For me, Tolstoy is one of the world’s greatest writers and his novels and short stories are not to be and cannot be missed. In 1879 when he was fifty-one, he began writing his Confession. He had already achieved international literary status unequalled by few in their lifetime and his greatest novels had already been written, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Some of his most notable short stories had already been written: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Devil,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man,” and “Father Sergius.”
There is another side to Tolstoy and his thought and that is his understanding of and commitment to the Christian faith. He came to believe that the religion and message of Jesus had been misinterpreted and lost by the church. He articulated the view that the real message of Jesus was the love of neighbor and the love we must offer to all men and women in following Jesus and his message. With these ideas in mind, in Christ-like humility he set himself to the practical tasks of showing Christ’s love in the reform of peasant schools, relief work during the great famine of 1891 and 1892, support for persecuted religious sects, and many other acts of love and charity. He wrote moral tales for the common folk and in the last thirty years of his life championed the oppressed. He was excommunicated by the Orthodox church in 1901, a response of that church to Tolstoy and his criticisms.
Tolstoy was a pacifist. He wrote many works explaining his interpretation of the Christian faith, including: A Confession, Religion and Morality, “What is Religion and of What Does its Essence Consist,” and The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (1879, 1893, 1902 and 1908 respectively), and also and finally, The Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy wanted a new and true, practical religion purged of dogma and mysticism, a religion promising not future bliss but present bliss on earth. Tolstoy wished to realize the kingdom of God on earth and sought it in the simple truth of Christ’s teachings, which he believed to be the key to achieving that end. The doctrine of love and universal brotherhood became the cornerstone of Tolstoy’s thought and ideas as it was in Christ’s. Tolstoy believed Christ’s teachings had been perverted by the church and the state and that humanity must shed the false teachings of the church and instead follow Christ’s teachings of the supreme law of love and consequent denial of the use of violence. Tolstoy’s belief was non-material and spiritual and based on the universal truths of love and nonviolence and moral perfection. Tolstoy and his thought had a lasting influence in India and on the work and thought of M.K. Gandhi, who referred to himself as Tolstoy’s humble follower.
Tolstoy and his understanding of Christianity and his interpretation bear careful thought in every way. For me, Tolstoy is not only one of the great writers of all time but one of the world’s greatest thinkers. He and his books are not to be missed.
I acknowledge my debt for this essay to the Introduction to Tolstoy’s A Confession and Other Religious Writings, published by Penguin Classics in 1987.