Tolstoy reflects on his own life, and describes how his views on life’s meaning evolved as he aged. As a younger man, Tolstoy was not concerned with life’s meaning. He was too busy with other concerns—war, fame, an unhappy marriage. But suddenly these pursuits became meaningless.
Tolstoy becomes obsessed with death, and how his death will erase the petty things he’s worked for in life. Rationality and the pursuit of knowledge don’t bring comfort, and, he comes to believe, they actually create and exacerbate the awareness of life’s emptiness. Only the common people, who don’t have the education and idle time to draw the conclusions he’s drawn, are able to find solace in life and faith. Following their example, Tolstoy adopts an uneasy Christian faith to help face the situation.
Unlike Ivan Ilych, where concerns about life’s meaning and death are wrapped up in the story and must be ferreted out by the reader, the discussion here is very straightforward and understandable, in plain language. Both Ivan Ilych and Confession inform one another and make the other more interesting, but if I had to select one work alone, it would be Confession. Though if I were recommending only one to someone else, I’d might go with Ivan Ilych, not only because it’s a narrative, but also because it is much more polished. Confession is at times repetitive and disorganized, which creates a sort of stream-of-consciousness feeling that I enjoyed. It’s an immediate window into the author’s thoughts. Like any obsession, it folds back on itself and covers the same ground again and again.
Maybe the most disappointing part of the book is Tolstoy’s lukewarm acceptance of Christianity. There is no dramatic moment where he sees the truth, or is unburdened of the questions about life’s meaning that have driven him to the edge of suicide. Faith was an uneasy truce between the suicidal despair pushing him toward religion, and reason and education—what he felt to be the undeniable truth—pulling him away.
It’s almost as though he never truly had faith. He saw the benefits of faith, but was never able to will himself to actually have it in the manner of the peasants. To quote John Gray in Straw Dogs: “We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives.” Tolstoy couldn’t will himself to a deep and abiding faith, even if intellectually he viewed it as being in his own best interest.
Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (lower)
Related Books: Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Recommend to Others: Probably Ivan Ilych first, depending on how interested they are in the topic
Reread Personally: Maybe next year?
1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.