NOTES on Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910): To Know God is to Live


Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a writer who is famous both for his classic novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina and for his book on his religious beliefs, A Confession and the Gospel in Brief (translated by Aylmer Maude in 1921). In this book, Tolstoy tells how he made his “leap of faith” and believed in God.

An Eastern Fable

In his Confession Tolstoy tells the following Eastern fable:

[…] a traveler [is] overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack of the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon’s jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them.

In the fable are many symbols. The Twig is life itself, which can snap at any moment. The White and Black Mice represent day and night; the Mice go around and around the Twig of Life, gnawing at it, until it finally snaps. The Dragon and the Enraged Beast, of course, are death. The Honey, finally, represents the pleasures of life — pleasures that divert us from the inevitable death all human beings will eventually face.

Aware that someday he must die, Tolstoy wonders about the meaning of life. Are humanly constructed answers to the meaning of life satisfactory? Unfortunately, Tolstoy’s answer is no. Previously, the two drops of honey that had given him satisfaction were Family and Writing. But to Tolstoy, neither of these is an adequate meaning of life. He knows that each member of his family will eventually die. In addition, Writing is an adornment of life and an allurement to life. However, knowing that he will eventually die, Tolstoy realizes that life has lost its attraction to him; therefore, he cannot create art to attract others to life.

Four Ways Out of Our Horrible Predicament

Each of us is placed in a horrible predicament — we are trapped in a life that seems to have no meaning and will eventually end in death. Tolstoy — until he finds God — finds only four ways out of this predicament.

1) Ignorance: Being Unaware of the Problem. If we are ignorant of the predicament we are in, we are unaware of it and so can be happy. Tolstoy, however, is aware of the predicament and so this way is closed to him.

2) Epicureanism: Enjoying Life’s Pleasures. Although we know that we will eventually die, we can yet enjoy the pleasures that life offers. This means licking the drops of honey while holding on to the twig above the Dragon. According to Tolstoy, this is how most people live their lives — especially if they are fortunately blessed with material goods. Still, Tolstoy cannot forget the Dragon. The traveller in the Eastern fable takes the way of Epicureanism.

3) The Way of Strength and Energy: Committing Suicide. Strong people commit suicide. Knowing that life has no meaning, they end their life.

4) The Way of Weakness: Staying Alive Although Aware of the Problem. This is Tolstoy’s choice (at first), although he is unhappy with it. He realizes that he will die, and he despairs because of this knowledge, yet he chooses — weakly, he believes — to stay alive.

The Answer: God is the Answer

Eventually, Tolstoy comes up with the answer to life and the meaning of life. This meaning is God. Tolstoy realizes that he feels alive — really alive — only when he believes in God and so he decides to believe in God. Tolstoy does not use his reason to choose to believe in God; instead, his belief in God appears to rest on nonrational grounds. (As you may know, love and music are nonrational, while math is rational. Sticking your hand in a blender just to see what it feels like is irrational.)

A Voice within Tolstoy tells him: “What more do you seek? This is He. He is that without which one cannot live. To know God and to live is one and the same thing. God is life. Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God.”

And so Tolstoy believes.


Tolstoy believed that Christians ought to live very simple lives. He tried to give away all his money, and he became a schoolteacher to peasant children. I disagree with the idea that one needs to live so simply to be a Christian. It would have been better for the world if Tolstoy had used his time to write classic novels and had used the money thus earned to pay someone else to teach the peasant children. I do believe that one ought to give part of one’s disposable income to charity; however, I think that one can keep part of the money one earns honestly to keep oneself comfortable. (However, Jesus Himself may have wanted His followers to give everything to the poor.)

Note: The quotations by Tolstoy that appear in this essay are from his A Confession and the Gospel in Brief, translated by Aylmer Maude.


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