Near the end of his life, Count Leo Tolstoy wrote two lengthy essays on the topic of religion. Hesperus Press includes these two essays, “A Confession” (1879 – 1882) and “What is Religion, and What Does its Essence Consist of?” (1902). The edition includes a foreword by novelist and Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore with an introduction by famed Tolstoy translator Tony Briggs.
Tolstoy would revisit the religious theme in “Father Sergius” (written in 1890, published in 1898), an excruciatingly introspective tale of sensual temptation, religious duty, and personal mutilation. With “A Confession” and “What is Religion?”, Tolstoy works within the conventions of the non-fiction essay, having renounced his early fictional works (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection) as so much literary dross. “A Confeession” is an autobiographical essay and a moral reckoning, coming to terms with a life filled with personal wealth, family, friends, knowledge, and a nagging spiritual emptiness. The entire essay pivots on the existential quandary, “So what?” He cites long passages from Ecclesiastes and the life of Gautama Buddha to drive the point home. In the end, following years in the intellectual wilderness of the sciences and philosophy, he returns to the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church, albeit not without some personal reservations. The moral guidance of the Church draws him in, but the obscure rituals and ceremonies repel him.
Tolstoy wrote “What is Religion?” as an ambivalent believer. Ambivalent in the sense he remained skeptical of the trappings of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state-sponsored church of the Russian Empire. (The separation of state being a Western notion and one explicitly written in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.) Tolstoy asserts that since religion is part of man’s relationship with the infinite, man can only be moral when man has religion. (One can argue this point and with the specter of nuclear jihad and Bible-believing domestic terrorists, one probably should question this assertion. Tolstoy, like his fellow Russian compatriot, Ayn Rand, does not hold a monopoly on infallibility.) He hedges his assertion by differentiating the gaudy opulence and arcane rituals to “false religion” and the primitive simplicity of the peasants to “true religion.” While the sincerity of state-sponsored careerist clerics is always under suspicion, Tolstoy resembles Rousseau and cinematic hack James Cameron in his assumption that “true religion” is found among the peasants. This is not a far cry from the condescending notion of the Noble Savage and benevolent supernaturalism of the Na’vi in Avatar. For a writer as gifted with genius as Tolstoy, this patronizing generalization could only come from an aristocrat with wealth and privilege. Besides having a peasant’s view of faith, one should also have a personal relationship with God. But since the personal is the subjective, how can “true religion” be the same for all? In the end, it can be distilled to an issue of personal taste. Unfortunately with state-sponsored churches (and similar theocracies), personal taste takes a back seat to rigid dogma and slavish obedience. Every authoritarian and totalitarian regime learned this lesson from religion models. Only when church and state get decoupled can “true religion” and a personal relationship with God be achieved.
Overall, the Hesperus edition is a wonderful compact presentation of Tolstoy’s thoughts on spirituality. While Dunmore’s foreward is excellent, Brigg’s introduction appears as nothing more than an elaborate ad hominem attack on Friedrich Nietzsche. Just because Nietzsche went insane at the end of his life does not negate the power of his philosophy. Another demerit of this particular volume is for its miserly footnotes, especially in terms of more obscure points in Russian history and the Russian Orthodox Church. If these volumes were intended for non-specialists, it would be beneficial for these points to be explained.