Leo Tolstoy (1828 ~1910) suffered from serious bouts of depression shortly after he turned 50, just as he was riding the crest of his success as a literary icon and enjoying an affluent lifestyle. As Tolstoy was going through depression and on the brink of suicide, he wrote about his crisis in A Confession, which is an extremely moving, deeply insightful and emotionally intense autobiographical memoir. The greatness of this book lies in Tolstoy’s ability to write with extraordinary candour about his personal struggles.
When Tolstoy was writing A Confession, he believed that part of his depression was brought about by the wild and dissolute life he led in his younger days, which was marked by “love of power, covetousness, lasciviousness, pride, anger and revenge.” In A Confession Tolstoy recalled with horror, heartache, and shame his days of carousing, gambling, debauchery, lying, stealing, and killing:
“I cannot think of those years without horror, headache, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war, and challenged men to duels in order to kill them; I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder ~ there was no crime I did not commit …”
All the material success and fame that Tolstoy had attained could not stop his fall into the abyss of despair and depression. He often thought of taking his own life to rid himself of this profound, ineffable suffering:
“It was indeed terrible. And to rid myself of the terror I wished to kill myself. I experienced terror at what awaited me ~ knew that terror was even worse than the position I was in … The horror of darkness was too great, and I wished to free myself from it as quickly as possible by noose or bullet. This was the feeling which drew me most strongly towards suicide.”
Tolstoy’s preoccupation with suicide was so intense that he had to hide a cord out of fear that he would hang himself from the crosspiece of the partition in his room. He also stopped going out for shooting in case he got tempted to use the gun on himself.
In A Confession Tolstoy likened the progression of his depression to a serious “mortal internal disease,” something many people who are suffering from depression can relate to. Like most people with depression, Tolstoy didn’t initially take his condition seriously. He wrote:
“Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal internal disease. At first trivial signs of indisposition appear to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of suffering. The suffering increases, and before the sick man can look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already become more important to him than anything else in the world ~ it is death!”
One may ask why someone like Tolstoy, who had astounding success as a writer, substantial wealth, good health, and a loving family, would sink into deep depression. In A Confession Tolstoy explained that the real source of his depression had to do with his struggle to find a meaning for existence. Tolstoy explained the cause for his existential crisis thus:
“My question ~ that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide ~ was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder… It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? ~ What will come of my whole life?” Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything or do anything?”
It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’”
Although Tolstoy was born into a family of Orthodox Christians, he chose not to follow their religious faith. He found the religious rituals and the blind worshipping of icons unpalatable. Instead, he embraced the intellectual ideas of the Western world that challenged the beliefs of organised religions. Consequently, in his search to find answers to his question about whether life had any meaning and what the purpose of life was, he first turned to the physical sciences and then to philosophy.
Tolstoy found that the physical sciences circumvented that question and, instead, asked its own questions and answered them. Upon receiving no acceptable explanation from the physical sciences, Tolstoy entered the domain of philosophy, which also failed him because it didn’t directly answer “life’s question” in a simple, unambiguous manner. Tolstoy reported in A Confession that his despondency and anguish worsened when he failed to get answers to the most crucial questions concerning his existence.
Not finding any satisfactory answers to questions about his existence from science or philosophy, he started searching for answers from life as it was lived by the people around him. He keenly observed them and found that they generally adopted four different approaches to deal with the problem concerning existence. The first approach, which Tolstoy characterised as “ignorance,” consisted in “not knowing, not understanding that life is meaningless.” Tolstoy believed that people of this kind were incapable of reflecting on the purpose or meaning of life. Thus, he concluded that there was nothing he could learn from them. The second approach was epicureanism, where people were acutely aware of the meaninglessness of life, but they chose to disregard the hopelessness and suffering of life and, instead, chose a life of hedonistic pleasure. These people also failed to inspire Tolstoy because he simply couldn’t bring himself to embrace a hedonistic life and not think about the meaninglessness of it. For Tolstoy, the third approach was one that required both strength and energy. People belonging to this category understood that life was filled with pain and suffering. They also had the courage to take their own life to put an end to their misery. Tolstoy deemed this to be the most effective way of escaping suffering in this world, but he found himself lacking the courage to take his own life. Tolstoy found the fourth way of dealing with life’s meaninglessness as weak because people belonging to this category clung desperately to life even though they knew the truth: that life has no meaning. This is the category where Tolstoy found himself.
Tolstoy realised that he could never learn about the meaning and purpose of life by associating with wealthy and successful people in his circle who feared “privations, suffering and death,” and whose goal in life was to satisfy their desires. Unlike the people Tolstoy associated with, he found labourers like peasants, whose lives were mired in poverty, sickness, and death, never gave up on life. They accepted their lot with grace, fortitude, resilience, and faith, living the purest form of life.
Tolstoy felt that it was ultimately faith that provided these people the raison d’être to continue living life purposefully despite their hardship and suffering. When Tolstoy wrote about faith, he didn’t mean religion or God. For Tolstoy, whatever the faith may be, it “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death … Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives, he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live.”
In his spiritual journey, Tolstoy ultimately went back to the Christian faith of his childhood, which instructed him to live a “godly” life and in order to have a “godly” life, he must give up the earthly pleasures of life, and to be humble, toil, be willing to suffer and be merciful.
Tolstoy’s Christian teachings showed him that in order to find joy and contentment in life, he had to accept all things, whatever they may be and make them a part of his life. Most importantly, Tolstoy needed to help others with their toils. He wrote: “I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real life, and ~ taking the meaning given to live by real humanity, and merging myself in that life…”
Tolstoy renounced his aristocratic lifestyle after his spiritual awakening and lived the rest of his life as a hermit, preaching love and non-violence. His philosophy of non-violence profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Nelson Mandela, among others. Tolstoy died of pneumonia in a railway station in Astapovo in 1910 when he was 82. According to eyewitnesses, Tolstoy spent the last hours of his life speaking about love and non-violence.