Tolstoy has often been compared with Socrates. Amongst Tolstoy's admirers and pupils there were many who thought him a perfectly sinless being, almost as the ancients did Socrates. But he saw himself and declared himself to be otherwise. He looked upon himself as a great sinner, the greatest sinner who had ever existed. And it was not only the first half of his life (when he did not yet know the truth) which inspired him with such profound disgust; his old age appeared to him just as hideous as his youth. "Reason, the divine instrument" whose praises he sang so solemnly, led him along no broad straight path, but ever farther, ever deeper into impenetrable wilderness. And if nevertheless he continued to advance, it was because all roads back were barred to him. But he had now convinced himself that "reason" had ceased to serve him, and that although he was still advancing, he knew not whither he was going.
It is this which distinguishes him from Socrates, or at any rate from the Socrates who figures in the pages of history. Tolstoy, too, taught, preached urbi et orbi. The world received the words of the old man of Yasnaia Poliana with dread and respect. If our times had possessed a Delphic oracle, it would certainly have declared Tolstoy to be the wisest of men. But Tolstoy himself knew that he was a weak and sick old man, and as his fame spread, so his consciousness of his own impotence increased. It is true that he was avid of glory. But he only sought it to have the right and the possibility of trampling it under foot. Not the illusory glory of the false hero, but even the genuine glory of the sage is only to be desired that it may be renounced. This, like every other revelation, is a great and terrible truth. Tolstoy speaks of it to us in one of his posthumous stories, Father Sergius, with his unique courage and frankness.
Father Sergius, a monk and "staretz," had been called Prince Kassatkin in the world. He had been a brilliant officer in the Guards. When young, he had expected much of life, and would have attained it if a "mischance" had not ruined all his hopes. I will not stop to tell what happened to the young prince. But even those who have not read Father Sergius may believe Tolstoy: the circumstances of Prince Kassatkin's life were such as to make it quite impossible for him to go on living in the world.
Is there any reality in that world of prayer and discipline which a man enters when he takes the vow? Prince Kassatkin did not know; but he felt that there was no room for him in that other world outside the convent walls. He set himself to his new duties with the sincerity and conscientiousness which were his distinguishing characteristics. After a certain length of time he acquired an immense reputation. The whole of Russia knew his name, pilgrims repaired to the monastery from all parts, attracted by the fame of the holy monk. "He himself was sometimes astonished that he, Prince Kassatkin, had become a saint, a worker of miracles; but it was impossible to doubt it; he could not fail to believe in the miracles which he himself performed, from the little cripple boy to the old woman who recovered her sight in answer to his prayer. Strange though it might be, it was a fact. Victory, perfect happiness seemed to have been attained. It was time to rest in the proud consciousness of the heavenly reward justly won after so much effort; every one proclaimed Stepan Kassatkin a great saint, a worker of miracles. Was not this unanimity satisfying? Is not the voice of the people the voice of God? If all men are deceived, where can we find the truth? Father Sergius, the old man, the celebrated teacher, realized with horror that he could not answer these questions. He had long known that one could have no confidence in oneself, he now realized that it was not possible to trust in others either. Collective suggestion is more powerful than auto-suggestion, but truth is not the source of its strength. Father Sergius (or let us openly say Tolstoy) remembered his old life in the world, and compared it to his life in the monastery. And to his great horror, he was obliged to admit that it was not the supreme truth but human prejudice which he quite involuntarily still obeyed in everything, just as he had always done. He said to himself: "People come from a great distance to seek me, they write about me in the newspapers, the emperor knows me, Europe - unbelieving Europe knows me..." But can it be otherwise? Must not a saint be universally honoured? We know that the supreme task of reason is to collect all men together in a single holy place, to collect them in a single confession of faith, around some unique fact.
But herein lies Tolstoy's great and mysterious gift, that when he nears his goal he becomes convinced that he is not going whither he should have gone. There is at bottom no difference between the brilliant Guards officer who carries out conscientiously all his military and worldly duties and the holy sage whom crowds of admirers flock to see from all quarters of the earth. They both live in the world common to all men, and consequently feel the attraction of the earth and dread of heaven. Reason has deceived Father Sergius; all his efforts have been in vain. After a long and arduous pilgrimage he finds himself at the same place from which he started. "When he preached to men, when he blessed them, when he prayed for the sick, when he counseled and guided, when those whom he had helped by his miracles expressed their gratitude to him, he could not help rejoicing, could not help being concerned with the consequences of his actions, with his influence on men. He knew that he was like a flaming torch, and the more he felt this, the more he was aware that the divine fire which burned in him grew pale and feeble." "Is what I am doing for God or for men ?" This was the question which tortured him and to which he could not, or rather he dared not reply. He felt at the bottom of his soul that the devil had changed the object of his actions, that he was working for man and not for God. He felt this, for while it had formerly been painful to him to be roused out of his solitude, now solitude was painful to him. His visitors weighed on him, exhausted him, but fundamentally they delighted him with their praises.
Such were the thoughts which pursued Tolstoy. But at the time that he wrote Father Sergius it may be remarked that he was doing an extraordinary amount. He was not only writing and preaching, but improving the condition of the peasants, organizing famine relief on a great scale, consoling the unfortunate, and cutting his own wants down to the minimum, for he refused not only superfluities but even what would in a monastery have been regarded as necessities.
He ploughed, cobbled, kept his own room. If any one could have felt justifiable holy pride (the sancta superbia which is permitted to Catholic monks), if any one had a right to enjoy the fruits of his actions, it would appear to have been Tolstoy. But suddenly a terror overcame him, "red, white, and square, tearing the soul to rags". You would be quite wrong if, in your haste to discover a satisfactory defence, you tried to explain away these words as extreme humility. Haste is altogether a mistake, it ruins all possibility of comprehension. Furthermore, there is really nothing to be explained here; there is no need to fit the events of Tolstoy's life into general ideas. We have left explanations far behind, down there in that world common to all, where men act, where actions are everything, where works justify existence. Now all this is changed. Activity, working for mankind, even the most useful, the most disinterested action, comes from the devil, and is worthless in the eyes of God. Works, even the holiest, do not save the soul, but destroy it.
Father Sergius underwent the same experience as Luther of old. Luther, too, after entering the monastery to save his soul through holy works, suddenly felt with horror the conviction that in donning the monk's robes he had entered the devil's service. "When," he said later - just like Tolstoy - "I took the vows and condemned myself to the heavy pains of the monastic life, I cut myself loose from God." Or, in his own words: "Ecce, Deus, tibi voveo impietatem et blasphemiam per totam meam vitam" (Behold, God, I vow to Thee impiety and blasphemy all my life long). But if one cannot save oneself through good works, if even good works are not pleasing in God's sight - what then?
Tolstoy was no longer capable of giving a satisfactory answer to this question, of pronouncing, that is, words acceptable to reason, individual or collective. Everything in his soul was in confusion; he had crossed over the borderline into the country where human vision is no longer able to see the exact outlines of things. A thick darkness lay round about him, in which he, who had always hitherto lived in light and loved light before everything, not only could no longer act, but felt that nothing which men are accustomed to do in the light of day could be accomplished at all. It was impossible even to think, for men usually think in order to act; but here there are no acts, no works, and can be none. Therefore one must learn to think quite differently from how one used to think in the ordinary world. Everything must be re-created, begun all over again... Father Sergius "began to pray to God: 'Lord, King of Heaven, Consoler, Spirit of Truth, come down upon us, purify us of all stain, and save our souls, Most Blessed One. Deliver me from the stain of human glory which oppresses me.' Having spoken these words he remembered how often he had already prayed thus, and how vain his words and prayers had been in this respect. They had accomplished miracles for others, but had not prevailed with God to deliver him from his miserable passion."
Neither prayers nor good works are any help beyond a certain limit; just as, years before, the recollection of his wife and his estate had been wholly powerless to save Tolstoy from the terrors which attacked him. In that soul, once so proud, so self-confident, so fond of light, of precise and clear order, there reigned now nothing but chaos and impenetrable darkness.
Not a living thought, not a living feeling; all was dead save despair. "He asked himself whether he loved any one; did he love Sofia Ivanovna, or Father Serapion? Had he had any impulse of love towards any of those people who had visited him that day, towards that learned young man with whom he had conversed in such an instructive fashion, thinking only of displaying his intelligence and his capacity to keep abreast of modern thought? Their affection gave him pleasure, he had need of it, but he himself felt no love. There was no love in him, no humility, no purity either." And this, after ten years of a hermit's existence! How had this happened? Why had this punishment struck Tolstoy?
I fear that the reader will not believe Tolstoy, or will suspect him of exaggeration. It is even more probable that he will tire of following Tolstoy in his aimless wanderings, across infinite deserts, and sands gleaming under a torrid sky, where the oases turn out to be mere cheating mirages. Why does he torment himself? Why should we torment ourselves with him? There is no need to suffer with him; he who is weary has every right to stay behind and seek other, more peaceful regions. Tolstoy's prayers and good works are valuable precisely for those who lag behind, as he tells us himself. As always, Tolstoy is a magician and worker of miracles for others, but not for himself. He continues to teach and to preach to the end of his life. After his death, people will still learn from his books; and a legend will spring up round his actions. But all that he taught to others was useless to himself. There is only one thing left for him, to take flight, to flee without a look backward, without thought of what he leaves behind or consideration of what awaits him at his journey's end. The forces on which he reckoned, his reason and his virtue, have betrayed him. And this Father Sergius who is honoured by Russia and all Europe, by the whole world, Christian and heathen, flees from his cell, like a thief in the night, exchanging his monk's robe for a simple peasant kaftan.
And as though to complete the bewilderment of the reader,
already sufficiently baffled, Tolstoy tells us that before escaping the holy old man commits an abominable crime on an unfortunate feeble-minded young girl, whose father had brought her from a great distance in order that the monk might cure her. Why invent that? Tolstoy himself was certainly not capable of such a crime. Why blacken himself thus? It was necessary - undoubtedly necessary. Tolstoy was incapable of it, but Professor Viskovatov has told us many much more disgusting things about Dostoevsky - such logic does exist, although the manuals say nothing about it.
It may be that Tolstoy was not thinking of Dostoevsky when he wrote the ending of Father Sergius; but when his memory unfolded before him the long tale of his past days, he saw that the crime he had imagined would not burden his own soul. Perhaps this imaginary crime may even have eased him on the long road which some mysterious will forced him to travel; for have we not come into a region where the possibilities are quite different from any to which we are accustomed here?
Father Sergius has a conclusion. Tolstoy paid his tribute to classicism, he made a satisfactory ending. After leaving the monastery, and wandering far and long, Father Sergius arrived in Siberia: "He went to live with a rich peasant; and he is living there to this day. He works for the peasant, teaches the children, and tends the sick."
It is clear and simple - for those who do not want to see that it is just a tribute paid to classicism, and that Tolstoy has not yet traveled the whole of his painful way. Do not the terrors of which he told us exist in Siberia? Are the furies less pitiless there? Father Sergius is not the last of Tolstoy's works. Living with the rich peasant there, working in his garden, teaching the children, tending the sick, Tolstoy could no more find peace than when he was fighting for his mysterious truths in the midst of his own family. This is why he gives only three lines to this new life of Father Sergius. Obviously, they simply serve instead of a question mark or a full stop. Or else they are only the conventional tribute to reason which insists that everything which has a beginning must have an end. Tolstoy hardly ever dared openly to refuse obedience to reason; he never admitted that he lived in darkness and not in the light. And night was for him night, nothing but night, emptiness and void; and yet it was he who revealed to us things about the vox mystica which even the great saints had not seen, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Theresa, or St. John of the Cross. Such is the fundamental contradiction of human nature; we want even our delirium to be subject to laws, and make the same demands of our revelations.
When "the light of truth" appeared to Descartes, he immediately imprisoned his discovery within a logical formula: "Cogito, ergo sum." And the great truth perished, it gave nothing either to Descartes or to any one else. Yet it was he himself who taught: "De omnibus dubitandum." But then he ought first of all to have questioned the legitimacy of the pretensions of syllogistical formulae, which claim to be the only, invariable, expert appraisers of truth and error. Directly Descartes began to make deductions he forgot what he had seen. He forgot the cogito, he forgot the sum, in order to be sure of the ergo which has the power to constrain men's minds. But all the intuition was in the sum, and the relation of the cogito to the sum, like that of the sum to the cogito, gives us nothing new. It would have been more accurate to say sum cogitans. That is the essence of all the new understanding.
A thing was suddenly revealed to Descartes of which he had been in ignorance; that he, Descartes, really existed. It was revealed to him; it was a revelation which was in direct contradiction to all the principles of reason. Reason, which questions everything, this pure, super-individual reason, this "consciousness as such", without which all objective knowledge is impossible, had begun to question the existence of Descartes. And where reason is doubted, rational arguments cannot convince.
When "the light of truth was revealed" to Descartes (as he himself describes his "cogito, ergo sum"), this was, I repeat, a true revelation which triumphantly dispersed all considerations of reason. If it had been a question of deductions and conclusions he might have remembered the words of Tertullian and said: "Cogito, sum; certum est quia impossibile" (I think, I exist; that is certain, because it is impossible). In other words: reason, which has bound us with chains of gold, will have to submit. There is something in life which is above reason. What reason cannot conceive is not therefore always impossible. And conversely, where reason establishes a necessity the chain may nevertheless break.
That is how Descartes should have interpreted his discovery. But he was aiming at "strict science" and was afraid of leaving the common world in which alone strict science is possible. He therefore interpreted it in exactly the opposite way: he did not break, but blessed the golden chains, or let us say rather the golden calf which the whole of humanity, and all living creatures, have worshipped since the beginning of time and throughout all their struggle for existence. For all that has life thinks only of advantage. Even animals have a soul, and a rational soul, from some points of view more rational than that of human beings, for it is more perfectly subject to reason's laws. If there are any creatures who live in harmony with nature, they are undoubtedly the animals. It is only in man, and very rarely in him, as a gift from heaven, that "free will" is made manifest, that free will which despises advantage, and which is also called rashness (tolma), impious audacity, for it destroys order, law (ordo, taksis, nomos) - which man in his blindness holds for eternal. But Descartes's "discovery" shows us how little the understanding of "laws" can give to us.
He did not know, he really did not know that he existed. And even today, even after his discovery, the wisest of men do not really know that they exist. Were not the Stoics right? Not so much in saying pâs aphrôn mainetai (all who do not submit themselves to reason are mad) as in saying that in all humanity there were only three or four wise men whom they did not think mad. Of course, they exaggerated, and in any case did not know how to recognize the true wise men - Antisthenes himself did not know, certainly did not know the truth that Descartes saw: two thousand years had yet to elapse before that became known. And what use could he have made of that knowledge?