Tolstoy’s Vision and Conversion

Tolstoy was a man of his age; a sometime enlightenment atheist,[1] a rational intellectual, an amateur philosopher, a philanthropist and artistic genius. He was a writer of the highest quality with an unmatched piercing eye for the observation of life and it is this gaze that, when turned onto the spiritual life, illuminates the teachings of Jesus for a new age.  His confident and unremitting voice enters the conversation on Christian nonresistance to evil towards the end of the Enlightenment as Christian belief is waning and the secularisation of philosophy and political movements is about to impact the culture of the 20th century. In many ways his contribution is not unique as it unashamedly catalogues and highlights previous thinkers, it is also certainly historically and geographically embedded in the pre-revolution upheaval of the Russian psyche. It is however the combination of philosophy, theology, radicalism and reason, added to his belief in a lived revelation, that gives him the prophetic voice for today. His response to critiques of the ethic of nonresistance and his dogged adherence to the teachings of Jesus as informing the hope and meaning of his existence remain inspirational and fascinating.

Tolstoy lived in a time when God had died[2]; he recalls being told that there was no God by another boy and that the information worked for him as a sound idea.[3] In his era Scientific method promised to unlock all the secrets of the universe and rational enlightened man had the world at his feet. There were however dissenting voices as the promised golden Age of Enlightenment displayed in its glorious height at the great exhibition of 1851 failed to impact on the lives of the millions of European poor[4]. Tolstoy’s greatest love was reading Dickens and his deep humanity was touched by Dickens descriptions of the social depravity around him in England[5].  His own writing focused on war and its inevitability, waste and futility[6] and on the lives of upper class Russians for whom the poor were an invisible source of comfort, service and labour[7]. His mid life conversion was the result of an experience of meaninglessness brought on by coming to the end of his philosophical and artistic journey at the end of the 1870’s[8]. Unlike many of his European contemporaries[9]  for Tolstoy it was only the addition of God into the equations of his life that unlocked the meaning of life. The key to this lock was the nagging irrational thorn[10] of nonresistance to evil, taken by him as an absolute Divine Word, and it was to this puzzle that he was to devote the rest of his life.

Tolstoy the artist looked with a vision that penetrated the object he was viewing and for many critics of his work this was and is his greatest achievement. Ivan Nikolayevitsh Panin in his lectures on Russian Literature in 1889 comments that ‘Tolstoy the artist never sees Nature with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of the spirit, he never sees matter without the underlying mind; he never sees the object without its complement, the subject. Tolstoy, therefore, is the first great artist who has painted nature entire’. Turgenev[11] provocatively commented that in order for Tolstoy to write his descriptions of horses he must have been a horse in a previous life. Edward Crankshaw postulates that the spellbinding delicacy of perception in Vronsky’s encounter with his horse in Anna Karenina is not in fact empathy but minutely observed appearance and behaviour, of details recorded with total recall. This leads Turgenev to, ‘being made really to see the horse for the first time, so he himself for a moment became the horse.’ (Crankshaw, 1974, p. 143). This universally acclaimed genius in writing is vitally important as we look to Tolstoy’s impact as a spiritual director exponent of nonresistance. It is certainly the case that his immense social standing at the time of his conversion and the recognition of his genius made his post conversion religious writings hard to ignore even though in the main they were censored and printed privately in Russia and aboard. It also helps to explain how his writing has the breadth of circulation that he would wish for previous pacifists that had been overlooked[12].

When we read Tolstoy’s novels he induces feelings that are natural, not forced or sensationalised. He is an artist in the terms that he was to describe in What is Art, someone who views the natural world and has an emotional response that in the description or the impression allows us to experience that same emotion (Tolstoy, 1995, p. 45)[13]. His first hand experience of battle[14] viewed with eyes wide open to its horrors and insanities informed his early writing as did his aristocratic materialistic lifestyle. He looked and saw, Virginia Woolf as wrote in an essay on Russian literature that examined Tolstoy’s contribution, in a London periodical in 1912:

From his first words we can be sure of one thing at any rate — here is a man who sees what we see, who proceeds, too, as we are accustomed to proceed, not from the inside outwards, but from the outside inwards. Here is a world in which the postman’s knock is heard at eight o’clock, and people go to bed between ten and eleven. Here is a man, too, who is no savage, no child of nature; he is educated; he has had every sort of experience. He is one of those born aristocrats who have used their privileges to the full. He is metropolitan, not suburban. His senses, his intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. 

This is a view that we trust to give us realistic view of the world and then he turns it on first himself, then the Church and then the Christian State. He uses his observation to give us a detached view of the teachings of the church and its sacraments and rituals producing biting condemnation of the hypocrisies he sees[15]. He watches the law courts and the punishments, the enlisting[16] and the futility of war. His religious writings can be polemical and as they develop over time they can be a little confused, lacking in a systematic[17] underpinning. But all through them he gives us the benefit of his insight, his vision. In the Kingdom of God is Within You he describes the scene at the courthouse in his home town Tula where the young conscripts are being sorted for the draft while the mothers and wives wait outside to see who will be taken. He describes the inhumanity of the sorting process in detail and the arrival of the priest to administer the oath.

But here comes a man along the street with flowing hair and in a peculiar dress, who gets out of his droskhy and goes into the Zemsky Court-house. The police clear a way for him through the crowd. It is the “reverend father” come to administer the oath. And this “father,” who has been persuaded that he is specially and exclusively devoted to the service of Christ, and who, for the most part, does not himself see the deception in which he lives, goes into the hall where the conscripts are waiting. He throws round him a kind of curtain of brocade, pulls his long hair out over it, opens the very Gospel in which swearing is forbidden, takes the cross, the very cross on which Christ was crucified because he would not do what this false servant of his is telling men to do, and puts them on the lectern. And all these unhappy, defenceless, and deluded lads repeat after him the lie, which he utters with the assurance of familiarity. And all these poor deluded lads believe that these nonsensical and incomprehensible words which they have just uttered set them free for the whole time of their service from their duties as men, and lay upon them fresh and more binding duties as soldiers. And this crime is perpetrated publicly and no one cries out to the deceiving and the deceived: “Think what you are doing; this is the basest, falsest lie, by which not bodies only, but souls too, are destroyed.” (Tolstoy, 2006, p. 274)

He describes the chocking of the wives as they find out that they are looking forward to a life of starvation, service or prostitution. The beginnings of the bravado in the men as they try to imitate the heroes of Russian folk poetry, that ‘molodechestvo’ (knightliness)[18] that are far from feeling but will be awakened by their training. We are the observers who judge the morality of the case. Tolstoy was adamant that he did not believe that what he said was in any way a new movement of religion just a restatement of the Truth of Christ. The following passage is quoted from his diary of 1897, ‘There is neither a Tolstoyan sect nor a Tolstoyan teaching. There is only one unique teaching, that is of Truth- that universal teaching, for myself no less than for others in the Gospels’ (Tolstoy, 2012, p. 178). In his stories, his novels and his religious writing he attempts to lay that Truth anew before our eyes.

As we have noted above Tolstoy’s self examination leads to a spiritual and psychological crisis and given the often autobiographical nature of Tolstoy’s novels it is here that we can look for clues of his thinking prior to the event. It is interesting and illuminating that his conversion is anticipated and enjoyed by those thousands of readers of Anna Karenina, serialised in the 1870’s, who follow Levin’s[19] journey to spiritual awakening. In Levin we see the troubled philosopher and family man driven to the point of suicidal actions. His conversion happens simply and with great speed at the end of the book. Having read Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer he has still not found the meaning of his life. He is awakened by the chance remark of a peasant[20] that there are two ways to live; for God or for your belly!

“Fyodor says that Kirillov lives for his belly. That’s comprehensible and rational. All of us as rational beings can’t do anything else but live for our belly. And all of a sudden the same Fyodor says that one mustn’t live for one’s belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him! And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now […] we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 784)

To live for God, not for self this is an idea that keeps reoccurring for Tolstoy and when he feels that he can live for God he is filled with happiness. His experience as described in A Confession is deeply moving,

I do not live when I lose belief in the existence of God. I should long ago have killed myself had I not had a dim hope of finding Him. I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him. “What more do you seek?” exclaimed a voice within me. “This is He. He is that without which one cannot live. To know God and to live is one and the same thing. God is life.” “Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God.” And more than ever before, all within me and around me lit up, and the light did not again abandon me. (Tolstoy, 1987, p. 65)

This religious conversion saved Tolstoy from suicide but saw it not as a return to normality but to a form of madness,[21] it certainly divided opinion and continues to do so. It was been claimed by William James[22] that Tolstoy’s conversion was incomplete as it should have resulted in joy and a firmer hold on religious realities when in fact he sees in him a chronic inability to be happy. The terrors of Tolstoy’s experience of what Leon Shestov calls ‘the vertigo moment’ before conversation should have subsided (Medzhibovskaya, 2008, p. xxviii). They definitely did fade but it is true that Tolstoy stays in an ongoing tension of division as we shall see. In his fiction we catch a view through other lenses of this process of transformation and for many people at his time and since his words have sounded an authentic cord that resonates with post-critical, agnostics searching for a meaning to life in a secular world[23]. His new religious searching will alienate him from his family, his class, his literary friends, and his church, but his conviction is that he has at last found the meaning of his life. As is often the case with Tolstoy his fictional characters speak with autobiographical clarity and Levin exclaims with triumph the central ethos of love of neighbour that acts as the focus for the revelation.

“Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbour and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one’s neighbour reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.” (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 786)

Levin is left pondering these new revelations as the novel ends but not without a tentative attempt at their public discussion that leads to his ridicule by family and friends. Levin cannot help but express his new found faith by mentioning the soul,

“For their soul? That’s a most puzzling expression for a natural science man, do you understand? What sort of thing is the soul?” said Katavasov, smiling. “Oh, you know!” (replied Levin)“No, by God, I haven’t the faintest idea!” said Katavasov with a loud roar of laughter.’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 795)

Realising that he is vulnerable Levin backs down, Tolstoy does not. Tolstoy, like Levin, has become for a moment irrational and like Levin he almost instantly sees the rightful path of this beginning towards nonresistance of evil and religious pluralism[24]. He writes at the end of A Confession that the inconsistencies between church doctrine and preaching with the love of enemy expressly taught by Christ became too much for him. It is with regret that he realises that he cannot stay in the church that he hoped would nurture his faith as it had when he was a child. He wrote in A Confession about this sense of homecoming that the church intially evoked in him.

‘When fulfilling the rites of the Church I humbled my reason and submitted to the tradition possessed by all humanity. I united myself with my forefathers: the father, mother, and grandparents I loved. They and all my predecessors believed and lived, and they produced me. I united myself also with the missions of the common people’ (Tolstoy, 1987, p. 69)

Here we see his longing to be part of something, in union with others, but it was not to be. The love of neighbour and enemy that is kindled in his heart cannot be denied as they are now the ground of his faith and the meaning of his life. He recalls that when he, ‘witnessed members of the church, her teachers, monks and ascetics condoning the killing of helpless, lost youths. As I turned my attention to all that is done by people who profess Christianity I was horrified’ (Tolstoy, 1987, p. 76). Tolstoy in all honesty could not stay and he stopped receiving Communion. His faith however remains strong and Levin’s words at the end of Anna Karenina again reveal to us the path for Tolstoy that will consume his life. They show clearly the part his humanist views have to play in his transformation while hinting at a humble acceptance of his weakness and need of God in prayer.

I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it. THE END.  (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 805)

After Tolstoy’s Conversion experience he worked hard on what he came to consider his magnum opus. This is the series of books on religion[25] written between 1879 and 1893 along with an enormous amount of pamphlets short stories letters and powerful novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich[26]. In order to begin to understand his thinking we will look at three of these works in more detail in the next paper.

[1] Some have argued that he remained one even after his conversion see Alexander boot, Man and God according to Tolstoy (Boot, 2009)

[2] See Gods Funeral AN Wilson and the poem by Thomas Hardy by that name quoted at the beginning of the book (Wilson, Gods Funeral, 1999) and in the Original Sources menu

[3] From A Confession, ‘I remember that before I was eleven a grammar school pupil, Vladimir Milyutin, visited us one Sunday and announced as the latest novelty a discovery made at his school. This discovery was that there is no God and that all we are taught about Him is a mere invention (this was in 1838). I remember how interested my elder brothers were in this information. They called me to their council and we all, I remember, became very animated, and accepted it as something very interesting and quite possible.’ (Tolstoy, 1987, p. 19)

[4] Beginning with Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1787)who was a great favourite of Tolstoy

[5]  Tolstoy’s daughter describes his bedroom walls. ‘There are portraits of Dickens and Schopenhauer and Fet  as a young man on the walls’,

[6] See War and Peace and the epilogues to the book (Tolstoy, 1997)

[7] Tolstoy’s description of his time in Moscow in 1886 volunteering in a census is published as What then must we d?  His observations are deep and clear and add weight to his calls for a complete change in the system of governance of the country

[8] For full account of Tolstoy’s philosophical journey see Inessa  Medzhibovskaya’s comprehensive work,  Tolstoy and the religious culture of his time(Medzhibovskaya, 2008)

[9] See AN Wilson Gods Funeral

[10] I am using this phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ to allude to Pauls in 2 Corinthians 12:7. It is something that does not allow Tolstoy to experience complete elation, that bothers him.

[11] Turgenev was Tolstoy’s friend and fellow writer who never understood his ‘conversion’ and on his death bed wrote to Tolstoy pleading with him to return to his creative writing.

[12] These are referred to in the section looking at Tolstoy’s book the Kingdom of God is within You, below

[13] What is Art was written by Tolstoy in 1897. He is looking for a definition of Art that avoids the decadence of the day by examining in depth the definitions of Beauty goodness and Truth. In it he ‘observes’ that rehearsals for an opera that he sees as the height of bourgeois nonsense.  His observations are amusing and cutting and give us a new insight.

[14] Accounts of his time in active service told in the Sevastopol Sketches.

[15] A detailed observation of a prison communion is given in Resurrection quoted in full in the Tolstoy’s quotes menu

[16] Quoted below

[17] See Alexander Boot  (Boot, 2009)

[18] Donna Tussing Orwin explores this word in its positive and negative connotations in Tolstoy’s novels. It is important to see how he uses it as a virtue and a vice as the environment of warfare does have the possibility of developing positive human characteristics of courage and loyalty and selfless action, all of which Tolstoy describes in his fiction. However they are never allowed to be pure and are often tainted by bravado and stupidity. She quotes Tolstoy in his Journal of 1909, ‘While I was out walking I was thinking about 2 things: childish wisdom and my upbringing, how, as in my childhood I was taught to direct all my energy to molodechestvo in hunting and in war, so it is possible to inspire children to direct all their energy to a battle with themselves, to an engagement of Love. (Orwin, 2010, p. 78)

[19] Levin is the character in Anna Karenina who resembles Tolstoy not just in manners, tastes and politics but also is the protagonist who experiences actual autobiographical events from Tolstoy’s life, such as the strange method of marriage proposal between himself and Kitty.

[20] This has a charming resonance with Justin Martyr’s conversion. Chapter III.—Justin narrates the manner of his conversion.“And while I was thus disposed, when I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea. And when I was near that spot one day, which having reached I purposed to be by myself, a certain old man, by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners, followed me at a little distance. And when I turned round to him, having halted, I fixed my eyes rather keenly on him’ (Schaff P. , p. 196) It is with this man that after pondering philosophy Justine engages in a theological discussion that allows him access to the Christian God although the discussion takes a little longer!

[21] Inessa Medzhibovskaya’s devotes a chapter of her book to this. ‘Nation Unstable issues the rumour, Tolstoy is Mad’ (Medzhibovskaya, 2008, p. 215)

[22] William James (1842-1910) was a psychologist and contemporary of Tolstoy’s who included him as an example in his Gifford lectures of 1902 ‘The Varieties of Religious experience’.

[23] They certainly do resonate with this author and her contemporaries

[24] Quote from Levin, ‘“Yes, the one unmistakable, incontestable manifestation of the Divinity is the law of right and wrong, which has come into the world by revelation, and which I feel in myself, and in the recognition of which — I don’t make myself, but whether I will or not — I am made one with other men in one body of believers, which is called the church. Well, but the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Confucians, the Buddhists — what of them?” he put to himself the question he had feared to face. “Can these hundreds of millions of men be deprived of that highest blessing without which life has no meaning?” He pondered a moment, but immediately corrected himself. “But what am I questioning?” he said to himself. “I am questioning the relation to Divinity of all the different religions of all mankind. I am questioning the universal manifestation of God to all the world with all those misty blurs. What am I about? To me individually, to my heart has been revealed a knowledge beyond all doubt,[…] as a Christian, and which can always be trusted in my soul. The question of other religions and their relations to Divinity I have no right to decide, and no possibility of deciding.’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 804)

[25] A Confession (1879),A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology (1880),The Gospel in Brief, or A Short Exposition of the Gospel (1881),The Four Gospel Unified and Translated (1881),Church and State (1882),What I Believe (also called My Religion) (1884),What Is to Be Done? (also translated as What Then Must We Do?) (1886),On Life (1887),The Love of God and of one’s Neighbour (1889),Why Do Men Intoxicate Themselves? (1890),The First Step: on vegetarianism (1892),The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893)

[26] The death of Ivan Ilyich is a closely observed depiction of a man’s slow death by cancer. It does not turn our eyes away for one minute but ensures that we face the inevitability of death. It is unsensational and lacking in emotion as Ivan is left alone to bare his condition wrapped in total self absorption. Tolstoy writes many deaths in his novels from the peaceful release of Prince Andre on War and Peace to the sudden emptiness of Anna’s suicide. It seems that he is constantly testing his capacity to face his mortality. This is an awareness that Gandhi is later to profess is an essential element of the spirituality of non violence. It also echoes back to the witness of the martyrs.


Boot, A. (2009). Man and God according to Tolstoy. US: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crankshaw, E. (1974). Tolstoy The Making of a novelist. UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Medzhibovskaya, I. (2008). Tolstoy and the religious culture of his time. UK: Lexington.

Schaff, P. (n.d.). Anti- Nicene Fathers Volumne One. Retrieved May 20th, 2013, from Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

Tolstoy, L. (1987). A confession and other religious writing. UK : Penguin.

Tolstoy, L. (1999). Anna Karenina. UK: Wordsworth Classics.

Tolstoy, L. (2012). Journals Volume 1 1895-1899. UK: Forgotten books.

Tolstoy, L. (2009). Ressurection. London: Penguin.

Tolstoy, L. (2006). The Kingdom Of God is within you. US: Dover.

Tolstoy, L. (1997). War and Peace. London: Penguin.

Tolstoy, L. (1995). What is Art. London: Penguin

Wilson, A. N. (1999). Gods Funeral. London: John Murray.


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