Leo Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life

by Mehar-un-nisa

Some personalities are difficult to describe in few words, yet a long series of words are not sufficient enough to cater all the aspects of their personality. They are not fixed in one domain. They resemble to diamond which sparks from different angles. Each spark is quite distinct from another. Likewise, some personalities give different shades. This unique identity differentiates them from others. Leo Tolstoy can be credited to have such a versatile personality.

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Leo Tolstoy is not only a renowned philosopher but also a great teacher and a famous author as well. As a philosopher he has played his role in the best possible manner. As an Author he is regarded as one of the greatest Writer on earth. As a teacher he is also respected. His personality not only carries only these colors but he had other traits that separate him from others of his time. He is remembered for his social activities and major influence on Christian Anarchism.  He is renowned as grandfather of non-violent revolution.


Story does not end here. Tolstoy got personally involved in famine relief for Russian peasants. He donated sizable amounts of his of funds, traveled, organized, and solicited help from others on behalf of the starving peasants. The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to “remember the poor,” which he was “eager to do”—and often some modern Evangelicals seem reluctant to do. He was an educational innovator in launching and teaching at a free school for peasant children. He also grieved over his own family’s wealth when so many around them were living at the barest minimum. Furthermore, he vehemently indicted legalized oppression of the poor. Consistent with his own theology, he practiced.


In 1892, Leo Tolstoy was born at, and most of his life revolved around, his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, 130 miles southwest of Moscow. He belong to a landlord family (orthox). About that time he inherited Yasnaya Polyana with at least 5,000 acres and 330 male serfs and their families. One indicator of their family wealth was that the later Tolstoys sent all their laundry out once a year from Russia to Holland in order to have it done!

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He entered Kazan University in 1844 and left it after three years as he found it not to be his cup of tea. He was wandering here and there in pursuit of his desirable field but his plight never allowed him to get what his powerful desire was. He joined the army but again his sensitive personality couldn’t afford to tolerate such intense level of violence. He wanted nothing more than a simple country living.

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Here, Tolstoy emerges as a creative and versatile author. Every word written by his pen has such a tendency to directly influence the thought of readers. His each piece of writing is a master piece. The fashion to express his clandestine feelings differentiates him from many others of his age. He is a shining star on the horizon of English literature. The shine of this star illuminates the literature with beautiful piece of writings.

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His literary work includes both fiction and nonfiction. The essence of religion can be felt in his work.  What I Believe (also called My Religion), what Then Must We Do? , The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, What Is Art?, Resurrection, Appeal to the Clergy are some of his writings. However the novels that become the master piece not just for the Tolstoy but for the literature as well are;  the war and peace and Anna karinina.

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Many specialists in the field of literature would place Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina (or both) on the list of the top ten world’s greatest novels. William Lyon Phelps summarized: “War and Peace is the greatest romance in the Russian language, perhaps the greatest in any language.”

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These both novels are written in such a natural way that anybody could have doubted of its reality. The effect of fiction is faded with the shade of sheer reality that he makes through his enchanting writing style. This blend of fiction into nonfiction grasps the attention and engages the readers to analyze the different scenarios in story. He has done well to deal with the psychology of each character in a way that it become immortal. The detailed and beautiful representation gives a crystal clear idea of story. He transformed writing into an art, or more simply filled life.

Portrait of leo tolstoy by ivan repin at the tretyakov gallery. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Tolstoy’s view of God is like trying to get the mercury of a thermometer on one’s fist. His concept for the God was weird from his childhood thus inducing anxiety for the Creator of universe. His confused conception from his childhood had a great influence over him and this shade of his life is quite visible in his writings at several places in the form of different characters.

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In his diary, Tolstoy submitted to his diary on June 14, 1850: “The last three years…I have spent so dissolutely…” Reflecting upon his early religious upbringing, Tolstoy penned: “I was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith. I was taught it from childhood and through the whole time of my boyhood and youth. But…I at eighteen years of age…no longer believed any of the things I had been taught.” He says that his apostasy began at fifteen. By sixteen he had quit praying and taking communion, yet “I believed in something…I did not deny God, but what kind of a God, I should have been at a loss to say.”

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One of Tolstoy’s principal characters, Prince Andrei in War and Peace (on which the author was working from 1862 through 1869), wrestled with the God-question. Andrei reflected on “to whom” he should ask mercy. “Either (there is) a power infinite, inconceivable to which I cannot appeal…or nothing.” Christ is his second option or “there is nothing, nothing certain but the nothingness of all that is incomprehensible to us…”

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In 1875 he was drowned in the ocean of grief as his wife mentions his mental condition as dead. The gloomy Tolstoy was depressed as he found the cracks in his religious beliefs. As one son (Sergei) assessed the situation: “1877 was a year of crisis in my father’s life. It was then that the complete change in his outlook described by him in A Confession took place.” As Tolstoy documented this charge in My Confession, he summarized: “Thus I lived for about two years, and within me took place a transformation, which had long been working within me, and the germ of which had always been in me.”My Confession was written in 1879 and depicts Tolstoy’s 1874-1879 experience. Biographer R. F. Christian declared about this book: “It is the best introduction to the spiritual struggle he was to wage for the remaining years of his life…”


In his Confession Tolstoy stated: “I felt there was nothing beneath my feet anymore…And I no longer had any prop to help me live…” About age 50 he thought of suicide. The circle of life was tightened and he found himself miserable. His soul found life unreasonable.

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His keen for the meaning of life takes him to many routes. Worthy life, for him, was not restricted to a luxurious life instead his curiosity insisted him to seek the ultimate truth. Any objectivity connected to it was worth living for him rather just living in the forge of fiction and imagination. He wanted to have a clear idea of the purpose of this life which usually taken as for granted.  His motive was to absorb and feel the objectivity in life on earth.


He wrestled frequently with purity and life’s purpose. His consistent search for meaning of life and spirituality induced anxiety in his soul. He was looking forward to achieve the satisfaction of heart. He was desperate to find out the exact relationship between his soul and God.  He was attracted towards the reality of the religion.


His wife writes in her diary  for his condition that “ He had said today that he couldn’t endure much more of this terrible religious conflict with which he has been struggling these past two years, and hoped that the time was near when he could become a thoroughly religious man…”

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On March 5, 1 855, he diaried: “A conversation about divinity has suggested to me a great…idea…the founding of a new religion…:the religion of Christianity, but purged of dogmatism and mysticism; a practical religion not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth.”


This spiritual struggle is reflected in Pierre (in War and Peace), in Levin (in Anna Karenina), and in Prince Nekhludov (in Resurrection). Prince Nekhludov had been feeling the need for “cleansing of the soul.” As a result, “The discord between the demands of conscience and the life he was leading was greater than it had ever been before.”This disequilibrium was experienced right before Nekhludov’s “newly awakened spiritual being.”


Helen Muchnic wrote concerning Anna’s brother in the latter book: “Levin is one of Tolstoy’s most unmistakable self-portraits” and “Levin’s search for faith is a pale outline of Tolstoy’s own spiritual autobiography.” Levin inwardly admitted that “he was not a believer.” Through a conversation with a peasant, Levin arrived at a spiritual discovery. He discovered “he had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.” He believed he had discovered the meaning of life—to live for God and the soul. Thus, by 1873 Tolstoy was formulating a form of faith to live by. As he writes in his diary: “God is the illimitable All…Or, even better—God is that illimitable All of which man is conscious of being a limited part…God is not love, but the more love there is in man…, the more truly does (God) exist.”

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His vision was broadened now and the new doors of perception were opened in front of him. Now he was in a state to feel God and the love surrounding the entire globe. What he found that the world was surrounded by an envelope of love and peace.

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Aylmer Maude penned concerning the 50 year-old Tolstoy “that from about the year 1878 Tolstoy became sure of himself …”


Again, Tolstoy admitted: “Now everything became clear to me.” This discovery of satisfaction has an influence on his writings as well.


He reflects his discovery at many places. He writes in War and Peace that “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.” In “the way men live” he reflects love as “I have now understood that though it seems to mean that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live. He, who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love.”


Lastly, he found that the bond between humanity and God is love. He was in the favor of peace. He considered that love and truth have power to conquer devil with harmony. His view describes love as an immortal. It’s immense energy has the ability to fight and defeat every negative aspect causing harm to humanity.

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Later on the same ideology was adopted by Ghandi and Martin Luther King,Jr.,  for the freedom of India and the racial equality in America respectively. His ideology lives till date. His writings, theories and ideas brought the revolution and had a great influence over the centuries.