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Ch. 10: Significance and Spirituality

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TOLSTOY'S GOING AWAY AND OF THE WHOLE SPIRITUAL ACHIEVEMENT OF HIS LIFE

In an indirect way Leo Nikolaevitch's going away performed a great service in a social sense by manifesting clearly that his living beforehand for so long with his family was not due to the comforts of a rich man's life, nor to his weakness and lack of will where his wife was concerned. If circumstances had so fallen out that he had not left his family up to the day of his death, the value of the great example of his life would not, of course, have been one jot less in reality. But it would have been hard for many to believe that there was not a considerable share of egoism or weakness of character in his living with his wife in the surroundings in which his family lived. His departure from it revealed openly to contemporary and future generations that his life in Yasnaya Polyana really was surrounded by the most painful conditions. This event at once threw the true light on all that he must have suffered before that in his home surroundings, which many had been disposed to regard as peaceful and agreeable for him. Now it had become evident to all that Leo Nikolaevitch had remained with his family at Yasnaya Polyana for nearly thirty years after the whole manner of life had become distasteful and oppressive in the extreme for him,—and that he remained not at all because he wanted to enjoy the comfort of a wealthy landowner's life, nor because he was weak and wanting in will where his wife was concerned. Now it is easy to understand that during the whole of that time he was consciously sacrificing his preferences and inclinations for the sake of doing what he regarded as his duty to God and his family. And such an example of self-sacrifice and consistency on the part of such a man as Tolstoy doubtless has a conspicuous social value.

Many of the most various opinions have been expressed as to whether Tolstoy was right in leaving his family. To the friends of Leo Nikolaevitch who respected his soul and recognise the freedom of conscience and independence of human personality in all, the question in regard to Leo Nikolaevitch's going away is not whether he was right or wrong in taking that step. A man is really answerable not to the conscience of another, but only to his own. It is enough for us that it was not with a light heart that Leo Nikolaevitch came to his final decision to leave his wife. Once more I repeat that since he restrained himself for thirty years from going away, during the whole of that period patiently bearing the most poignant spiritual sufferings which often brought him to the verge of the grave,—and in the end he did die indeed from not having gone away sooner,—then surely we might do homage to the undoubted purity of his motives, and recognise that he had the right to decide the question in the end not in accordance with our views, but in accordance with his own judgment.

I at least for my part—carefully calling up before my imagination all that I heard with my own ears from Leo Nikolaevitch himself, and what I saw with my own eyes, amplifying this with what he wrote in his diary and said in various writings and intimate letters, and finally collating all this with contemporary communications, diaries and notes of most intimate friends who were, just as I was, witnesses of the great drama of the last months of his life—I do not see the possibility even from the most critical standpoint of seeing the slightest inconsistency in the fact that Leo Nikolaevitch remained so long with his wife and then thought it necessary to leave her. In this as in all else one can follow the inevitable, fully consistent and independent reaction of his inner life to external circumstances as they gradually opened out before him and suddenly took definite shape towards the end.

In all Leo Nikolaevitch's impulses and actions after the religious revolution which took place in him in the 'eighties, the same fundamental and guiding principle is all the time conspicuous; that is, the perpetual effort which persisted to the day of his death, to do not his own will nor the will of those surrounding him, but the will of God as he interpreted it according to his best understanding. What more can we expect of a man?

If some or other of Leo Nikolaevitch's actions during the last months of his life were not to the taste of some of his family, such, for instance, as his depriving them of the inheritance of his literary rights, his making a will without their knowledge and participation, his leaving his manuscripts and diaries to other people, and lastly his departing from amongst them; and if the material loss or their wounded vanity leads them mistakenly to ascribe all this to the supposed mental enfeeblement, the weakness of old age, and the fatal influence on him of the circle of his "followers," at least there is no necessity for people who are in no way personally affected to follow the example of those of Leo Nikolaevitch's family who consider themselves injured and repeat their unfair charges, which come in reality to this, that Leo Nikolaevitch at the end of his life was in his dotage and did a whole series of bad and stupid things. Some of Leo Nikolaevitch's family wrongly imagined that since he had remained with his family so long he had lost all freedom of choice, and ought not to have moved from the spot until his death, like a thing laid on a shelf which cannot move of its own initiative. Leo Nikolaevitch was not only a living man, but a man of exceptionally strong and active inner life, which was continually growing and developing and spurring him on to new external manifestations which were often a surprise to those who watched him. On all the important occasions of his life he always acted without following any programme imposed on him from outside, or being affected by any personal influence; he was independently guided only by the prompting of his inner consciousness and entirely free from pose or any striving after effect. But at the same time he never drew back before the most extreme decisions when it was a question of obeying the dictates of his conscience. And so he had continually to do what was not foreseen or understood by others, and often not approved even by the majority of those about him.

At one time people were enthusiastic over Tolstoy's creative genius, and thought that he would do nothing all his life but write novels for them. He brooded over the meaning of life, devoted himself to the service of God, and began to point out to men how godlessly they lived. Then they, struck by his inspired indictment of social life, expected that he would abandon his family and go about the world preaching like a prophet. But, manifesting love first of all to those nearest to him, and despising the censure of men, he remained almost thirty years with his wife and children under conditions most distressing for himself, hoping to be at least some little help in bringing them to a reasonable life. People became accustomed to the thought that old Tolstoy, physically weakened and professing the doctrine of non-resistance, would end his life at Yasnaya Polyana. But becoming convinced that being by his wife's side had in the end only become a stumbling-block to her and a restriction on his own spiritual life, to the surprise of all he left Yasnaya Polyana, at eighty-two, with shattered health, in order to live amidst poor surroundings, near to the working people so dear to his heart.

With Tolstoy everything was original and unexpected. The setting of his end was bound to be the same. Under the circumstances in which he was placed, and with the marvellously delicate sensitiveness and responsiveness to impressions which distinguished his exceptional nature, nothing else could or should have happened than just what did happen. There happened just what was in harmony with the external circumstances and the inner spiritual characteristics of Leo Nikolaevitch Tolstoy and no other. Any other solution of his domestic relations, any other surroundings of his death, even though in harmony with a certain traditional pattern, would have been false and artificial. Leo Nikolaevitch went away and died without affected sentimentality and emotional phrases, without loud words and eloquent gestures; he went away and died as he had lived, truthfully, sincerely and simply; and a better, truthful, more befitting end to his life could not be imagined, for just that end was the natural and inevitable one.

As time erases all the personal element which has hitherto played so great a part in the criticisms of Leo Nikolaevitch, all the purity of his impulses and deep wisdom of his decisions in the most complicated and difficult circumstances which could fall to the lot of man will stand out before the eyes of men in all their force. And then his life, especially its second period, from his spiritual awakening to his death, will serve as a bright and an increasing example of how we ought and can, guided by the voice of God in our souls, combine in our actions the greatest warmth of heart and gentleness toward those who injure us with an unalterable firmness where fidelity to that higher principle which one serves is concerned.

Telyatniki,
May 15th, 1913.
Moscow, 1920.

Leo Tolstoy

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