Lev Nikolayevitch Tolstoy wrote only 3 full novels, but many consider him to be the greatest of all novelists. Devotees debate whether War and Peace or Anna Karenina is his best work. Each required years of drafting and revising.
Sofya Andreyevna (Behrs) Tolstaya, or Sonya, wife of Leo Tolstoy, has received too little credit for her part in his writing career. She copied and discussed his manuscripts, read widely herself, protected him from distractions, took charge of household affairs, and most of this while pregnant as they had 13 children.
How does Tolstoy capture the interest of his readers? Like all great writers, he aptly presents just those details of scene, dialogue, and action on which the consciousness of each character in turn can focus, so that the reader transfers mentally into living moments of time. His prose evokes emotions, leads the reader to feel what the character feels. In narrative voice Tolstoy sometimes steps back and comments on how the character may once or repeatedly miss the mark, making crucial mistakes that lead to a growing dilemma. Yet the same character reveals within his or her own thoughts, presented to the reader, how actions are justified in a mind shaped by personal temperament, history, and goals.
Especially in his later years Tolstoy became a fervent religious reformer. His third and last full novel, titled either Resurrection or Sunday depending on how one translates the Russian word, describes a wealthy young landowner who, driven by guilt for an act of sexual exploitation, voluntarily follows a peasant girl turned prostitute into exile in Siberia. In Tolstoy’s last major work, a nonfiction book called The Kingdom of God Is Within You, he takes the words of Jesus quite literally to advocate radical equality of humans and self-sacrificing pacifism.
Tolstoy always thought deeply about the meaning of human existence. Human will comes into focus in his major characters. His art brings us into the lives of human beings like ourselves, who find happiness or regret through the choices they make. We learn that happiness and regret not only arise as consequences of choices, but also represent choices in themselves as life continues. Tolstoy privileges his readers with godlike insight into the dreams, failings, and hopes of his characters, because the loving attention he gives to their stories mirrors a divine omniscient love.
Arthur Schopenhauer influenced Tolstoy’s views on the will. Schopenhauer’s popular work, Parerga and Paralipomena, was published in 1851 just as Tolstoy’s writing career began. War and Peace was written between 1863 and 1869, Anna Karenina in the 1870s. A portrait of Schopenhauer hung in Tolstoy’s study. By 1871 he placed Schopenhauer’s name next to Plato in a letter to scientist, journalist, and philosopher Nikolay N. Strakhov –
Purely intellectual philosophy [which renounces the poetic and religious interpretation of things] is an ugly Western product; and neither the Greeks – Plato – nor Schopenhauer, nor the Russian thinkers understood it in this way.
An excerpt from War and Peace shows both Schopenhauer’s influence and a contrast. In the following, Pierre, a Russian landowner, has been taken captive and currently is held as a prisoner of Napoleon’s army. Pierre recalls his close friend Prince Andrei, who died recently from a festering wound received in battle. Prince Andrei’s idea, stated below, that happiness is negative is rooted in Schopenhauer, as is the notion that cravings can never be satisfied. However, Tolstoy turns these ideas around by finding in simple daily pleasures of life the “sure height of human happiness.” Both Tolstoy and Schopenhauer might agree, nevertheless, that in privation one may find greater joy than in excess of comfort and power.
Prince Andrei had been wont to reflect that happiness was purely negative – but he had said so with a shade of bitterness and irony, as though he were really saying that all our cravings for positive happiness were implanted in us merely for our torment, since they could never be satisfied. But Pierre acknowledged the truth of this without any qualification. The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of elementary needs and consequent freedom in the choice of one’s occupation – that is, of one’s mode of living – now seemed to Pierre the sure height of human happiness. Here and now for the first time in his life Pierre fully appreciated the enjoyment of eating because he was hungry, of drinking because he was thirsty, of sleep because he was sleepy, of warmth because he was cold, of talking to a fellow creature because he felt like talking and wanted to hear a human voice. The satisfaction of one’s needs – good food, cleanliness, freedom – now that he was deprived of these seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness; and the choice of occupation, that is, of his manner of life, now that that choice was so restricted, seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluity of the comforts of life destroys all joy in gratifying one’s needs, while too much liberty in choosing our occupations – liberty which in his case arose from his education, his wealth and his social position – is just what makes the choice of occupation hopelessly difficult, and destroys the very desire and possibility of having an occupation.
All Pierre’s dreams were now centred on the time when he would be free; though afterwards, and to the end of his days, he thought and spoke with enthusiasm of that month of captivity, of those irrecoverable, intense, joyful sensations, and above all, of the perfect spiritual peace, the complete inner freedom, which he experienced only during that period of his life.
Tolstoy never fully agreed with Schopenhauer’s pessimism, and he later wrote directly against it. During the creation of War and Peace, he wrote to a younger colleague that the mission of a writer is to induce in readers a love for life:
An artist’s mission must not be to produce an irrefutable solution to a problem, but to compel us to love life in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told I might write a book in which I should demonstrate beyond any doubt the correctness of my opinions on every social problem, I should not waste two hours at it; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by people who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over my book and love life more because of it, then I should devote all my life and strength to such a work.
At the very end of War and Peace, Tolstoy departs from his story and embarks on an abstract essay presenting free will and necessity as antinomies that co-exist in actual human life. Unfortunately, his categories are not always clear, and he argues from analogy more than logic. Tolstoy lacks the precision of a trained philosopher. At least the final chapters of War and Peace serve to distract the reader from the pain of taking leave of the characters whose storied lives have come to mean so much.
Yet Tolstoy powerfully provokes our thinking about GSOT. In the following passage, which is found about midway through the novel, Tolstoy denies freedom for events of history as well as decisions of powerful leaders – in this case, the respective emperors of France and Russia, Napoleon and Alexander. I don’t know if his ideas are right; you can decide what you think.
The deeds of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose fiat the whole question of war or no war apparently depended, were as little spontaneous and free as the actions of every common soldier drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (the people on whom the whole decision appeared to rest) should be effected a combination of innumerable circumstances was essential, without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands the real power lay – the soldiers who fired the guns or transported provisions and cannon – should consent to carry out the will of those weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes….
Every man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can at any moment perform or not perform this or that action; but, so soon as he has done it, that action accomplished at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.
There are two sides to the life of every man: there is his individual existence which is free in proportion as his interests are abstract; and his elemental life as a unit in the human swarm, in which he must inevitably obey the laws laid down for him….
History, that is, the unconscious, universal, swarm-life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings for its own purposes.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy returns to a Schopenhauer-like emphasis on the expression of will in individual human lives. To show this, let me begin by quoting Schopenhauer from his Counsels and Maxims in Parerga and Paralipomena. Then we can see if the same ideas are expressed by Tolstoy. First Schopenhauer –
There is in us something wiser than our head. Thus in the big moves of our life, in the important steps of its course, we act not so much from a clear knowledge of what is right as from an inner impulse, one might say instinct, that comes from the depths of our very being…. Perhaps that inner impulse is under the unconscious guidance of prophetic dreams that are forgotten when we are awake. In this way they give to our life an evenness of tone and dramatic unity such as could never be given to it by our conscious brain that is so often irresolute, unstable, rambling, and easily altered. In consequence of such dreams, for instance, the man who has a vocation for great achievements of a definite kind inwardly and secretly feels this from his youth up and works in this direction, just as do bees in the building of their hive…. To act in accordance with abstract principles is difficult and succeeds only after much practice, and even then not invariably; moreover they are often inadequate. On the other hand, everyone has certain innate concrete principles that are in his very blood and marrow, since they are the result of all his thinking, feeling, and willing. Usually he does not know them in the abstract, but only when he looks back on his life does he become aware that he has always observed them and has been drawn by them as by an invisible thread. According as they are, so will they lead him to his good or adverse fortune.
Below is a passage from Anna Karenina that I previously quoted earlier in this series. The context of this quote is presented more fully in that blog. You might see Schopenhauer’s thoughts repeated here in different form. Levin is the country landowner, who resembles Tolstoy himself; his half-brother Sergey is the urban intellectual. Vital force and heart are synonyms for the will.
Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something – not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey, and many other people who worked for the public welfare, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take an interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine.
Are there any better descriptions of the human will than these?
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Featured image: Covers from Penguin Classics edition of War and Peace, 1964.
 Tolstoy, L.N. Tolstoy’s Letters, transl. by Christian, R.F. Vol. 1. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1978, p. 239.
 Tolstoy, L.N. War and Peace, Book 4, Section 12, 1869, transl. by Edmonds, R. Penguin, Baltimore, 1957, Vol. 2, pp. 1198-1199.
 Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy. Transl. from the French by Amphoux, N. Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1963, transl. 1967, p. 297.
 Tolstoy, L.N. War and Peace, Book 3, Section 1, 1869, transl. by Edmonds, R. Penguin, Baltimore, 1957, Vol. 2, pp. 717-718.
 Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Vol. 1, Counsels and Maxims. Transl. E.F.J. Payne. Clarendon Press, 1974.
 Tolstoy, L.N. Anna Karenina, 1877. Transl. unnamed, Literary Guild of America, 1936, Part iii, chap. 2, pp. 321-322.