Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 3



Thus I lived, giving myself over to this insanity for another six years, until my marriage. During this time I went abroad.

Life in Europe and my acquaintance with eminent and learned Europeans confirmed me all the more in my belief in general perfectibility, for I found the very same belief among them.

My belief assumed a form that it commonly assumes among the educated people of our time. This belief was expressed by the word "progress." At the time it seemed to me that this word had meaning.

Like any living individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better.

I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind:

Without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question-"Where are we to steer?"-by saying, "We are being carried somewhere."

I did not notice this at the time.

Only now and then would my feelings, and not my reason, revolt against this commonly held superstition of the age, by means of which people hide from themselves their own ignorance of life.

Thus during my stay in Paris the sight of an execution revealed to me the feebleness of my superstitious belief in progress:

When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box,

I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of the rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act;

I realized that even if all the people in the world from the day of creation found this to be necessary according to whatever theory, I knew that it was not necessary and that it was wrong.

Therefore, my judgments must be based on what is right and necessary and not on what people say and do; I must judge not according to progress but according to my own heart.

The death of my brother was another instance in which I realized the inadequacy of the superstition of progress in regard to life:

A good, intelligent, serious man, he was still young when he fell ill. He suffered for over a year and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying. No theories could provide any answers to these questions, either for him or for me, during his slow and painful death.

But these were only rare instances of doubt; on the whole I continued to live, embracing only a faith in progress:

"Everything is developing, and I am developing; the reason why I am developing in this way will come to light, along with everything else." Thus I was led to formulate my faith at the time.

When I returned from abroad I settled in the country and occupied myself with the peasant schools:

This occupation was especially dear to my heart because it involved none of the lies that had become so apparent to me, the lies that had irritated me when I was a literary teacher.

Here too I was acting in the name of progress, but I assumed a critical attitude toward that progress:

I told myself that in many of its forms progress did not proceed as it should and that here it was necessary to leave a primitive people; the peasant children, completely free to choose the path of progress they wanted.

In essence I was still faced with the same insoluble problem of how to teach without knowing what I was teaching.

In the higher spheres of literature it was clear to me that I could not teach without knowing what I was teaching; for I saw that everyone taught differently and that in the arguments they had they scarcely hid their ignorance from each other.

But here, with the peasant children, I thought I could get around this difficulty by allowing the children to learn whatever they liked.

It now seems ludicrous to me when I recall how I tried this and that in order to carry out this whim of mine to teach, all the while knowing full well in the depths of my soul that there was no way I could teach what was needful because I did not know what was needful.

After a year of being occupied with school I went abroad once again in order to find out how this could be done without myself knowing how to teach.

I believed that I had found a solution abroad, and, armed with all this wisdom, I returned to Russia in the year of the emancipation of the serfs.

I took up the office of arbitrator and began teaching the uneducated people in the schools and the educated people through the periodical that I had started publishing.

Things seemed to be going well, but I felt that my mental health was not what it should be and that this could not go on for long.

Perhaps even then I would have fallen into the despair that came over me at the age of fifty were it not for one more aspect of life which I had not yet experienced and which held the promise of salvation: family life.

For a year I was occupied with arbitration, with the schools, and with the magazine. But I was soon exhausted from being entangled in the whole thing.

The struggle with arbitration became burdensome to me; my activity in the schools was a lot of trouble; and my shuffling around with the magazine became repugnant to me,

since it was forever centred on the same thing -the desire to teach everyone while hiding the fact that I did not know what I was teaching.

It finally reached a point where I fell ill, more spiritually than physically; I gave it all up and went to the steppes of the Bashkirs to breathe fresh air, drink kumis, and live an animal life.

After I returned I got married. The new circumstances of a happy family life completely diverted me from any search for the overall meaning of life. At that time my whole life was focused on my family, my wife, my children, and thus on a concern for improving our way of life.

My striving for personal perfection, which had already been replaced by a striving for perfection in general, a striving for progress, now became a striving for what was best for my family and me.

Thus another fifteen years went by.

In spite of the fact that during these fifteen years I regarded writing as a trivial endeavour, I continued to write.

I had already tasted the temptations of authorship, the temptations of enormous monetary rewards and applause for worthless work, and I gave myself up to it as a means of improving my material situation and as a way of stifling any questions in my soul concerning the meaning of my life and of life in general.

As I wrote I taught what to me the only truth was: that we must live for whatever is best for ourselves and our family.

And so I lived. But five years ago something very strange began to happen to me:

At first I began having moments of bewilderment, when my life would come to a halt, as if I did not know how to live or what to do; I would lose my presence of mind and fall into a state of depression. But this passed, and I continued to live as before.

Then the moments of bewilderment recurred more frequently, and they always took the same form. Whenever my life came to a halt, the questions would arise: Why? And what comes next?

At first I thought these were pointless and irrelevant questions:

I thought that the answers to them were well known and that if I should ever want to resolve them, it would not be too hard for me; it was just that I could not be bothered with it now, but if I should take it upon myself, then I would find the answers.

But the questions began to come up more and more frequently, and their demands to be answered became more and more urgent. And like points concentrated into one spot, these questions without answers came together to form a single black stain.

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease:

At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering.

The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death.

This is exactly what happened to me:

I realized that this was not an incidental ailment but something very serious, and that if the same questions should continue to recur, I would have to answer them. And I tried to answer them.

The questions seemed to be such foolish, simple, childish questions:

But as soon as I laid my hands on them and tried to resolve them, I was immediately convinced, first of all, that they were not childish and foolish questions but the most vital and profound questions in life, and, secondly, that no matter how much I pondered them there was no way I could resolve them.

Before I could be occupied with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. As long as I do not know the reason why, I cannot do anything.

In the middle of my concern with the household, which at the time kept me quite busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: "Very well, you will have 6,00 desyatins in the Samara province, as well as 300 horses; what then?"

And I was completely taken aback and did not know what else to think.

As soon as I started to think about the education of my children, I would ask myself, "Why?"

Or I would reflect on how the people might attain prosperity, and I would suddenly ask myself, "What concern is it of mine?"

Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing me I would say to myself, "Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere, more famous than all the writers in the world - so what?”

And I could find absolutely no reply.