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    still from the 1956 film, War and Peace

    Tolstoy’s Narratives of Faith

    For Tolstoy’s heroes, life’s meaning is to be found not in some remote theory, but in the world and people right before us.

    By Gary Saul Morson

    December 30, 2022
    • James B Wheeler Jr

      What would happen if we simply refused to have enemies?

    • Bruce Campbell

      Astounding read. Huge impact on me. Thank you very much.

    Death and Story

    Tolstoy’s heroes find faith or discover life’s meaning only when they realize that they have been telling the wrong story of their life. They must change stories or abandon story altogether. When they do, their view of life becomes entirely different. It is not some fact of the world that has altered, it is the world itself. As Tolstoy’s great disciple Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the point, “the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.”1

    It is usually imminent death or the deep appreciation of one’s mortality that catalyzes this change. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, the hero, suffering from some unknown illness, comes to appreciate the difference between understanding abstractly that “all men are mortal” and truly recognizing that he personally is about to die. Once Ivan Ilych senses his mortality, he experiences despair as only Tolstoy can describe it. Ivan Ilych can make no sense of the events of his life if all they lead to his annihilation. Because everyone around him still views mortality as an abstract fact “not applicable” to themselves, no one can understand Ivan Ilych and so loneliness magnifies his despair.

    At last he wonders whether his despair results from his having lived his life wrongly.

    “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be when I did everything properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.2

    No other realist writer could get away with identifying “the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death.” In contrast to saints’ lives or literary utopias, realist fiction is inherently skeptical: the author recognizes his own point of view as one of many possible points of view – as his opinion, but not the absolute, unchallengeable truth. Tolstoy usually observes that convention of realism, which is why when he violates it – as here – it carries all the more power.3

    As usual for Tolstoy, this absolute truth is negative: it tells you not what meaning is, and not what the right sort of life must be, but what they are not. As the world’s greatest psychologist – that is why he is the supreme realist – he appreciates the irreducible individuality of each person. To be felt, to be known not abstractly but in the depths of one’s soul, God’s truth must also become particular to each person. People are so different that they cannot fully put their particular truth into words, which are always general.

    Abstract propositions, like those of theology, may be correct, but they can take one only so far. When a person really absorbs the truth, it is no longer a proposition. Finding life’s meaning is not like recognizing that the Pythagorean theorem is proven. It is something one knows but cannot express for others.

    In this sense, questions are not answered, but doubts disappear. As Wittgenstein wrote,

    The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

    There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. (Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, 73)

    To find meaning, Ivan Ilych must give up the story of his life that he has been telling and that has guided his actions. Gradually he realizes that his life was truest as a child. The more he learned to be so adept at filling prescribed roles – the more he surrendered everything individual to become the perfect judge and society person – the more he departed from what is true, real, and particular to him. He merged with prescribed roles but he now realizes to his horror that while those roles will continue (someone will be appointed judge in his place), his unique self will die.

    In short, what Ivan Ilych has been thinking of as the story of his increasing success has really been the story of his distancing himself from his soul:

    It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really the way it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.4

    Ivan Ilych reasons correctly that he was going downhill when he thought he was going up, but he concludes mistakenly that “now it is all done and there is only death.” Recognizing that one’s story is wrong does not give one a positive truth. That requires another step, which is taken not by finding a better story but by stepping outside story altogether, to where faith lies.

    To be felt, to be known not abstractly but in the depths of one’s soul, God’s truth must also become particular to each person. People are so different that they cannot fully put their particular truth into words.

    One must not only recognize that one’s old life and old story were wrong, one must also stop hoping to return to them. Only then can God’s grace, which alone can bestow the supremely positive meaning, enter one’s soul. And so only in Ivan Ilych’s last moments, when he has at last stopped clinging to the old story, does he say to himself: “Yes, it was all not the right thing … but that’s no matter. It can [still] be done. But what is the right thing?”

    At that moment Ivan Ilych’s hand falls on his son’s head. His son has been suffering deeply and sincerely at the sight of his father’s agonies. Ivan Ilych touches his son by chance, or so it seems, but this apparent chance proves providential.

    At that very moment Ivan Ilych … caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that something was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him.5

    He “grew still, listening”: he is listening for guidance of a sort entirely different from that which has governed his life. And all of a sudden he experiences pity for his son and his wife, tries to tell people to take his son away so he won’t suffer, says one thing when he wants to say another, but that doesn’t matter because he is responding to the One he has been trying to hear. He waved “his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.”6


    “In place of death there was light. ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’”7 No one around him knows that he has found life’s meaning. Like death, salvation happens privately. It is ineffable. A story can describe how it happens to someone, but not what it is. Stories are a way to understand others, or oneself viewed as if one were another; they are essentially third-person, but salvation is first-person. We all must wait for the saving moment alone.

    The One Who Calls

    Recognizing that one’s story is not as one imagined and that one’s soul must listen to what is beyond it – that is the structure of several Tolstoy stories. Vasily Andreevich Brekhunov, the hero of “Master and Man,” only discovers what his life is really about when, having been caught by a snowstorm, he is about to freeze to death. After endless struggles to save his life and to return to his life story as he has known it, he at last forgets his business and accomplishments.

    Answering a prompt from outside that story, Brekhunov lies down on his servant Nikita to warm him and save Nikita’s life at the cost of his own. He would never have done such a thing before. To his immense surprise, he experiences “a peculiar new joy such as he had never felt before.”8 The snowstorm that kills his body providentially saves his soul, although, as with Ivan Ilych, his salvation remains entirely private. No one else does or could know of it.

    After warming Nikita for several hours, Brekhunov begins to dream that he is at home waiting for a police officer, Ivan Matveich.

    And this waiting was uncanny and yet joyful. Then suddenly his joy was completed. He whom he was expecting came; not Ivan Matveich the police-officer, but someone else – yet it was he whom he had been waiting for. He came and called him; and it was the one who had called him and told him to lie down on Nikita. And Vasily Andreevich was glad that that one had come for him.9

    Like Ivan Ilych, Brekhunov lives the wrong sort of life; when death threatens, he first clings to his story, but at last surrenders it. That is a necessary but not sufficient step to salvation, which must come from outside his story, from outside the world, from God. And in his life’s most important act, he welcomes it.

    “I’m coming” he cried joyfully, and that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep. He tried to get up but could not … He was surprised, but not at all disturbed by this. He understood that this was death, and was not at all disturbed by that either.10

    Brekhunov is not the same person. “And he remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling … and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasily Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled.” He decides that the former Brekhunov had not known what “the real thing was. . . ‘He did not know, but now I know and know for sure.’ And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion.”11

    still from the 1956 film, War and Peace

    Scene from War and Peace, Paramount Pictures, 1955. Photograph from Alamy.

    Beyond Justice

    The title of Tolstoy’s famous tale“God Sees the Truth, but Waits” seems to promise a story of justice apparently denied but in fact delayed. The hero, Aksenov, condemned to Siberia for a murder he did not commit, desires justice above all, as if his life would be meaningful only if justice actually took place. At last, after many years of imprisonment, he discovers the man who framed him: Makar Semenov. Aksenov gets a chance to take revenge and exact justice, but finds that, for a reason he cannot fathom, he is unable to reveal the fact that would result in Semenov’s punishment.

    Deeply moved by Aksenov’s act, Semenov for the first time truly and deeply repents. Although he does not have to, he confesses his crime so that Aksenov will be freed. Semenov becomes a different person.

    Hearing Semenov unrestrainedly weeping over what he did, Aksenov himself weeps. He finds himself saying, “God will forgive you. Perhaps I am a hundred times worse than you.” He knows that we are never more likely to be mistaken than in judging ourselves. And suddenly “his soul grew calm. He ceased to yearn for his home and no longer wanted to leave prison, but only thought of his final hour.”12 The order comes to free him, but when it arrives he is already dead.

    Justice is not done. From the point of view of justice, the ending – the pardon when it is too late – is a mockery. But this is not a story about justice, and the title, suggesting it is, is a decoy. It is a story about escaping that story, about something higher than justice: mercy and Christian forgiveness. By that standard Aksenov, like Brekhunov, achieves a meaningful life.

    The Infinite Heavens

    Short stories and novellas allow for only one epiphany, but novels, especially if they are unusually long, may contain several. The beginning of War and Peace finds Prince Andrei disillusioned with his former plan of life based on social success. He has married the best woman of his set but now finds himself disillusioned by the emptiness of high society and disappointed at his wife’s devotion to it. He explains to Pierre that he is going to war because “this life that I am leading here – this life is – not to my taste.”13 He wants to escape from his biography.

    But distaste is not all that impels him to a military life. Andrei has also replaced his old plan of life with a new one. He wants to live for glory, “to be celebrated by men and loved by them” and, he tells himself,

    I cannot be blamed for wanting that, for wanting nothing but that, and living for that alone. Yes, for that alone. I shall never tell anyone, but, my God, what can I do if I care for nothing but glory and men’s love? Death, wounds, the loss of my family – nothing holds any terror for me. And dear and precious as many people are to me … I would sacrifice them all, dreadful and unnatural as it may seem, for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, for the love of men I do not know and never shall know. (War and Peace, 324–5)

    Glory is the value of epic heroes, and Andrei wants to live an epic life. He would be at home in The Iliad.

    Andrei dreams of being the Napoleon who conquers Napoleon. Like most of the generals he meets, he believes in a hard “science of warfare,” and imagines that military success depends on two qualities: the intelligence to understand that science and the courage to apply it in the most dangerous circumstances. These are qualities he really has. But although Andrei might be an ideal epic hero, Tolstoy places him in the realistic world of the novel. Andrei will learn that there can be no “science of warfare.” He eventually asks himself:

    What theory or science is possible where the conditions and circumstances are unknown and cannot be determined and, especially, where the strength of the active forces cannot be ascertained? … What science can there be in a matter in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be determined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which becomes manifest at a particular moment, and no one can tell when that moment will come? (775)

    Like glory, the idea of a science of warfare is based on stories that represent warfare as much more ordered than it actually is. Real battle is a matter of what Andrei calls “a hundred million chances, which will be decided on the instant by whether we run or they run, whether this man or that man is killed” (930). No one can tell in advance who will be hit by a stray bullet and yet that can determine whether a regiment panics. Sheer contingency, not narrative orderliness, reigns.

    Meaning is to be found not in the mists of distance, not in some remote theory, but in the world and people right before us. God is here and everywhere.

    Well-made stories rule out such contingency. A characteristically Tolstoyan conclusion follows: the more orderly a story is, the falser it is. As Tolstoy observed in one essay, if you interview soldiers right after a battle each one will give you a vague and confusing picture. But officers must hand in reports, which they base on earlier reports they have read, and so they fit the few events they can determine into a well-made story resembling earlier ones. Higher officers then gather these reports into a more general account still further from reality, and at length the official story of the battle is composed and disseminated. “Everyone is glad to exchange his own doubts and questionings for this deceptive, clear, and always flattering presentation,”14 Tolstoy explained. Go around now and question the same soldiers you interviewed right after the battle and they will all sincerely “remember” events according to the official story, to the point where people miles apart are sure they have witnessed the same incidents.

    Contingency is everywhere, but perception, memory, and narratives represent the world as orderly. They could scarcely do otherwise, but wisdom comes when one recognizes their falsities. The world is not story-like. In one famous passage, Prince Andrei witnesses Nikolai Rostov describe his battle experiences.

    Rostov was a truthful young man and would on no account have told a deliberate lie. He began with the intention of relating everything exactly as it happened, but imperceptibly, unconsciously, and inevitably he slipped into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his listeners, who, like himself, had heard numerous stories of cavalry attacks, had formed a definite idea of what an attack was, and were expecting to hear just such a story, they would not have believed him or, still worse, they would have thought that Rostov himself was at fault, since what generally happened to those taking part in a cavalry charge had not happened to him. … To tell the truth is very difficult, and young people are rarely capable of it. His listeners expected to hear how, fired with enthusiasm and beside himself, he had swept down on the enemy’s squares like a tempest, cut his way in, slashing right and left, and how his saber had tasted blood, and he had fallen exhausted and so on. And those are the things he told them. (298)

    Andrei’s moment of heroism comes at the Battle of Austerlitz. When the Russian soldiers panic, he displays the courage and presence of mind to grab the standard and run forward. By so doing, he inspires others to follow him. All of a sudden Andrei feels as if someone had bludgeoned him on the head. He falls on his back and looks up at the sky. Everything changes for him.

    The script Andrei has been following suddenly seems ludicrous. No longer in his story, he looks down upon it. He has, literally as well as figuratively, changed his point of view. He opens his eyes:

    Above him there was nothing but the sky, the lofty heavens … immeasurably lofty with gray clouds slowly drifting across them. “How quiet, solemn, and serene, not at all as it was when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like our running, shouting, fighting … how differently do those clouds float over the lofty, infinite heavens. How is it I did not see this sky before? How happy I am to have discovered it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all is delusion, except those infinite heavens. There is nothing but that. And even that does not exist: there is nothing but stillness, peace. Thank God. …” (344)

    The heavens care nothing for what Andrei has been struggling to attain. Glory now appears trivial. To understand life, one must be able to look on it from outside, as if one were with God.

    Divine Love

    Andrei repeatedly adopts new ideals and life stories, only to become disillusioned with them. He pursues phantoms only to discover their emptiness. After each disappointment, he adopts a story in which the meaning of life lies in its meaninglessness. As Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher (whom Tolstoy deeply admired), explained, we are constantly seduced to believe in one goal or another, but even if we attain it, it proves to be empty. At last, something shocks Andrei back to life once more and he imagines some new happiness or heroism is possible. Throughout the book, he jolts from epic to Ecclesiastes and back again. Only rarely does he recall those infinite heavens.

    On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Andrei, disillusioned by his fiancée Natasha’s involvement with Anatol Kuragin, looks at life illuminated by a “cold, white light” that shows everything apparently meaningful to be fake:

    There they are, those crudely painted figures that once seemed splendid and mysterious. Glory, the commonweal, love for a woman, the fatherland itself – how grand those pictures appeared to me, and with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled! And it is all so simple, colorless and crude in the cold white light of the morning that I feel is dawning for me. (925–6)

    There are no more infinite heavens. “It was as if that infinite, receding canopy of heaven that had once stood over him had suddenly turned into a low, fixed vault that weighed down on him, in which all was clear but nothing was eternal or mysterious” (757). Life seems pointless and not worth living, while death no longer seems so terrible.

    But the imminent proximity of death proves that philosophy mistaken as no arguments ever could. When Andrei watches the bomb spinning like a top before exploding in front of him, he unexpectedly finds himself wanting to live. He thinks: “Can this be death? … I can’t die. I don’t want to die. I love life – love this grass, this earth, this air” (973). As he lies badly wounded, Andrei recognizes, once again, that the story he has been telling about life is wrong. “Why was I so reluctant to relinquish life? There was something about this life that I did not and do not now understand” (975).

    What follows over the next few hundred pages has been celebrated as the greatest death in world literature. As a medical assistant undresses him, “Prince Andrei’s earliest and most remote childhood memories were awakened.” When the doctor probes his wound, Andrei loses consciousness from the pain, and when he comes to, the doctor “bent over him, kissed him on the lips, and hurried away without a word” (977).

    Only Tolstoy would describe a man so horribly wounded experiencing

    a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced for a long time. All the happiest moments of his life – especially those of early childhood, when he had been undressed and put to bed, and when his nurse had sung lullabies to him and he had buried his head in the pillow and felt happy just to be alive – rose to his mind, not as something past, but as a present reality.” (977)

    As at Austerlitz, Andrei’s old stories have disappeared. And this time a new joyful state of mind, beyond all stories, is taking shape. Now Andrei is not pursuing any goal, but living in direct contact with life itself.

    Lying among the wounded, Andrei witnesses a man, the back of whose head looks vaguely familiar, suffering intensely. Andrei pities his fellow sufferer from the bottom of his heart. The man shrieks as his leg is amputated, and

    hearing this man, Prince Andrei wanted to weep. Whether because he was dying without glory, or because he was loath to relinquish his life, or because of those memories of an irretrievable childhood, or because he was suffering, others were suffering, and that man was moaning so piteously, he felt like weeping childlike, benign, almost happy tears. (978)

    Andrei extends his love without reserve.

    When the doctor moves aside, Andrei suddenly realizes that the man he has been pitying and loving is his worst enemy, Anatol Kuragin. But he does not immediately grasp what that means. Tolstoy is famous for breaking down consciousness into minute alterations, so that what other writers would depict as a single step from A to B actually proves to consist of many smaller steps. People experience these tiny alterations, but they rarely remember them because in retrospect the recognition and its significance, A and B, seem simultaneous. But they are not. Even the most obvious deduction requires the expenditure of mental energy. Recognizing that the person is Anatol Kuragin therefore does not mean Andrei immediately recalls Kuragin’s role in his life.

    Enlightenment comes unwilled, by sheer grace; but it matters only because the hero chooses to embrace it.

    Although he recognizes Kuragin, Tolstoy explains, Andrei, “not yet clearly realizing what he saw before him,” does not yet understand Kuragin’s place in the story of his life. “What is this man’s connection with my childhood, with my life?” he asks himself without finding an answer. “And all at once a new and unexpected memory from that realm of childhood, purity, and love, presented itself to Prince Andrei,” a memory of his fiancée Natasha when he first met her and before Kuragin turned her head. Only now, when his heart is filled with love, does Andrei remember who Kuragin is, “and a fervid love for this man welled up in his heart” (978).

    Andrei does not draw back from this unbidden feeling, as he might have chosen to do. Rather, he embraces it. He thinks:

    Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, and for those who hate us, love for our enemies – yes, that is the love which God preached on earth, and which [my pious sister] Princess Marya tried to teach me and I did not understand; that is what made me loath to relinquish my life; that is what remained for me had I lived. (978)

    Nothing in the gospel seems more psychologically impossible than the command to love not just our neighbors but even our enemies. Many wonder: could such love be only an unattainable ideal, to which we must try to come as close as we can?

    If it were possible to describe love for one’s enemies in a way that is psychologically plausible, then, Dostoyevsky believed, we could believe it is really possible. But Dostoyevsky was unable to do it. Tolstoy, and Tolstoy alone, succeeded, in this scene and again in Anna Karenina. He does so by breaking consciousness into tiny steps. Each small step seems plausible and so when we reach the conclusion, we grant it. In this case, moreover, Tolstoy has Prince Andrei pity his enemy before he knows it is his enemy. Love for his enemy comes to him as a gift, but the key moment is his acknowledging and accepting this love. Like the epiphanies of Ivan Ilych and Brekhunov, enlightenment comes unwilled, by sheer grace; but it matters only because the hero chooses to embrace it.

    After the Rostovs by chance – or is it chance? – discover the wounded Prince Andrei, we trace his sequence of thoughts until, at last, he dies. Needing a pillow to be placed under his injury and thinking of the Christian truth revealed to him, the wounded man confuses the two lines of thought and asks for the Gospel to be placed under him.

    Thinking about love, Andrei realizes that divine love differs from earthly love. Earthly love consists of desire, entails a goal, and places one in a story about achieving that goal. Divine love exists outside of all desires and stories. Andrei thinks:

    “Yes, love” (he thought with absolute clarity), “but not that love which loves … to gain something, but the love I knew for the first time when dying, I saw an enemy and yet loved him. I experienced that feeling of love which is the very essence of the soul and which requires no object. Now again I feel that bliss. To love one’s neighbor, to love one’s enemy – to love God in all his manifestations. It is possible to love someone near to you with human love, but an enemy can be loved only with divine love. And that is why I knew such joy when I felt that I loved that man.” (1102)

    Thinking of Natasha, Andrei now surrenders his feeling of how she injured him and “for the first time, he understood all the cruelty of his rejection of her” (1102). When she actually appears before him, he cannot at first believe it. From this time forward he is torn between the two kinds of love, the earthly love for Natasha that links him with life and the divine love that is apparently incompatible with it.

    At last, as Natasha tells Princess Marya, something decisive that she does not understand happens to Andrei. He passes over to the other side and, for a few days, lives as if posthumously, no longer able to look at events from within life. Andrei no longer seems to understand ordinary human relations; he blesses his son only because it is expected of him, and talks to Natasha as if he were not among the living. Natasha and Marya sense in him

    that alienation from all things earthly that is so terrible to one who is alive. Evidently it was difficult for him to understand anything living; yet, it seemed that he failed to understand not because he had lost the power to do so, but because he understood something else – something the living did not and could not understand, and which wholly absorbed him. (1170)

    Andrei makes an effort to see things from their point of view. “Yes, to them it must seem sad, but how simple it is!” he thinks (1170). He thinks of the lines from the Sermon on the Mount: “The fowls of the air sow not, neither do they reap, yet your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Matt. 6:26) and he wants to say these words to the others, but realizes that they would not understand them as he does because they still view life from within. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow,” the passage continues (Matt. 6:34). To Andrei, the gospel means that we must not live anticipating the future, must not imagine the moment as part of a larger story with a goal to which we are striving. But for the living, that is as impossible as loving one’s enemy, since people experience each moment as opening into a future moment as surely as someone walking anticipates the ground ahead of him. The living cannot understand, as Andrei does, “that all these feelings they set such store by – all our feelings, all those ideas that seem so important to us, do not matter” (1171).

    Andrei is not looking at those infinite heavens, he is looking down from them. Tolstoy implicitly asks: can one somehow combine the love of the living with divine love, can one live an earthly life illumined in some way by the divine love visible from a posthumous perspective?

    Pierre’s Faith

    Pierre’s story offers an answer. Like his friend Andrei, Pierre alternates between ideals he embraces enthusiastically and despair that they have proven false. Time and again Pierre discovers that each ideal or theory has overlooked something essential, and so he is shocked out of the story he has been telling himself.

    As with Ivan Ilych, it is individuality that upsets Pierre because it is too varied for any single story or philosophy to encompass. When Pierre delivers his speech to the Masons, their reaction surprises him. It is not the disagreement of some but the agreement of others that disturbs him, because they do not agree with him perfectly. They all “understood him in their own way, with stipulations and modifications he could not agree to, since what he chiefly desired was to convey his thought to others exactly as he himself understood it” (528). If the true philosophy is to overcome human difference, how can people differ on how to interpret it? Absolute coincidence of minds is even more important than the doctrine agreed to, but Pierre now realizes that is impossible. “At this meeting Pierre for the first time was struck by the endless variety of men’s mind, which prevents a truth from ever appearing [precisely] the same to any two persons” (528).

    Pierre desires absolute certainty. For him, there is no middle ground between that and total relativism, which makes all action pointless. He alternates between these two extremes and probably would have continued to do so had he not been captured by the French, escaped execution by mere chance, and suffered great privation as a prisoner of war. As with Tolstoy’s other heroes, suffering and imminent mortality enlighten him.

    Haunted by the memory of the executions he has witnessed and miraculously escaped, Pierre falls into a despair greater than any he has felt before:

    as if the mainspring of his soul, on which everything depended, and which made everything seem alive, had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he was not aware of it, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his soul, and in God, had been destroyed. (1156)

    It is at just this moment that he – by chance? – meets the wise peasant Karataev, who embodies the very opposite of what Pierre is feeling. Karataev has faith without any system or theology. Everything he does conveys kindness.

    Karataev lives entirely outside story. He cannot even think in terms of it. Rather, he deeply appreciates and is able to evoke for others the richness and divine beauty of each moment, apart from any sequence. He endows “the most ordinary incidents – often those that Pierre himself had witnessed without noticing them … [with] a ceremonial beauty” (1162). Karataev’s speech is rich in proverbs expressing God’s wisdom, but he uses each proverb not to enunciate a timeless truth applicable everywhere but to bring out the meaningful quality of each situation and each moment. That is why, when Pierre asks him to repeat what he has just said, he instead offers a somewhat different proverb, “thinking he was repeating what he had said” (1158). Each moment is slightly different from the previous one and so requires a different way to express its beauty. Pierre marvels that Karataev “would often say the exact opposite of what he had said on a previous occasion, yet both would be right” because each occasion has an integrity of its own (1162).

    Like death, salvation happens privately. We all must wait for the saving moment alone.

    Karataev has no sense of futurity or goal. Instead, he displays an amazing appreciation of the particular context of the moment, and everything has meaning for him only in relation to that context. He “could not [even] grasp the significance of words apart from their context. … He could not understand … the value or significance of any word or deed taken separately” (1163). Taken to such an extreme, the inability to generalize or understand sequence borders on idiocy. Can Pierre appreciate Karataev’s wisdom without surrendering everything else he knows?

    Andrei’s divine love entails taking no heed for the morrow, and that is precisely Karataev’s way of living. Pierre’s acquaintance with him is an encounter with the same truth Andrei achieves only by leaving the world of the living. Pierre, by contrast, still has a chance to live and adapt that truth to present circumstances.

    When Andrei achieves this wisdom, he can no longer love any particular person; again that is true of Karataev. So immersed is he in the moment, so outside all thinking in terms of sequence and story, that he can love no individual:

    Karataev had no attachments, friendships, loves, in the sense that Pierre understood them; but he loved and lived on affectionate terms with everything life brought him into contact with, and especially with man – not with any particular man, but simply those he happened to be with. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and Pierre, who was his neighbor; but Pierre felt that for all Karataev’s affectionate tenderness toward him … he would not have suffered a moment’s grief at parting from him. (1162–3)

    When the war ends, Pierre manages to be guided by Karataev’s sense of each moment’s beauty and of the essential rightness of God’s world while also loving Natasha in all her particularity. That, perhaps, is the supreme wisdom.

    Now the differences between people become for Pierre yet another manifestation of the infinite variety of God’s world. He knows that because of human individuality it is experience, not abstract argument, that shapes people’s deepest beliefs. Consequently, Pierre recognizes “the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words” and acknowledges

    the possibility of every man thinking, feeling, and seeing things in his own way. This legitimate individuality of every man’s views, which formerly troubled or irritated Pierre, now became the basis of the sympathy he felt for people and the interest that he took in them. (1323)

    Pierre can now make good ethical decisions, not by applying a generality or rule, but by deeply appreciating the particularities of each situation.

    While in captivity, Pierre hears a voice in a dream saying: “Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in the consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God” (1272). As Karataev appreciated, meaning is to be found not in the mists of distance, not in some remote theory, but in the world and people right before us. As Pierre’s childhood nurse had taught him, God is here and everywhere.

    Pierre “had learned to see the great, the eternal, the infinite in everything … and joyfully surveyed the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him” (1320). The terrible question of life’s meaning, of “What for?” that used to shatter all his dreams and theories no longer bothers him, not because he has answered it but because it has disappeared. It “no longer existed for him. To that question: What for? a simple answer was now ready in his soul: Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair of a man’s head falls” (1320).


    1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), 72. On Wittgenstein’s debt to Tolstoy, see Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (Ivan R. Dee, 1973).
    2. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Harper and Row, 1967), 295.
    3. See the chapter “Tolstoy’s Absolute Language” in Gary Saul Morson, Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in War and Peace (Stanford University Press, 1987), 9–36.
    4. Great Short Works, 295.
    5. Great Short Works, 301.
    6. Great Short Works, 302.
    7. Great Short Works, 302.
    8. Great Short Works, 496.
    9. Great Short Works, 497.
    10. Great Short Works, 497.
    11. Great Short Works, 498.
    12. The Short Stories of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Arthur Mendel and Barbara Makanowitzky (Bantam, 1960), 211.
    13. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Ann Dunnigan (Signet, 1968), 53. Further references, given in the text, are to War and Peace.
    14. Leo Tolstoy, “Some Words about the Book ‘War and Peace’” in Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Aylmer Maude, ed. George Gibian (Norton, 1966), 1370.
    Contributed By GarySaulMorson Gary Saul Morson

    Gary Saul Morson is an American literary critic and scholar best known for his work on the great Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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