Tolstoy: To Change The World, Change Thyself

In his seminal essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history, Isiah Berlin states, quoting Archilochus, that: ‘“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” […] Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog’. This quotation shows the conflict in Tolstoy’s thought between individual parts and a unifying whole. Indeed, in War and Peace he writes: ‘Бесчисленное количество свободных сил […] влияет на направление сражения, и это направление никогда не может быть известно вперед и никогда не совпадает с направлением какой-нибудь одной силы [Countless free forces […] influence the direction of the battle, and this direction can never be known ahead and never coincides with the direction of any one force]’. Tolstoy accorded each individual great importance and how the movement of history is based not on any one particular ‘great’ person, but on all the component individuals. His obsession with the individual is seen from the outset of his literary career in Childhood, where the protagonist Nikolai’s instinctive moral sense of good and evil is the surest guide to the rightness of his feelings and actions; society, the corrupting external force, has not yet taken its grip on the young boy. Tolstoy bifurcates his first story into two days, one in the country, where Nikolai and his friends run freely in a quasi-Rousseauian ideal, and one in the city, where manners and social façades take centre stage. This dualism is again emphasised in the two deaths that take place in the novella, first the painful one of the narrator’s socialite mother, and then the tranquil, divine death of the peasant servant Natalya. The final scene of the novella, however, seems to link these deaths, when the narrator stands between their graves and feels connected to the two women. The dichotomy, between nobleman and peasant, between society and the individual, is thus to some extent false: Tolstoy prioritised personal reform because this is the only means by which social change can occur.

How Changing Society Fails

According to Tolstoy social change is rarely, if ever, successful through big social action. This is because society is inherently corrupt. Tolstoy thus agreed with Rousseau that the original purity of the human being had been spoilt by the artificial demands of society and civilisation. This falsity is seen at the very start to War and Peace where the pretentiousness of the Francophile haut monde contrasts with the natural, spontaneous Pierre, who stands out because he hasn’t learnt the art of social behaviour: ‘не умеющий жить [the main who did not know how to live]’. Furthermore, the use of French by those who believe themselves to be the pinnacle of public opinion seems to denote a certain haughtiness and artificiality, as it does throughout the novel. The repetition of titles such as ‘князь [prince]’ or ‘граф [count]’ also seems to suggest that in peace time Russia, class divisions were highly pronounced and thus unity between different social standings was lacking.

The family in which social façades are most apparent is arguably the Bolkonskys, a household in which honour, and social convention are the most important factors. Indeed, the old man tells Andrei ‘Служба прежде всего [army duty before everything]’ and that ‘Коли узнаю, что ты повел себя не как сын Николая Болконского, мне будет… стыдно! [If I find out you didn’t behave like Nikolai Bolkonsky’s son, I will be… ashamed!]’. His only interest is society’s opinion of him and his family name, but this has the negative effect of preventing any sentimental or individual expression within the house and is likely why ‘Князь был резок и неизменно требователен [The prince was harsh and unfailingly demanding]’. Even Andrei’s marriage to Lize, which would appear beneficial in social terms, fails emotionally and not only causes Andrei’s depression when in society, which is noticeable in the change when at war ‘Не было заметно прежнего притворства, усталости и лени; он имел вид человека, не имеющего времени думать о впечатлении, какое он производит на других, и занятого делом приятным и интересным [There was no sign of the old pretence, fatigue and laziness; he had the appearance of a man who had no time to think about the impression he was making on others and was engaged in business that was pleasant and interesting]’, but also leads to Lise’s rejection from society and the horrifying moment in which her dead body says: ‘«Я вас всех любила и никому дурного не делала, и что вы со мной сделали? Ах, что вы со мной сделали?» [I have loved you all and done no wrong to anyone, and what have you done to me? Oh, what have you done to me?]’. The falsity of society, then, prevents people from manifesting their best selves, as shown when the narrator of Childhood is led astray by his idol Serezha into bullying another boy: ‘Неужели это прекрасное чувство [compassion] было заглушено во мне любовью к Сереже и желанием казаться перед ним таким же молодцом, как и он сам? [Was this beautiful feeling [compassion] drowned out by my love for Seryozha and my desire to look as good as he did in front of him?]’. The desire to impress, for social status, takes away good human traits, rendering it impossible to create any sort of social change. A particularly interesting contrast also arises here with the examples of the previous paragraph: the former, one of the many grand social scenes, always false, always corrupt. and the latter, the subtle slide to tyranny of propriety and service that obtains in domestic spaces such as the Bolkonsky household.

In addition, in Anna Karenina the social corruption also manifests itself in the church. Throughout the first half of the novel, the narrator seems to mock Karenin for his bureaucratic formality. Despite this, however, he treats Anna fairly leniently in an attempt to protect his reputation: ‘Наши отношения должны быть такие, какие они всегда были [Our relationship should be what it has always been]’. Indeed, when she is on the verge of death, Karenin feels remorse and pities Anna and thus ‘стоял на коленах и, положив голову на сгиб ее руки, которая жгла его огнем через кофту, рыдал, как ребенок [was on his knees, resting his head on the fold of her hand, which was burning him with fire through his jumper, sobbing like a child]’. However, it is when Lidiya Ivanovna, with her purported Christianity where ‘Греха нет для верующих, грех уже искуплен [There is no sin for believers, sin has already been atoned for]’ and her constant exhortations to be harsher on Anna, that Karenin begins to treat her particularly severely. In this way, Christianity becomes, for Karenin, a means to feel superior to others: ‘Ему было необходимо в его унижении иметь ту, хотя бы и выдуманную, высоту, с которой он, презираемый всеми, мог бы презирать других [He needed in his humiliation to have a height, however imaginary, from which he, despised by all, could despise others]’. Even the church, then, despite its supposed shining example, also fails to create good social change, and this is partly why Levin, at the end of the novel, doubts the teachings of the church: ‘Он разочаровался и в хомяковском учении о Церкви [He also became disillusioned with Chomyakian teaching on the Church]’. This could potentially link to Tolstoy’s own life at the time, writing Anna Karenina at a time of great spiritual crisis and claiming that the church had entirely misunderstood the gospels as they are written.

Change Thyself

Social change thus seems to fail because society believes itself to be self-important when, in fact, it is manmade and therefore insignificant; it believes itself to be ordered when it is not. Thus, despite Levin appreciating the natural beauty of Russia and the brilliance of the peasants (‘Он видел, что Россия имеет прекрасные земли, прекрасных рабочих [He saw that Russia had beautiful lands, beautiful workers]’), his need for order and reasoning means ‘он хотел доказать это теоретически в книжке и на практике в своем хозяйстве [he wanted to prove it theoretically in a book and in practice in his farm]’. He therefore fails to realise his vision because he is too theoretical. It is only when he dispenses with this that he can create change. Furthermore, even the zemstvos [local governments] that the government has instituted seem to be failing: ‘Эти новые учреждения, эти мировые судьи, земство, что это за безобразие! [These new institutions, these magistrates, the zemstvo, what an outrage!]’. Given the chaotic, verging on debauched, description of the zemstvo elections, it seems to me that the reason they fail is due to the hypocrisy of the noblemen who attempt to set them up.

In War and Peace, Pierre’s attempt to set up new institutions on his estates fails because ‘Пьер не имел той практической цепкости, которая бы дала ему возможность непосредственно взяться за дело [Pierre did not have the practical tenacity that would have enabled him to take up the cause directly]’. Pierre is comfortable only when there are no choices to be made. In Freemasonry, numerology, and philosophy he looks for a system that will explain history and the lives of individuals, thereby transforming the chaos of the world into a simple pattern. He therefore lacks the capacity to make specific moment-to-moment decisions (which, as we shall see, were incredibly important to Tolstoy) and only worries about the entire pattern of his life. He becomes depressed in trying to set his entire life straight by making a single overriding decision, a decision that is doomed to fail. Thus, his move to Freemasonry, which occurs just prior to his ‘social action’, fails because change requires constant reflection and decision, not just one large volte-face.

Social action is destined to fail, then, because of society’s own failure to understand itself. In Childhood, the father says ‘Этот у меня будет светский молодой человек – сказал папа, указывая на Володю, – а этот поэт [This one will be a social young man,” said Dad, pointing to Volodya, “and this one a poet]’. There seems to be a call from Tolstoy to move away from the supposed, yet spurious, order that society provides, away from theorising, towards the more poetic Rousseauian ideal of transparency of the soul and a practice of constant self-scrutiny and reflection.

As has already been mentioned, Tolstoy believed that individual, mundane people are the ones that alter the course of human history. Self-reflection and understanding, then, are highly important as everyday decisions affect the world around us. For example, Vasily is a successful planner because he can respond quickly and subtly to changing conditions, like when he spots Pierre’s potential utility in his social climbing: ‘Этот человек [Пьер] может быть полезен, и князь Василий сближался с ним и при первой возможности [This man [Pierre] could be useful, and Prince Vasili was getting close to him and at the first opportunity]’. His evil and hypocrisy come from every day-to-day decisions that he makes, all tending in the same evil direction. This is very similar to Ivan Ilyich who is described as bad even though he never intends evil: ‘Он не был заискивающим ни мальчиком, ни потом взрослым человеком, но у него с самых молодых лет было то, что он, как муха к свету, тянулся к наивысше поставленным в свете людям [He was not an ingratiating boy or later an adult, but he had this thing about reaching out like a fly to the light from a very young age, reaching out to the highest placed people in the world]’. It is everyday decisions that make him both a normal, average person, and evil: ‘прошедшая история жизни Ивана Ильича была самая простая и обыкновенная и самая ужасная [Ivan Ilyich’s past life story was the simplest and most ordinary and the most terrible]’. His death, that of a civilised and conscious man, is painful and ugly because he lives a false life. He realises the flaws of his life on the point of death: ‘Вся моя жизнь, сознательная жизнь, была «не то» [My whole life, my conscious life, has been “not quite what it should have been”]’. This is ostensibly because civilisation teaches man to concentrate on how his own personality appears from others’ perspectives, his own interests and social decorum. He thus remains incapable of profound experiences in his inner life, living in the illusion that if his existence is in accordance with social decorum, he lives an ideal life.  

Death and suffering preceding death are a means for knowing our own being, and through this we gain a consciousness of real existence. It is also a purification through which man rids himself of all falsity together with his earthly existence. This is the case with Andrei, who, lying on the battlefield of Austerlitz and looking up at Napoleon, the latter ‘казался ему столь маленьким, ничтожным человеком в сравнении с тем, что происходило теперь между его душой и этим высоким, бесконечным небом с бегущими по нем облаками [He seemed such a small, insignificant man compared to what was now going on between his soul and that high, endless sky with the clouds running across it]’, which forces him to realise ‘о ничтожности величия, о ничтожности жизни, которой никто не мог понять значения [about the insignificance of greatness, about the insignificance of a life that no one could understand the meaning of]’. Andrei begins to understand, although the final realisation comes only when he does actually die later in the novel, that the social values for which he aimed were apocryphal. He later realises the need for belief in a guiding, unifying force: ‘Любовь есть Бог, и умереть – значит мне, частице любви, вернуться к общему и вечному источнику [Love is God, and to die is for me, a particle of love, to return to a common and eternal source]’. In his personal reflection, Andrei finds his own happiness and shall allow him after his original injury, to make personal changes which then impact peasants on his own estate: ‘Одно именье его в триста душ крестьян было перечислено в вольные хлебопашцы [One of his estates of three hundred peasants was transferred to the free farmers]’.

Similarly, the truth that Karataev teaches Pierre is not a doctrine but a gift for living from moment to moment. Pierre realises that the God he seeks is not the Divine Architect and does not transcend the everyday moments. Rather, God is in the everyday moments and decisions, he is the движение [movement, the to and fro] itself ‘Жизнь есть все. Жизнь есть Бог. Все перемещается и движется, и это движение есть Бог [Life is everything. Life is God. Everything moves and moves and that movement is God]’. Furthermore, ‘это-то отсутствие цели давало ему то полное, радостное сознание свободы, которое в это время составляло его счастье [It was this lack of purpose that gave him that full, joyful awareness of freedom which at this time constituted his happiness]’ means that Pierre has faith in the instant, in the idea that every small decision he makes forms part of the unifying whole. Whilst often viewed by critics, particularly Soviet critics, as a positive decision, it seems to me that Pierre’s decision to join the Decembrists at the end of the novel suggests that he has not learnt what Karataev attempted to teach him: he still possesses an insatiable need for overarching, life-changing decisions, here, on a Decembrist utopian hope.

The Magic Link

How then does self-discovery lead to social change? It is, I believe, because every individual is a minute part of the overall whole and thus by understanding oneself and fulfilling one’s own duty as best one can: ‘Каждая личность носит в самой себе свои цели и между тем носит их для того, чтобы служить недоступным человеку целям общим [Each individual carries within him or herself his or her own goals and, in the meantime, carries them in order to serve the common goals that are inaccessible to the individual]’. Perhaps the greatest example of this can be seen in Karataev: ‘Жизнь его, как он сам смотрел на нее, не имела смысла как отдельная жизнь. Она имела смысл только как частица целого, которое он постоянно чувствовал [His life, as he himself looked at it, had no meaning as an individual life. It only had meaning as part of the whole, which he constantly felt]’. The effect his own life has on Pierre, and doubtless other prisoners, would imply that having found his own understanding of himself and the world, he is able to create real, profound change, rather than change that is either corrupt or destined to fail.

This simplicity of life is also seen within the Russian peasantry. For example, the figure of Gerasim in Death of Ivan Ilyich. Whilst his master refuses to except his commonality ‘И кай точно смертен, и ему правильно умирать, но мне, Ване, Ивану Ильичу, со всеми моими чувствами, мыслями – мне это другое дело [And he [Gerasim] is definitely mortal, and it is right for him to die, but me, Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my feelings, thoughts – it’s different for me]’, Gerasim understood instinctively that he was nothing but a ‘Caius’, and therefore also understood that the true meaning of a man’s life is to render service to the whole world, of which he is but a minute part: ‘Все умирать будем. Отчего же не потрудиться? [We’re all going to die. Why not work hard?]’. By accepting his own insignificance, Gerasim escapes the falsities of society. More generally, peasants, in their simplicity, become part of a mass and unity, and become immersed in life where notions of love and forgiveness, which the civilised individual must try so desperately to attain, are innate. By rendering service to Ivan, Gerasim, whilst on a small level, contributes to the improvement of the world.

Finally, Nikolai Rostov, in the epilogue to War and Peace becomes a great farmer, and a moral person, despite the occasional slip. He laughs at theorising and treatises on agriculture, and, like Levin in Anna Karenina, concerns himself instead with the prosperity and day-to-day work of the peasants: ‘Только когда понял вкусы и стремления мужика […] и хозяйство Николая приносило самые блестящие результаты [Only when he understood the man’s tastes and aspirations […] Nikolai’s farm yielded the most brilliant results]’. Nikolai (along with his sister Natasha – it is, in fact, a feature of the Rostov household) knows intuitively what Pierre (and the Bolkonskys, Marya and Andrei) must learn through so much effort: how to behave morally without using any rules, dispensing with reason and overthinking and become one with the peasantry in a unity like Levin, who states ‘Я сам народ [I am myself the people]’. Lasting social change cannot be sought nor found through profound reasoning nor through social debate, it is found, rather, in the decisions and actions we make day to day, in the kindness we display, as Levin discovers: ‘Вся моя жизнь […] имеет несомненный смысл добра, который я властен вложить в нее! [My whole life […] has an unmistakable sense of the good that I have the power to put into it!]’. Put simply, social change, happiness, meaning and goodness occur only through the personal reformation of our daily actions, the effects of which are, to use Morson’s phrase, ‘hidden in plain view’.

Why Do I Care?

In the unified world of the hedgehog, the fox is unaware of the power of its knowledge. Just as individuals who play a part in historical events never understand their significance, the many parts of the fox’s knowledge are all equally unquantifiable, and yet equally critical. This is the reason why ‘social action’, for Tolstoy, was impossible, because the movement of history depends not on sweeping changes, but on the individual, mundane actions of the nobody. Indeed, perhaps Tolstoy himself, who claimed ‘писание мое есть весь я [my writing is all I am]’, was on his own journey of personal reform throughout his literary career. Through his own self-reflection, Tolstoy managed to create lasting impact and posterity. He was a fox unaware just how much influence he would have in the unified world of the hedgehog.

2 thoughts on “Tolstoy: To Change The World, Change Thyself

  1. You beautifully elicit your point of view. Then or now, only individual change could/can lead to collective change in the society. For that, the ruling elite need to change their mindset first and set a precedent. Otherwise, individual change can be suppressed in the name of rebellion.


    1. Indeed – the ruling class must also change themselves! Vasily, I would say, is the perfect example of this – his day-to-day decisions make him evil and cast an evil spell over those around him. Thanks for commenting!


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