Summary of Leo Tolstoy’s, “A Confession”

Tolstoy on 23 May 1908 at Yasnaya Polyana, four months before his 80th birthday.[1]

Leo Tolstoy (1828 –1910) was a Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in all of literature. His masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent some of the best realistic fiction ever penned. He also was known for his literal interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy became a pacifist and Christian anarchist, and his ideas of non-violent resistance influenced both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Near the end of his life, he finally rejected his wealth and privilege and became a wandering ascetic—dying in a train station shortly thereafter.

At the height of his fame, Tolstoy experienced a crisis of meaning.  He said that he contemplated suicide and could no longer live unless he could find the meaning of his life. He wrote about the crisis in a short work, “A Confession,” which was written in 1882 and first published in 1884. Tolstoy was one of the first thinkers to pose the problem of life’s meaning in a modern way.

Tolstoy tells us that he wrote to make money, to take care of his family, and to distract himself from questions about meaning. But later—when seized with questions about the meaning of life and death—he came to regard his literary work as worthless. Without an answer to questions of meaning, he was incapable of doing anything. Despite fame, fortune, and family, he wanted to kill himself and he wrote that being born was a stupid trick that was played on him. “Sooner or later there would come diseases and death…all my affairs…would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself would not exist. So why should I worry about all these things?”

Tolstoy had come to believe that the essence of life was best captured by the Eastern parable of a man hanging onto a branch inside of a well, with a dragon at the bottom, a beast at the top, and the mice eating the branch to which he clings. There is no way out and the pleasures of life—honey on the branch—are ruined by our inevitable death. Everything leads to the truth: “And the truth is death.” This recognition of death and the meaninglessness of life ruin any joy we might experience. There is, he thought, no reason to live. Was there any way out of this conclusion?

Perhaps an answer could be found in science but he dismissed this idea. Science provides knowledge but it does not give comfort, and the kind of knowledge which gives comfort—knowledge about the meaning of life—doesn’t exist. He had come to believe that everything is incomprehensible. Yet Tolstoy noted that the sense of meaninglessness disturbs the learned more than it does simple people. So he began to look to the working class for answers, to people who seem to have answered the question of the meaning. Tolstoy saw that they did not derive meaning from pleasure, since they had so little of it, and yet they thought that suicide was a great evil.

It seemed then that the meaning of life was not found in any rational, intellectual knowledge but rather “in an irrational knowledge. This irrational knowledge was faith…” Tolstoy says he must choose between reason, from which it follows that there is no meaning, and faith, which entails rejecting reason. But if reason leads to the conclusion that nothing makes sense, then reason is irrational. And if irrationality leads to meaning, then irrationality is really rational.

Tolstoy essentially argued that rational, scientific knowledge only gives you the facts. It only relates the finite to the finite; it does not relate a finite life to anything infinite. So that “no matter how irrational and monstrous the answers might be that faith gave, they had this advantage that they introduced into each answer the relation of the finite to the infinite, without which there could be no answer.” Only by accepting irrational things—which for him were the central tenets of Christianity—could one find an answer to the meaning of life.

But what is faith? For Tolstoy “faith was the knowledge of the meaning of human life…Faith is the power of life. If a man lives he believes in something.” He found this faith, not in the wealthy or the intellectuals, but in the poor and uneducated. The meaning given to the simple life by simple people … that was the meaning Tolstoy accepted. Meaning is found in a simple life and religious faith.

Reflections  – While I sympathize with Tolstoy’s sentiments, I reject his solution. (I have written extensively about why I dismiss a religious solution to the problem life’s meaning.) Consider just these words of the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that man’s womanish heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man. … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better. At all events, in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreat, or go about begging.

For more see:

Antony Flew on Tolstoy and Faith

Summary of Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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11 thoughts on “Summary of Leo Tolstoy’s, “A Confession”

  1. While for many, ” Meaning is found in a simple life and religious faith…” for some meaning is found in a simple life and religious knowledge, which comes from a transformative experience.” I read Wm James “Varieties of Religious Experience,” and found that although he was correct about sudden conversion experiences in most respects, he did not discuss instantaneous conversions of skeptics. I hardly think I am the only one. The old testament has Jonah, for example, and I think there were other Jonahs because in that ancient book the phrase “fear of the lord” appears multiple times in connection with “understanding” and “wisdom”. Jonah’s experience was disturbing, life-changing, and entirely involuntary. Except for St Paul, none of Wm.James’s sudden conversion examples were involuntary, or instantaneous. My testimony: it’s a long and difficult ride in the belly of the whale adjusting to the implications of what is learned in single instant. The Lord is all that Christianity praises Him for, but He is also the Power of creation, and Jonah found out how creation happened to him the hard way — a second birth as James correctly puts it, but nothing like the 2nd births he discusses.

  2. Life isn’t meaningless at all .
    To think that everything is meaningless is like being the utmost selfish being in the whole universe who also lacks empathy.
    For each person it’s his duty to know what makes him feel good , if he sees that nothing makes him feel good then he should do volunteering works , charity works …..there are lots of other ways . By that he’ll know what makes him feel good and what makes the society a better place.
    We don’t need Gods to tell us to do good to others, to bring peace in this temporary world .

    “Eastern parable of a man hanging onto a branch inside of a well, with a dragon at the bottom, a beast at the top, and the mice eating the branch to which he clings. There is no way out and the pleasures of life—honey on the branch—are ruined by our inevitable death.” -> thinking like this is pure example of selfishness.
    It also indicates that this person doesn’t think to do good to others but only craves for his own mental&physical hunger.
    If I was in the place of that person who’s hanging from that tree I would rather eat half the honey , throw the rest as far as I can for passersby so they dont come near-by to this dangerous place , and hurt the dragon&beast as much as I can so those creatures can’t hurt any other fellow human beings in the future.
    Yeah , I sound like a kid who reads in class 2 , who wants to do good ! 🙂 🙁
    Instead of thinking for one’s own good , the motto of society should be how to do every work that by doing this , the people of the society will flourish/improve physically&mentally.

  3. “Tolstoy was one of the first thinkers to pose the problem of life’s meaning in a modern way.“

    In my view, Schopenhauer had done so much earlier.

    I agree with the rest you wrote. In reading “Confession”, for the first half I found it interesting and daring, but soon after I was quite shocked to read how the courageous enquiry turns into monstrous sophistry. The second half is riddled with sophistry. It just proves to me how brilliant writers of novels aren’t necessarily brilliant philosophers.

    As for Kazantzakis, I know nothing about him and I’ll check him out. However his view about how it is “womanish” to feel the dread upon discovering that life is, or is near to, what Schopenhauer described, is “womanish”, is excessively and irrationally harsh. As Tolstoy himself implied in Confession, dull and stupid people do not get into such a state of mind. There is nothing wrong with this type of philosophical fear….animals don’t have that, because animals cannot think and imagine as we do (still, I love animals. Maybe because of that very thing. They seem innocent compared to us).

    I agree with what his Kazantzakis‘s statements of how facing the brutal truth is much more valorous.

    To be honest, I am disappointed to see that Tolstoy’s undoubtably great ability as a story teller, is so lacking in logical ability.

    “Go to your priests, then, and leave us philosophers in peace.” -Schopenhauer

  4. Lotus eater,

    “Life isn’t meaningless at all .”.

    And Italian movies are the best in the world. 🙂 How old are you? Trying saying what you said above, with the same confidence, when you reached an age past 50. From then on, it should be very obvious.

    “Once you reached the summit, for the first time you see death, which previously for you had only been hearsay”.

    A few years ago, when I was still dumb, my sister asked me if I was happy. Even then, the question seemed strange to me, and I didn’t know how to respond. After the phone call ended, the answer came:

    “Happy about WHAT? It seems to me that only idiots can be happy for no reason”. And even here we get into a lot of problems. For the “reason”, even if you think you have one, it’s likely to be either a delusion, or short lived. For example, my reason is my wonderful childhood. Yet it is already a memory.

    This is not to say that one should not TRY to be happy. Even Schopenhauer, who most people don’t really get (and I feel that not even Tolstoy did), wrote that “ We should never lose a good opportunity to be cheerful” (Counsels and Maxims).

    People in general say that Schopenhauer was a “pessimist”, end of story. Case closed. To me this definition makes little sense. I don’t care if it is “pessimistic” or “optimistic”. We can call it John or Stuart, who cares. The only question is, how true is it? Neither I believe in the commonly said drivel that everything in philosophy is “subjective”. At least not in Schopenhauer’s case, for I see and feel what he wrote, all around me. Not only that, all around other people too. Just read the news. People who go on vacation, and return devastated, or never return. The examples would be endless.

  5. The first half is genuine, captivating and profound and the second part when he starts mentioning Faith he became lame, unconvincing and started sounding like a snake oil sales-man.
    He was searching for an answer to a deep philosophical question and he masterfully lied to himself with faith, he couldn’t even convince himself of it and I believe he sadly died at the height of despair.

    Existential crisis is a privilege for well-off people, they have time for leisure, books, philosophy and time to agonize over their sad existence, while poor people are busy trying to survive and have no TIME for such. Tolstoy “assumes” poor people know the meaning of life while in actual fact they have no time to ponder such questions coz they are perpertual slaves constantly earning their keep.
    It’s easier for a rich man to be spiritual and reach enlightenment than a poor man who’s forever anxious where the next meal is going to come from, who worries about spirituality (Luxury) when they are hungry (Survival)?

    Tolstoy lied to himself here, he never found an answer to his question.

  6. I believe some of your commenters are missing a level of the philosophy introduced by Tolstoy because of their own intoxication with life or fear of religion.

  7. Denzel,

    You say that poor people are too busy trying to survive to agonize over the philosophical questions that Tolstoy proposed. While that might be true for some, it is not the rule. I lived in Southwest Uganda for a little under a year. I lived with people who made less than $100 a year and had no running water or electricity. But, they weren’t spending all of their time trying to survive. In Uganda, food is actually plentiful because it is so fertile that anything will grow. You could almost live off of the wild matooke (plantain) trees in your field.

    These were the poorest (and probably happiest) people I’ve ever met, and they had so much more free time then those in the West. All that to say, they had plenty of time to think about philosophical truths, the fact that many didn’t wasn’t because they were poor.


    I agree.

  8. Tolstoy was a remarkable artist. I admire any ascetic person, for this involves self-control and a lack of conformism (provided that one is not ascetic because of a god). Yet I believe Denzel summed up the truth pretty well.

    Tolstoy had the same ideas about “simple people” as Giacomo Leopardi. The latter too, even though he learned many classical languages by himself by the time he was 14, that is, he had a remarkable mind and intellect, wrote about similar ideas: he mercilessly condemned the Enlightenment and wrote that people before then, were happier.

    As a philosopher himself, he wrote these remarkable words:

    “Philosophy, which is born out of reason, is terrible: because philosophy shows us the real part of life, which is ugly, and makes us think about death.”.

    That is all true, but I think it is a big mistake to think that this is terrible. Bertrand Russell wrote something like “I’d rather be mad with pain than being an ignoramus.”. The idea that being a simpleton will make you suffer less, is a myth, and so is the idea that people who lived before the Enlightenment were happier. Actually, this idea is pretty ridiculous.
    For after all, where do we find superstition, needless paranoia and such junk? Where ignorance dwell. The smartest people who lived 2,400 years ago pretty much laughed about demons and such junk.

    “Everything leads to the truth: “And the truth is death.””.

    Yet Epicurus masterfully solved this truth problem: as long as we live, we aren’t dead. And once we are dead, we won’t care.

    The mistake is to live with half a mind of one that is alive, and half as if we were already dead, as if we were zombies. I find it incredible that I learned this masterful insight by Epicurus, only a short while ago. In a way, I had arrived at it myself, but not in such a clear way as Epicurus did. Cicero elaborates on this vitally important idea in his Tusculan Disputations.

    Now, everytime I feel sorry about how tragic this whole thing seem, I remember the words of Epicurus, and that “Death is nothing to us.”.

    It’s very instructive to think about death, but now I think we fall into the “zombie trap”, so to speak, all too easily.

    Even what Tolstoy said about how his work was “worthless” is a trap: the work is about the journey more than the destination. And even though Tolstoy is not around anymore, his work remained.

    And he doesn’t care about any of it. I think these are important things to bear in mind. If anything, it is much more painful to know someone you love has died, than it is painful after you died.

    And even the person who died…..doesn’t care anymore. My mom died at 36, and yes, that is tragic. Yet, she’s fine. She doesn’t care. I care. So am I sorry for her, or myself? This thought is pretty shocking, as it would mean that my grief could be self serving….this was said by Seneca.

    I don’t think it is self-serving, for I truly mourn for her, not for me. Yet it makes little sense.

    As for simple people being better off, this is absolutely a myth. I have seen plenty of simple people in my life, especially as a child and then a boy, in my home town. They were all pretty stupid, but certainly not happy. In fact, “simple people” are more prone to moan and whine about even trivial and little things, whereas the philosopher sees much bigger pictures.

    Sorry, Leo, sorry, Giacomo, I admire you both greatly, but you really got this one thing wrong. But kudos to you both for trying.

    And yes,as Denzel wrote, the way Tolstoy concluded his life, in despair, is really sad and tragic.

    Truly, to cling to religion can only mean that one is weak and has a weak understanding, too. I do not doubt that some religious people are well meaning and are good people, but one can be good and weak too.

    Unfortunately, a very good example of a “simple person” is my father. He is 77. He never really wanted to learn anything, and he always thought he knows everything. This is exactly the type of person Socrates encountered in the famous and great tale we all know about.

    Let me tell you, my father is not happy. He says things such as “I am going to die!”, and moaning and whining about it. I tried to tell him about Socrates, Seneca, the things that helped me and that I thought would help him. It was all in vain, and I am tired of wasting my time. My time is running short too, I am 50….certainly no spring chicken anymore.

    He is the simple person Tolstoy referred to: working class, honest. But mediocre, I am sorry to say. And stupid too.

    It is not a crime to be ignorant. But to be ignorant and to never realize your ignorance, well, that’s quite pathetic.

    Sorry about the long comments, but Tolstoy and Leopardi were incredibly misguided, which is puzzling, especially in regard to Leopardi….his other thoughts about human nature are quite revealing and accurate. Tolstoy, it seems to me, was even more of a dreamer than Leopardi. He just imagined a world that really doesn’t exists. This can be very artful and beautiful, provided it is not mistaken for reality.

    But of course, I am vulnerable too. But this is why I try to understand.

    “Know your enemy.”. Why not? Thank you, master Epicurus.

    And thank you, Dr. Messerly.

  9. I mean, seriously……”simple people” literally live and die without ever understanding anything about themselves, and even less about the world around them.

    Hardly something to aspire to.

  10. Luigi

    always enjoy reading your thoughtful and honest comments. And of course I don’t find Tolstoy’s arguments persuasive at all.

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