LEO TOLSTOI AND HIS UNECCLESIASTICAL
Articles by HPB
TOLSTOI is a great poet, a great artist, a great thinker. All through his life, both heart and mind have been occupied by one burning question, coloring more or less with its painful pressure all his works. We feel its overshadowing presence in the "History of my Childhood," in "War and Peace," in "Anna Karenina," till at last it becomes the exclusive pre-occupation of his later years, which have produced such works as "My Confession," "In what does my Faith Consist?," "What shall we Do?," "Upon Life," and the "Kreutzer Sonata." This same question burns in the hearts of many, especially among Theosophists; it is indeed the question of life itself. "What is the meaning, the purpose of human life? What is the final outcome of the unnatural, distorted and falsified life of our civilisation, such as it is forced upon each of us individually? What shall we do to be happy, permanently happy? How shall man escape the horror of inevitable death?" To these ever recurring questions, Tolstoi, in his earlier works, gives no answer because he had found none himself. But he could not rest contented, as do millions of others, weaker or more cowardly natures, without an answer, one at least satisfying to his own heart and intellect; and in the five last-named works is contained that answer. An answer, it is true, that will not content the Theosophist in the form in which Tolstoi gives it, but an answer in whose basic, vital thought he may find new light, fresh hope, stronger comfort. But to understand it, we must briefly trace the road by which Tolstoi reached the peace he has found; for unless we can feel, as well as understand the inner process which led him thither, his solution, like every other solution of life's problem, must remain a dead letter, a merely intellectual word-conception, lacking all vital force and motive power; a mere speculation, not a living truth instinct with enthusiasm.
Like all thinking men and women of to-day, Tolstoi lost faith in religion early in life: for this loss of one's childish faith--inevitable in every life--is not, as a rule, the result of deep thought; it is rather the natural consequence of our culture and of our general experience of life. As he says himself, his faith vanished, he knew not how. But his youthful striving after ethical perfection survived for some ten years, to die out by degrees, finally disappearing utterly. Seeing everywhere around him ambition, love of power, selfishness and sensuality triumphant; seeing all that is called virtue, goodness, purity, altruism, scorned and flouted, failing to give either inward happiness and content or outward success; Tolstoi went the way of the world, did as he saw others do, practising all the vices and meannesses of the "polite world." Then he turned to literature, became a great poet, a most successful author, seeking ever, he tells us, to hide his own ignorance from himself by teaching others. For some years he succeeded in thus stifling his inner discontent, but ever more frequently, more poignantly, the question forced itself upon him: What am I living for? What do I know? And daily he saw more clearly that he had no answer to give. He was fifty years old when his despair reached its height. At the summit of his fame, a happy husband and father, author of many splendid poems full of the deepest knowledge of men and of the wisdom of life, Tolstoi realized the utter impossibility of going on living. "Man cannot imagine life, without the desire for well-being. To desire and attain that well-being--is to live. Man probes life only that he may improve it." Our science, on the contrary, investigates only the shadows of things, not their realities; and under the delusion that this unimportant secondary is the essential, science distorts the idea of life and forgets her true destiny, which is to fathom this very secret, not what to-day is discovered and to-morrow is forgotten.
Philosophy tells us: "You are a part of Humanity, therefore you must co-operate in the development of Humanity and in the realising of its ideals; your life's goal coincides with that of all other men." But how does it help me to know that I live for that for which all Humanity lives, when I am not told what it is for which that very Humanity does live? Why does the world exist? What is the outcome of the fact that it does exist and will exist? Philosophy gives no answer.
Scepticism, Nihilism, Despair--thither the thinking man driven by such thoughts, if he seeks the last word of Wisdom in the Science and Philosophy of the schools. Such, too, is the real, inner, mental condition of many an one, both without and within the Theosophical Society.
In regard to this, the problem of life, Tolstoi divides men in general into four classes:--
Some, young and feeble of intellect, live happily in their ignorance--for them the problem of life has, as yet, no existence.
Others know and understand the problem well enough, but turn purposely away from it, favored by fortunate surroundings which permit them to pass their lives as it were in intoxication.
The third group consists of those who know that death is better than a life passed in error and ignorance; but they live on, because they lack the strength to put a sudden end to the fraud--life.
Finally, there are the strong and consistent natures, who grasp the whole stupidity of the farce being played with them, therefore put an end to this silly farce at one stroke.
"I could do nothing," he says, "but think, think of the horrible position I was in. . . . My inner condition at that time, which brought me near to suicide, was such that everything I had hitherto done, everything I could still do, seemed to me foolish and bad. Even what was most precious to me in life, what had so far drawn away my eyes from the cruel reality--my family and my art--even these lost all value for me."
From this depth of despair he escaped at length. "Life is all," he reasoned, "I, my reason itself, are products of this general life. But at the same time Reason is the creator and the final judge of human life proper. How then can reason deny to the latter a meaning without denying itself and calling itself senseless? Hence I am only calling life meaningless, because I do not grasp its meaning." Convinced that Life has a meaning, Tolstoi sought this meaning among those who really live--the people. But there he again met disappointment, the bitterest of all, because here lay his last hope. For, among the people, he found only a solution of life's problem resting upon a conception of the universe which is contrary to reason, and is based upon that blind faith he had long since cast aside.
"I subjected," he tells us, "the dicta of my reason to a fresh examination, and found that Reason did not suffice to answer my questions, because it does not bring into its reasoning the conception of the Infinite (Cause-less, Time-less, Space-less); be cause it explains my life, passed in Time, Space, and Causality, in terms of Time, Space, and Causality again: thus explaining it indeed with logical correctness, but only in terms of the same components, i.e., leaving its ultimate basis--with which alone we are concerned--unexplained. Religion, on the contrary, does the exact opposite: she knows no logic, but does know the conception of the Infinite, to which she refers everything, and, that extent, gives correct answers. Religion says: Thou shall live according to the law of God; the outcome of thy life will be eternal suffering or eternal happiness; the meaning of thy life, which is not annihilated by death, is union with the Infinite Deity. . . . The conception of the Infinite Deity, of the divinity of the Soul, of the relations of human actions to God: these are conceptions, which have been ripened in the hidden infinity of human thought, and without which there would be no life, and I too should not exist.
"But what is God? On what train of thought rests the belief in his existence and in the relation of man to him? If I am," reasoned Tolstoi, "there must be a reason for my being, and a reason for that ground, and an ultimate reason, and this is God. I felt calmed; my uncertainty and the consciousness of standing orphaned in life vanished. But when I asked myself: What is God? How shall I act towards him? I found only banal answers that destroyed my faith again. . . . But that I have the conception of God in me, the fact and the necessity of this conception--of this no one can deprive me. Whence then this conception? Whence its necessity? This necessity is God himself. And I felt glad again. All things around me lived, and had a meaning. The conception of God is not indeed God himself; but the necessity of forming this conception, the craving for a knowledge of God, through which knowledge I live--that is God, the living and life-giving God. . . . Live in the thought, thou art a manifestation of God, and then thy life will testify to the existence of God."
Tolstoi had regained Faith, "the evidence of things not seen," and his religious faith expressed itself for three years in a life in strict conformity with the most stringent prescriptions of the orthodox Greek Church. But at last, finding the Church and the entire Christian community acting in direct contradiction to his root-conception of true Religion, he broke loose from orthodoxy and set out to determine what is True in Religion for himself from the study of the New Testament.
But before considering the conclusions he reached, let us examine for a moment, from the Theosophical standpoint, Tolstoi's fundamental position. His argument for the existence of an Infinite God as the necessary "ultimate ground" of human reason, is precisely one of the Theosophist's arguments for the existence of Kosmic or Universal Mind, and, as an argument, it proves nothing more. Influenced by Western habits of feeling, he ascribes to the Universal Mind anthropomorphic attributes which it cannot possess, thus sowing the seeds of the strained and forced conclusions as to practical action which he subsequently arrives at. Fundamentally he is right; but in the effort to satisfy the demands of his emotional nature he falls into a quasi-anthropomorphism. For us, however, more importance attaches to the poignant picture he presents of the mental misery that tortures every honest thinker to-day, and to his pointing out of the road, the only road, by which an escape is possible. For starting from his basis we are led, if we reason carefully and closely, to the basic conclusions of Theosophical teaching, as will be seen later.
To return to Tolstoi's religious unfoldment. Studying the Gospels, he came to find the kernel, the essence of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, understood in its literal, simple sense, "even as a little child would understand it." He considers as the perfect expression of Christ's law of Charity and Peace, the command, "Resist not evil," which to him is the most perfect rendering of true Christianity, and this command he describes as "the sole and eternal law of God and of men." He also points out that long before the appearance of the historical Jesus, this law was known and recognized by all the leaders and benefactors of the human race. "The progress of mankind towards good," he writes, "is brought about by those who suffer, not by those who inflict, martyrdom."
Such is the essence of Tolstoi's religion; but we shall be better able to enter into its real meaning and appreciate his practical deductions therefrom, after having examined, first, his doctrine of religious bliss, and second, his philosophy of life.
I believe, says Tolstoi: (1) that happiness on earth depends solely upon the fulfilling of Christ's teaching; (2) that its fulfilment is not only possible, but easy and full of joy. Happiness, he teaches, is love towards all men, union with them, and evil is the breach of this unity. Love and unity are the natural condition of men, in which all men find themselves who are not led astray by false teachings.
These conceptions changed his whole view of life; all he had before striven for, all that counts for so much in the world, honor, fame, culture, riches, increased refinement of life, of surroundings, of food, of clothing, of manners--all this lost its value in his eyes, and in place of them he came to esteem what the World calls bad and low, simplicity, poverty, want of culture. But the real essence of his teaching lies in the conception of the Universal Brotherhood of mankind.
For Tolstoi, Life means the striving of man after well being, after happiness, a happiness only to be attained, as we have seen, through the fulfilment of the commands of Jesus. Of these commands the deepest meaning is: true life, therefore also true happiness, consists--not in the preservation of one's personality, but--in absorption into the All, into God and Humanity. Since God is Reason, the Christian teaching may be formulated thus: subordinate thy personal life to reason, which demands of thee unconditional love for all beings.1. [Footnote: 1. Absolutely the same doctrine as that taught by Buddha and all other Initiates, Plato included. A fact recognised by Tolstoi, though not given its due significance by him. ]
The personal life, that which recognises and wills only one's own "I," is the animal life; the life of reason is the human, the existence proper to man according to his nature as man. The crowning maxim of Stoic ethics: live according to nature, according to thy human nature, expresses the same thing. The teachings of the wisest lawgivers: the Brahmans, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Moses, all contain the same explanation of life, make the same demand upon the man. For, from the remotest times onwards, Humanity has ever been conscious of the torturing inner contradiction, wherein all who seek after personal well-being find themselves. As, unfortunately, there is no other solution of this contradiction except to transfer the centre of attraction of one's existence 2. [Footnote: 2. Where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also. ] from the personality, which can never be saved from; destruction, to the everlasting All, it is intelligible that all the sages of the past, and with them also the greatest thinkers of later centuries, have established doctrines and moral laws identical in their general meaning because they saw more clearly than other men both this contradiction and its solution.
It is not difficult to see wherein consists the basic contradiction of personal life. That which for man is the most important, that alone which he desires, that which--as it seems to him--alone really lives, namely his personality, is destroyed, because a skeleton, decays, does not remain "himself"; while that which he does not desire, which has no value for him, the life and welfare of which he does not feel, the whole outside world of struggling beings, that proves itself to be that which endures, which truly lives.
With the awakening of the reasoning consciousness, which must occur sooner or later in every man, he becomes conscious of the gulf between the animal and the human life; he realises this more and more fully, till at last--on the highest plane of consciousness--the fundamental contradiction of life is recognised as only an apparent contradiction, pertaining solely to the sphere of animal existence, and the meaning of life, after which the personal man seeks in vain, is at last discovered. It is not discovered by logical deduction, but intuitively. The spiritually awakened or regenerated man suddenly finds himself transported into the eternal, timeless condition of the life of pure "Reason,"3 [Footnote: 3. Meaning Plato's "Noetic Life." ] in which can be no more illusions, contradictions, riddles. . . . The life of reason is, as the original and only true life, also the normal life of man: and man as such can only be called "living" in so far as he subdues the animal in him under the law of Reason; precisely as the animal only really lives when it obeys, not only the laws of the matter which composes it, but also the higher law of organic life. . . . When once it has been recognised that, in specifically human life, the primacy naturally belongs not to the personality, but to the Reason, there is nothing super human in following the natural law of human life and both regarding and using as a tool what is a mere tool of the true life--the personality. . . . But it may be asked: Why then do we have a personality if we are to renounce it, deny it? In order that the personality, like any tool, may serve merely as a means to an end--other answer there is none. The personality is nothing but the "spade," that is given to the reasoning being to be dug with, to be blunted in that digging and then sharpened again, to be used up, but not to be cleaned and stored away. To use a tool as a tool is not to deny it, but simply to make it serve its proper purpose, i.e.,Reason.
This is Tolstoi's philosophy of life, identical in its basis with that of Theosophy. But lacking the universality of the latter, leaning too exclusively upon the corrupted and fragmentary dicta of but one Teacher of Wisdom, Tolstoi's philosophy fails to guide him in practice and, as a study of his work shows, lands him eventually in self-contradiction. This self-contradiction, however, being but of the surface, of the physical plane only, is of relatively small importance, contrasted with the real escape he has made beyond the delusions in which most of us live.
Want of space renders it impossible to follow out into further, detail the comparison between Tolstoi's views and those of Theosophy. Every reader of Lucifer can readily do so for himself, and we will only add that Dr. Von Koeber's essay, which has supplied the material for the above sketch, and of which it is mainly a summary, is worthy the careful study of every one who can read German. Of the Appendix, which Dr. Hübbe Schleiden has tacked on thereto, it must be said to show a want of appreciation and understanding of the true spirit and meaning of Tolstoi's thought and action, which seems to indicate the same misconception of the nature of real "mysticism," that may be noticed in the same writer's other essays.