Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 2



Someday I shall relate the story of my life, including both the pathetic and the instructive aspects of those ten years of my youth. I think that many, very many, have had the same experiences.

With all my soul I longed to be good; but I was young, I had passions, and I was alone, utterly alone, whenever I sought what was good.

Every time I tried to express my most heartfelt desires to be morally good I met with contempt and ridicule; and as soon as I would give in to vile passions I was praised and encouraged:

Ambition, love of power, self-interest, lechery, pride, anger, vengeance - all of it was highly esteemed. As I gave myself over to these passions I became like my elders, and I felt that they were pleased with me.

A kind-hearted aunt of mine with whom I lived, one of the finest of women, was forever telling me that her fondest desire was for me to have an affair with a married woman: "Nothing shapes a  young man  like  a  liaison  with  a  decent woman.”

Another happiness she wished for me was that I become an adjutant, preferably to the emperor. And the greatest happiness of all would be for me to marry a very wealthy young lady who could bring me as many serfs as possible.

I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heartrending pain.

I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat.

Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder - there was not a crime I did not commit; yet in spite of it all I was praised, and my colleagues considered me and still do consider me a relatively moral man.

Thus I lived for ten years.

During this time I began to write out of vanity, self-interest, and pride. I did the same thing in my writing that I did in my life.

In order to acquire the fame and the money I was writing for, it was necessary to conceal what was good and to flaunt what was bad. And that is what I did.

Time after time I would scheme in my writings to conceal under the mask of indifference and even pleasantry those yearnings for something good which gave meaning to my life. And I succeeded in this and was praised.

At the age of 26, when the war had ended, I came to St. Petersburg and got to know the writers there. They accepted me as one of their own, heaped flattery upon me.

Before I could tum around, the views on life peculiar to the writers with whom I associated became my own, and before long all my previous efforts to become better were completely at an end. Having no discipline myself, I let these views justify my life.

The theory adopted by these people, my fellow writers, was that life proceeds according to a general development and that we, the thinkers, play the primary role in that development; moreover, we, the artists and the poets, have the greatest influence on the thinkers. Our mission is to educate people.

In order to avoid the obvious question - "What do I know and what can I teach?"

­ the theory explained that it is not necessary to know anything and that the artist and the poet teach unconsciously.

Since I was considered a remarkable artist and poet, it was quite natural for me to embrace this theory. As an artist and poet I wrote and taught without myself knowing what I was teaching.

I received money for doing this; I enjoyed excellent food, lodgings, women, society; I was famous. Therefore whatever I was teaching must have been very good.

This faith in knowledge, poetry, and the evolution of life was indeed a faith, and I was one of its priests. Being one of its priests was very profitable and quite pleasant. I lived a rather long time in this faith without ever doubting its truth.

But in the second and especially in the third year of such a way of life I began to doubt the infallibility of this faith and started to examine it more closely:

The first thing that led me to doubt was that I began to notice that the priests of this faith did not agree among themselves:

Some would say: "We are the best and the most useful of teachers, for we teach what is needful while others who teach are in error."

Others would say, "No, we are the true teachers; it is you who are in error." They argued and quarrelled among themselves and abused, deceived, and cheated one another.

Moreover, there were many among us who were not even concerned about who was right and who was wrong; they simply pursued their own selfish ends and had the support of our activity. All this forced me to doubt the truth of our faith.

Furthermore, once I had come to doubt the faith of the writers, I began to observe its priests more closely and became convinced that nearly all the priests of this faith were immoral men, in most cases of a base and worthless character.

Many of them were lower than those whom I had met earlier during my wanton military life, but they were complacent and self-satisfied to a degree that can only be found either among people who are complete saints or among those who do not know what holiness is. People became repugnant to me, and I became repugnant to myself. And I realized that this faith was a delusion.

But the strange thing is that even though I was quick to see the utter lie of this faith and renounced it, I did not renounce the rank bestowed upon me by these people, the rank of artist, poet, and teacher:

I naively imagined that I was a poet and an artist, that I could teach all men without myself knowing what I was teaching. And so I went on.

As a result of my association with these people, I took up a new vice: I developed a pathological pride and the insane conviction that it was my mission to teach people without knowing what I was teaching them.

As I now look back at that period and recall my state of mind and the state of mind of those people (a state that, by the way, persists among thousands, it all seems pitiful, horrible, and ridiculous to me; it excites the same feelings one might experience in a madhouse.

At the time we were all convinced that we had to speak, write, and publish as quickly as possible and as much as possible and that this was necessary for the good of mankind.

Thousands of us published and wrote in an effort to teach others, all the while disclaiming and abusing one another.

Without taking note of the fact that we knew nothing, that we did not know the answer to the simplest question of life, the question of what is right and what is wrong, we all went on talking without listening to one another.

At times we would indulge and praise each other on the condition that we be indulged and praised in return; at other times we would irritate and shout at each other exactly as in a madhouse.

Thousands of workers toiled day and night, to the limit of their strength, gathering and printing millions of words to be distributed by mail throughout all Russia.

We continued to teach, teach, and teach some more, and there was no way we could ever teach it all; and then we would get angry because people paid us little heed.

Very strange indeed, but now I understand it. The real reason behind what we were doing was that we wanted to obtain as much money and praise as possible. Writing books and newspapers was the only thing we knew how to do in order to attain this end. And so that what we did.

But in order for us to engage in something so useless and at the same time maintain the conviction that we were very important people, we needed a rationale that would justify what we were doing.

And so we came up with the following: everything that exists is rational. Further, everything that exists is evolving.

And it is evolving by means of enlightenment. The enlightenment in turn undergoes change through the distribution of books and periodicals. We are paid and respected for writing books and periodicals, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of people.

This reasoning would have worked very well, had we all been in agreement; but since for every opinion expressed by one person there was always someone else whose opinion was diametrically opposed to it, we should have been led to reconsider.

But we never noticed this. We received money, and people of our circle praised us; thus every one of us believed himself to be right.

It is now clear to me that there was no difference between ourselves and people living in a madhouse; at the time I only vaguely suspected this, and, like all madmen, I thought everyone except myself was mad.