Famous Converts

A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

Written A Hundred Years Ago, Will Be Appreciated In Future

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TOLSTOY - İslam′ a Donuş (Turkish for Islam return)


In the Introduction to the newly published English version of The last days of Leo Tolstoy by Vladimir Chertkov, his closest friend, the publisher writes: ”Nearly a century after his death, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy remains a giant in the world of literature. While the impact of his ′spiritual′ mission cannot be fully gauged”. A Confession by Leo Tolstoy written in the last decades of the last century could not have been appreciated among the majority in a world that materialism was propagated as the only credible way of approaching knowledge. Talking about any spiritual dimension was miscomprehended as an attempt that could not lead but to irrationality and non scientific thinking. In the New Age where people have started to feel their existence as spirits and not only matter, Tolstoy′s experience is expected to receive so much appreciation.

A Confession by Leo Tolstoy is a very inspiring work for those who are interested in the question: what is the meaning of life? For Tolstoy it was not an exercise of the intellect; it was an arduous search from the side of someone who “had reached the impossibility of living, a cessation of life and the necessity of suicide”. How come that “so imperceptibly and gradually did the force of life” return to him? Was it a new discovery? Tolstoy says that it was “quite old-the same that had borne me along in my earliest days.” Why and how then did it leave him? Here is the whole story as much as possible in the words he expressed it.

At the age of 18 he started to be skeptical about all what he learnt at school as a Christian Orthodox. The signs of the cross and genuflection he made in prayers were, for him, meaningless actions and he could no longer continue doing them. He shared with others the impression that always religious persons were noticed to be “dull-witted, cruel, and immoral people who tend to consider themselves very important “, while “intelligence, honesty, straightforwardness, good naturedness and morality are qualities usually found among people who claim to be non believers.”

Nevertheless, he says, “ I did believe in something, without being able to say what it was. I believed in God, or rather I did not deny God, but what kind of God I could not have said; neither did I reject Christ or his teachings, but what I understood by the teachings again I could not have said.” At that point the young Tolstoy had no conflict because the natural faith in him was manifested in a sincere desire for “moral perfection” coupled with perfection of every other aspect in life.

Yet, however things were not that easy. “Everytime I tried to display my innermost desires-a wish to be morally good-I was met with contempt and scorn, and as soon as I gave in to base desires I was praised and encouraged.” Here was a turning point in Tolstoy′s life, moral perfection was replaced by a determination “to be more famous, more important, wealthier” and all passions of “animal instincts motivating my life.” In a world where “ambition, lust for power, self-interest, lechery, pride, anger, revenge, were all respected qualities,” Tolstoy says that he practiced “lying, thieving, promiscuity of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder-.” But was still considered by others as “a relatively moral man.”

At the age of 26 he started to mix with poets and writers and share with them a role that was bestowed upon them at the time of faith in “evolution”; the role of teaching people. “This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the evolution of life was a religion and I was one of its priests-..for a considerable length of time I lived in this faith without doubting its validity.”

He began to doubt the sincerity of his circle when he noticed that each group term themselves as “the finest and most useful teachers” and “others teach falsely”. Something very deep in him was telling him that if ever someone was carrying such a great mission of “teaching people” he should not seek personal esteem as first priority. But still he shared with them their “genuine, sincere concern” of “how to gain as much money and fame as possible” by writing books and journals. When he remembers this stage in his life Tolstoy says, ”we all spoke at the same time, never listening to one another. At times we indulged and praised each other in order to be indulged and praised in return, at other times we grew angry and shrieked at each other, just as if we were in a madhouse.”

Two events had affected him deeply: in a visit to Paris where he saw young men executed; “the sight of an execution revealed to me the precariousness of my superstition in progress--I realized that even if every single person since the day of creation had, according to whatever theory, found this (execution) necessary I knew that it was unnecessary and wrong, and therefore judgments on what is good and necessary must not be based on what other people say and do, or on progress, but on the instincts of my own soul”. The second event was his brother′s death “without having understood why he had lived, and still less why he was dying.” Tolstoy was so touched deep inside, but his supposition was that, “everything is evolving, and the reason why I am evolving together with all the rest will one day be known to me.”

Being involved in more work of writing, arbitration, teaching he began to feel spiritually ill without knowing a concrete reason for that illness. He got more involved in work as a means “of stifling any questions in my soul regarding the meaning of my own life in general.” Another means was getting married and putting for himself a new goal, “the straightforward desire for achieving the best for my family and myself.” Thus another fifteen years passed.

Attacks of despair then started to recur more and more frequently with questions, “Why, what comes next?” ”Well fine, you will have 6000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” “Well fine, so you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

With no answers to relieve him life turned to a complete meaninglessness. “But it was impossible to stop, and impossible to turn back or close my eyes in order not to see that there was nothing ahead other than deception of life and of happiness, and the reality of suffering and death: of complete annihilation.” Tolstoy, at this stage was not yet fifty, very healthy, famous, rich, respected, leading a wonderful marital life with a beloved wife and wonderful children. He was only possessed by the questions: ”What will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life? Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?

“I searched for an answer to my questions in all branches of knowledge acquired by man. I sought long and laboriously. I did not search half-heartedly, or out of idle curiosity, but tormentedly, persistently, day and night, like a dying man seeking salvation, and I found nothing.” Tolstoy sums up the knowledge that science and philosophy, each out of its own perspective, gives but which he regards as giving not answer to his questions. Science says, ”you are that which you call your life; you are a temporary, incidental accumulation of particles. The mutual interaction and alteration of these particles produces in you something you refer to as your life. This accumulation can only survive for a limited length of time; when the interaction of these particles ceases, that which you call life will cease bringing an end to all your questions.” The speculative realm tells him, ”the universe is something infinite and incomprehensible. Man′s life is an inscrutable part of this inscrutable ′whole′”.

Finding no answer to his questions in books he turned to people around him. He found them having four forms of “escape”; either they are ignorant of the whole thing, involved in physical pleasure (epicurianism), strong enough to get rid of their lives, or weak enough to cling to life even if they knew well that it was evil and useless. The inner torture he faced was leading him to commit suicide; he did not even know why he did not kill himself.

Leo Tolstoy ′Please regard me as a Mohammedan...′

The great Russian writer and thinker who contributed a lot to the Russian literature and history is more famous as a writer, his philosophical views and works that reflect his ideas of God, soul, knowledge, love, the meaning of life, etc. are much less known.

The continuing quest for the meaning of life, the moral ideal, the covert general regularities of existence as well as his spiritual and social criticism run through all his creative work. Since the 1870-ies he pays more and more attention to the subjects of death, sin, penance, and moral revival.

His extraordinary way of thinking was in most cases incomprehensible to the Russian society of those days.

He was excommunicated and committed to anathema, his friends and acquaintances turned away from him. In 1910, at the age of 81, Leo Tolstoy left home and died on the way to the station “Astapovo”.

Why was the end of his life so sad and where was he going after leaving home? Perhaps, some of his letters will throw light upon it.

Here is what he wrote about the Church: “The world was doing what it wished to do and was letting the Church keep pace with it providing as good explanations of the meaning of life as it could possibly think of. The world was setting its own mode of life which was entirely different form the teaching of Christ, and the Church was inventing allegories which would suggest that people who violated the law of Christ lived in keeping with it. As a result, the world started living the life which was worse than that of pagans, and the Church came to approve of it. Moreover, it claimed that such life was what the teaching of Christ consists in”.

Yasnaya Polyana, March, 1909

The Russian woman who married the Muslim E. Vekilov, wrote to Tolstoy that her sons wanted to convert to Islam, and asked for his advice. This is what the writer answered her: “As far as the preference of Mohammedanism to Orthodoxy is concerned-, I can fully sympathize with such conversion. To say this might be strange for me who values the Christian ideals and the teaching of Christ in their pure sense more that anything else, I do not doubt that Islam in its outer form stands higher than the Orthodox Church. Therefore, if a person is given only two choices: to adhere to the Orthodox Church or Islam, any sensible person will not hesitate about his choice, and anyone will prefer Islam with its acceptance of one tenet, single God and His Prophet instead such complex and incomprehensible things in theology as the Trinity, redemption, sacraments, the saints and their images, and complicated services-”

Yasnaya Polyana, March, 15th, 1909

We can adduce another letter of his which explains his world outlook which formed as a result of his long painful search for the truth.

“I would be very glad if you were of the same faith with me. Just try to understand what my life is. Any success in life- wealth, honour, glory- I don′t have these. My friends, even my family are turning away from me.

Some- liberals and aesthetes- consider me to be mad or weak- minded like Gogol; others- revolutionaries and radicals- consider me to be a mystic and a man who talks too much; the officials consider me to be a malicious revolutionary; the Orthodox consider me to be a devil.

I confess that it is hard for me- And therefore, please, regard me as a kind Mohammedan, and all will be fine”.

Yasnaya Polyana, April, 1884