An Introduction to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Confession”

This is my introduction to a new book on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Confession by Ron Dart and Bradley Jersak.

An Introduction to Tolstoy’s
War and Peace and Confession

Brian Zahnd

We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.

I was listening to an illiterate peasant, a pilgrim, talking about God, faith, life, and salvation, and a knowledge of faith was opened up to me.

Maybe it’s the long Russian winters. Maybe that’s what explains the length of those ponderous novels produced by the great nineteenth-century Russian writers — among whom Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy are the undisputed champions. But it’s not for their voluminous size that works like Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Brothers Karamazov are beloved and still being read. We love them for their genius, their beauty, their insight into the human condition, and their artistic truth-telling. That Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as Russian contemporaries and literary rivals never actually met one another seems as curious as it is tragic. And I refuse to be drawn into the interminable debate over which of these two literary titans was the greater writer. But as a Dostoevsky devotee I will concede that in terms of descriptive prose, Leo Tolstoy is unsurpassed. As someone observed (I’ve forgotten who) in Tolstoy no two horses are the same. To read Tolstoy is not to read a sketch of the world but to encounter the real world in the mirror of the written word. Isaac Babel, a Russian writer executed by Soviet secret police in 1940, said, “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

Leo Tolstoy’s two literary masterpieces are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). If Anna Karenina is the more approachable story, War and Peace is the greater novel. Often regarded as the birth of the modern novel — an artform that will reach its apex with James Joyce’s UlyssesWar and Peace is a sprawling saga set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) tracing the story of two families of Russian nobility. And it’s a big book. My hardcover edition weighs in at 4.2 pounds! For people in the habit of reading ideas on tiny screens compressed to 280 characters or less, is this 1,200-page behemoth worth the effort? I believe so. I remember reading the end of War and Peace on an airplane in Denver during a snowstorm as we sat on the runway for a two-hour delay. I think I may have been the only person on the plane who was entirely content. It was the famous socialite and Chicago heiress, Mary Landon Baker, who said, “I should like to live my life over again, in order to have once again the pleasure of reading War and Peace for the first time!”

The secret to reading a big book, be it War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, or the Bible, is to take the first step upon the path and let the book take you where it will. Don’t be in a rush to “check it off your list.” Don’t be in a hurry to “figure it out.” Accept that you don’t have to “understand it all” in order for you to enjoy and benefit from what has already been vetted as worth the effort. Think of reading big books as an act of rebellion against the commercial forces that seek to reduce your attention span to that of a thirty-second advertisement. The large classic novels are for those who care enough about the garden of their soul to tend to it with the finest art.

And this is where Ron Dart enters the picture. Sometimes we need a learned and reliable guide to assist us on our journey through a demanding literary masterpiece. (I would never have made it through Ulysses without assistance from Professor James Heffernan.) Ron Dart is both a careful reader of Tolstoy and a seasoned spiritual guide. In his contribution of Tolstoy’s Soul Probes, Dart helps us to appreciate Tolstoy’s genius insight into the wars that rage within the human soul. With his fine analysis of five principal characters, Dart helps us to perceive in Tolstoy’s novelistic persons “how the inner and outer life, if properly understood, can lead to either wisdom and insight, or to an erratic and dissipated journey, with consequences always the reality of significant, mediocre, or trivial choices made.” Whether Ron Dart’s work with War and Peace provides you with a brilliant analysis of a work you’ve already read or serves as an introduction to Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you will greatly benefit from his valuable contribution. And if you never get any closer to actually reading War and Peace than Ron Dart’s analysis of it here, you will still be the better for it.

If War and Peace is a doorstop of a book, Confession is a booklet you can slip in your back pocket. At less than a hundred pages I read the entire tome in one go on an overseas flight. Inspired by what I had just read I hastily prepared a talk on the wisdom of Solomon, Socrates, Siddhartha, and Schopenhauer as compared to the wisdom of Jesus that I presented to a thousand Indian pastors. I called my talk “A Greater Than Solomon” and gave appropriate credit to Leo Tolstoy. Flipping through my dog-eared paperback edition of Confession I see underlines and margin notations on nearly every page. It’s clearly a book I found worth paying attention to.

Leo Tolstoy was born into a wealthy aristocratic family and never knew a day of poverty. Lev was always able to write at his leisure. (As opposed to Fyodor Dostoevsky who was nearly always writing under financial pressure, trying to keep his creditors at bay, and who only gained a measure of financial security late in life.) Though Tolstoy always had fortune, the enormous success of War and Peace brought him the twin seductress of fame. Having come out on top in the game of life and now on the cusp of middle-age, Tolstoy began to sense the vanity of it all and entered a deep spiritual crisis.

Though, as every non-Jewish Russian of his era, Tolstoy had been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, his faith didn’t even survive his teen years. At the tender age of eleven, a friend who was a few years older visited young Leo on a Sunday and announced that he had made a great discovery in school. Tolstoy says, “The discovery was that there is no God and that the things they were teaching us were nothing but fairy tales.” By the time he was eighteen Tolstoy reports, “I had lost all belief in what I had been taught.” Thus Tolstoy embarked upon his literary career as an atheist. His childhood faith in God was now replaced with “faith in knowledge, poetry, and the evolution of life.” Tolstoy insists that the pursuit of literary importance was indeed a faith and that he was one of its priests. But if one can come to doubt faith in God, one can also come to doubt faith in writing. And this is precisely what happened. Tolstoy tells us, “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. … I realized that this faith was a delusion.” When your replacement faith turns out to be a delusion, that’s when you know you’re in serious trouble. Tolstoy writes, “I did not even want to discover truth anymore because I had guessed what it was. The truth was that life is meaningless.” Today we might describe this as a deconstruction of deconstruction. And once your deconstruction begins to deconstruct, that’s when the yawning abyss of nihilism beckons. That’s when Leo Tolstoy began to remove the ropes from his house, lest he hang himself upon a dark impulse.

This is what Tolstoy’s Confession is about — losing Christian faith in adolescence, facing the abyss of nihilism and the seduction of suicide in midlife, and then finding solace in solidarity with the simple faith of the Russian peasantry. I’ll not try to replicate Tolstoy’s Confession in this introduction, I’ll leave it to you to discover on your own. Or better yet, not on your own, but in the wise company of Bradley Jersak. In his previous book, Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction, Jersak helps us recover faith from the scorched-earth ashes of late modernity. But in Anatomy of a Great Deconstruction, we are shown this phenomenon in the life of Leo Tolstoy. Bradley Jersak’s expert analysis of Tolstoy’s Confession makes this piece of nineteenth-century spiritual writing intensely applicable to the spiritual crisis of the twenty-first century. This contribution could not be more timely.

I am eager for you to engage with Leo Tolstoy through the excellent assistance of my gifted friends, Ron Dart and Bradley Jersak, so I will step aside shortly, but first I feel I need to address one final matter. It’s unfortunate that once Leo Tolstoy backed away from the abyss of nihilism and began to rediscover Christian faith through the eyes of the Russian peasant, he was unable to remain within Orthodoxy or orthodoxy. Fyodor Dostoevsky was deeply distressed by Tolstoy’s eventual turn toward a heterodox Christianity. Dostoevsky, less than a month before his death, was told by a relative of Leo Tolstoy that “Lev had announced to her that he no longer accepted the divinity of Christ.” Tolstoy’s cousin then reports that upon hearing this, Dostoevsky “clutched his head and in a despairing voice repeated: ‘Not that! Not that!’” One of the final entries in Dostoevsky’s notebook was a prompt to write a response to Tolstoy. But this was not to be, as Dostoevsky died just a few days later.

I share Dostoevsky’s distress over Tolstoy’s inability to retain an orthodox faith in the divinity of Christ, but my dismay is mitigated when I realize that Tolstoy’s commitment to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously also required him to regard most of the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church as unserious pretenders at actually living the Christian life. Put quite simply, the Russian Orthodox Church failed Leo Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s orthodoxy was a casualty. And if the failed faith of a would-be believer as the collateral damage of a compromised church sounds eerily similar to contemporary events, so be it. Tolle lege. Take and read.