupying a high position in the aristocracy and find a religion that would satisfy him, asking all his friends for help and searching through all books that gave any promise of light. He eveh began once more to attend the little village church, feeling as he did that the peasants had something that he did not possess. However, before long, the gross inconsistency of the Church drove him from its fold, for he could not continue to support an organization that on one day taught that we should love our enemies and on the next ordered that prayers should be offered up to the end that the Russian Government might overcome the Turks.

At last Tolstoy began to study the Gospels in the Greek, and more and more was he impressed by that part of the Sermon on the Mount beginning, "Resist not him that is evil;" and, as the principle of all-inclusive love took firm hold of him, he immediately began to try to live it out. So with this in mind he took up his residence in Moscow with the idea of distributing his superfluous wealth among the poor people, thinking in his simplicity that he was going to establish a little kingdom of heaven right there, where gratitude, love, and consideration would be the order of the day. To his surprise he found that nothing separates people more than to receive alms. As the result of his methods the worst rather than the best traits came to the front, as the people were never satisfied and complained at everything.

During this period Tolstoy came to the conclusion that, as we are possessed of hands, arms, and legs, they should be used; and he therefore fell into the habit of going out to the suburbs of the city to chop wood. As he was returning one day after his work in company with a peasant, they were appealed to by anything. His conclusion was that the only thing we can give is that which we earn, and from that moment he revolted against his whole past life, in which he now saw that he had been living on the labor of others. From that hour he began to cut off one luxury after another, even adopting thenceforth the simple dress of the peasants, not because of a desire to play to the galleries as it were, but because he felt compelled to make a protest against our unjust and artificial system of civilization. In this last step that he has taken, the utter sincerity of the man is shown most clearly, his life being one of extreme simplicity and helpfulness. The story is sometimes circulated that he is living even yet in luxury while protesting in print against it; but, having seen him in his own home, which is excessively bare, I can testify to the contrary.

One little incident illustrates Tolstoy's firm belief in the principle of non-resistance of evil. In May, 1894, his little girl Sacha, a child ten years of age, was playing in front of the house with a little peasant boy when they began quarreling over something. As a result of the dispute, the little boy hit her with a piece of wood, and Sacha rushed into the house crying and calling upon her father to come out and give the boy a whipping. Instead, Tolstoy took the little girl on his knee and talked so softly to her that the first part of the conversation was not heard by her who told me this incident.

Knowing Tolstoy's thought so well, I feel quite sure that what he said was this: "What good would it do you, Sacha, for me to whip the little boy ? Would it make your arm hurt any the less ? What was it that made him strike you ? Was it not because he was angry with you; and if I should whip him would he not hate, not only you. but me too? Now, what we conclusion of the story is that the little girl did just as the father had suggested.

In all ways, and to the best of his ability, Tolstoy is trying to get off from the backs of his brothers and to receive as little as possible from their unrequited toil; and, though in many ways his efforts may be considered crude, he stands as the rough outline of that manhood which shall prevail when exploitation of brother-man shall be no more.


  • Ernest Howard Crosby, “An Hour with Tolstoy,” Mind 11, no. 1 (June 1891): 66-72.