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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Tolstoy and the natural world

from The Vegetarian, January/February 1987, published by The Vegetarian Society UK:

The fame and popularity of Leo Tolstoy as a novelist, at any rate as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, has quite overshadowed his writings on religious and ethical subjects. Yet it was these latter writings which he himself regarded as his most important work and for which he hoped to be remembered.

In a time of great economic change in Russia, Tolstoy belonged to the landed aristocracy whose wealth and power came from the possession of estates worked by their serfs, not emancipated till 1861, who belonged to the land. His own estate of Yasnaya Polyana was relatively modest but it was very dear to him throughout his life and an anchorage of stability amid the turbulence of his career. The Tolstoys lost their mother when Leo was two, their father when he was nine. He and his three bothers were educated by tutors under the guardianship of an aunt, till in 1846 Leo began to study at Kazan University. Here he lived the life traditional for young men of his class and later he described, perhaps exaggerated, the gambling, drinking and fornication into which he was willingly drawn. But he completed neither the course in Oriental Languages with which he started nor that in Law to which he later transferred. Throughout life, in spite of the moral struggles which tormented him, he felt an urge towards perfection, whether physical or moral and continually drew up rules to regulate the way he spent his time. After his period of unsystematic study, having become restless and unsettled, he travelled with his bother Nicholas, an army officer, to the Caucasus, eventually joined the army and when the Crimean War hegan in 1854 proved himself a courageous if wayward officer during the siege of Sevastopol.

After the war there was a spell of foreign travel during which Tolstoy visited France, Switzerland, England and Germany learning in each country as much as he could about its educational system and methods of teaching. In 1859 he had started a school for peasant boys at Yasnaya Polyana where he could try out the practical and very libertarian teaching that he favoured; on his return he re-established this and it lasted until his marriage. In Paris he witnessed with a lasting sense of outrage a public execution by the guillotine, which confirmed his hatred of State power. 'I shall never enter the service of any government anywhere.'

In 1862 Leo Tolstoy married Sonya Behrs, a girl of only 18. In the early very happy years of married life, the literary ability which had shown itself in his early sketches and stories, such as Childhood, Boyhood, Sevastopol Sketches and the Cossacks, flowered in the outstanding novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which established him as one of the greatest European novelists. But there was in Tolstoy's life a current of religious questioning which flowed steadily though largely unnoticed amid the worldly success and domestic happiness of these years. As a boy he had shown a precocious interest in philosophy; in 1855 at Sevastopol he expressed in his diary the singular ambition of establishing a system of religion founded upon reason. A conversation about divinity and faith has suggested to me a great. a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of devoting my life. That idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present state of mankind, the religion of Christ but purged of dogma and mysticism - a practical religion not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth.

Then during the writing of Anna Karenina, the religious quest became more insistent. Levin became the embodiment of some of his own problems, but the full predicament that Tolstoy suffered is the theme of A Confession. He relates how he gradually became aware of a paralysis of life, 'moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do, and I felt lost and became dejected.' He could not simply accept that life had no meaning and bear this fate with stoicism. There was an obstinate prompting that there was an answer but that he would never find it. Though in an enviable position as a writer of renown, happily married with a big family, he was tempted to destroy himself and had to hide the rope and put away the gun which might have been the means of suicide. Yet he continued to search for an answer that would give a meaning and purpose to his life. 'Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?'

He could not kill himself and turned in vain for enlightenment in science and in the attitudes of people around him. At last in despair he abandoned reason and sought refuge in faith. Only faith made life possible for man. 'Faith is the strength of life.' So Tolstoy embarked upon a study of the traditional religions by which men have lived, Buddhism, Mohammedanism and above all Christianity. But the lives of Orthodox believers of his own class did not match their faith so he began 'to draw near to the believers among the poor, simple, unlettered folk: pilgrims, monks, sectarians and peasants.' The lives of workers in the past and in the present who understood the meaning of life began to attract him. He returned to the religion of his childhood. 'I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me.' But a return to the Orthodox Church could not satisfy him for long, though he humbled himself to accept its teaching and seeming absurdities. The Church fostered disunity; it supported war and violence. There must be a mixture of truth and falsehood in its teachings and with supreme self-confidence he set himself the immense task of separating the true teaching of Jesus from the Church's distortions of it. The results appeared in The Criticism of Dogmatic Theology, A New Translation and Harmony of the Four Gospels and finally in What I Believe. In the Gospels it was the Sermon on the Mount that fascinated him and finally he reduced the essential teaching of Jesus to five commandments which he expounded in the main chapter in What I Believe. They need to be studied in full but in a letter of 1882 he summarized them as 'Do not be angry. Do not fornicate. Do not swear. Do not judge Do not make war. This is what the essence of Christ's teaching is for me.'

The five commandments were entirely concerned with man's relationship with his fellow men. He tried later to find a link between Christianity and his growing concern about the treatment of animals. 'Christ never preached mercy to animals. But Christ preached love and the state of love is general and from his general teaching of love, we can't help deducing love of animals, whose turn hadn't come in this time.' Tolstoy's wide reading which included the scriptures of the Eastern religions and which later led to the compilation of The Circle of Reading may well have helped to widen his concern. He was later to write: 'The meaning of our lives consists in fulfulling the will of that infinite principle of which we feel ourselves to be a part and this will lies in the unity of all living things, above all of people in their brotherhood, in the service of each other.'

Tolstoy's change from a full meat diet to vegetarianism seems to have been gradual but a decisive stage was reached after the visit of F. G. Frey to Yasnaya Polyana in 1885. Frey was the assumed name of a Russian of great intellectual ability who had emigrated to the USA in 1868 to join an agricultural community. This failed and he returned to Russia by way of England. Aylmer Maude relates that it was from Frey that Tolstoy first heard a comprehensive exposition of the case for a vegetarian diet and that he greeted it with delight. Frey used arguments from human anatomy to show that meat was not a suitable diet for humans and that fruit and nuts provided the ideal diet. Tolstoy decided that from then on he would give up animal food.

Vegetarianism became an important aspect of Tolstoy's teaching, but his only writing about it is The First Step (1892), included in Essays and recollections. This was an introduction to a Russian edition of The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. Tolstoy approaches his condemnation of the slaughter of animals by a somewhat oblique and ponderous route. He argues that to move towards a virtuous life man must follow a certain sequence of moral achievements and that this order is essential. The first of the virtues is self-control and liberation from desires. To achieve this control we must start by mastering our most basic lusts, which are gluttony, idleness and sexual lovc. Our efforts must begin with gluttony and this requires fasting. If then we fast, what foods must we abstain from first. We must begin, Tolstoy argues, with meat because this food excites the passions, blunts our human feelings and involves pain and death for animals. The descriptions of the slaughter house at Tula with which the essay ends, are to provoke revulsion both from the violent killing of the animals and from the disgusting work which the men must do. A very meagre diet is enough to satisfy our needs - bread, porridge, or rice, Tolstoy suggests. When in 1894 a correspondent asked him about his own diet, this seemed to be mainly oatmeal porridge, bread and vegetable soup and he asserts that his health has improved, since giving up milk, butter and eggs as well a sugar, tea and coffee.

In a letter of 1893 Tolstoy noted the spread of a feeling that men should not cause suffering to animals and mentioned England as a country where this humanitarian attitude was increasingly powerful. He thought about ways of reducing human dependence on animals and welcomed the use of machinery to take the place of animals in farming. One can regulate one's desires by moderation, restraint and hard work and the first step in reducing this dependence is not to eat animals and not to travel by them but to go on foot. 'And everyone of us ought to start this now.'

Hunting had been a favourite pastime of Tolstoy since his youth. It combined his sensitive appreciation of natural beauty, his empathy with the animals hunted and those trained for the chase, and his outstanding energy and daring. While serving in the Caucasus he wrote enthusiastically in his letters of hunting expeditions to kill foxes and grey hares or of pursuing wild boar and deer without success. Among the changes that he brought into his life in 1885, Tolstoy abruptly gave up hunting. His young brother-in-law, Stepan Behrs writing in 1887 after a long absence, says: 'From compassion he has given up hunting and he told me that he has not only lost all wish to hunt but feels astonished that he could formerly have liked it.'

In the same period of change Tolstoy gave up alcoholic drinks after learning about the American Temperance Movement and he tried to have its principles accepted by the peasants round Yasnaya Polyana. After a long struggle he also conquered his addiction to tobacco. In his article: Why Do Men Stupify Themselves? Tolstoy wrote of both alcohol and tobacco as drugs to which men chose to resort to still an uneasy conscience by keeping themselves in a mild state of intoxication. 'The confusion and above all the imbecility of our lives, arises chiefly from the constant state of intoxication in which most people live.' He was alive also to the misuse of productive land for the provision of these luxury products to satisfy cravings that were quite unnecessary.

In the last twenty years or so of his life, Tolstoy continued to write fine novels, such as Resurrection, stories and plays. He continued to make the protests against the cruelty and repression of the Tsarist government which only he could make, and to denounce war and preach non-violence, as in The Kingdom of God is Within You one of his most powerful books which greatly influenced Gandhi.

Ever since, in 1881, the family had started the custom of spending some time each year in Moscow and Tolstoy had seen at close quarters through his work in the Census of 1882 the degradation of the great city, he had been prone to periods of great dissatisfaction with the style of life into which he was drawn. He was conscience stricken at the difference between the opulent yet idle life style of his own family, with comfort, plentiful food and the attention of servants and the simplicity and unselfishness of the existence that he wanted for himself and them all. Sonya, satisfied with traditional religion and understandably committed to the welfare of their large family and already overburdened with responsibilities that Tolstoy had allowed her to assume, could not sympathize with these ideals. In spite. of their deep love for one another they could not adjust their differences; a tragic tension and disharmony became inevitable. The division was accentuated by the struggle for the possession of Tolstoy's later manuscripts, even of his diaries, between Sonya and Chertkov, the implacable favourite disciple, more rigid in his application of Tolstoy's principles than the master himself. Tolstoy never achieved a final peace, though he finally left home to find it. He was deprived of it by this ahsurd confusion and the legal manoeuvres secretly plotted by Chertkov to ensure that he became Tolstoy's literary heir.

R. F. Summers