Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky Term Paper

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Compare and contrast their approaches to the question of faith.

One of the features of the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky was the emergence of philosophical and religious thoughts that promoted spirituality without religion. The tendency to reject organized religion in favor of personal spirituality or a direct relationship with God gained prominence at this age in Russia because of widespread disillusionment with the state-supported religion, corruption and hypocrisy of the official clergy. None perhaps popularized such spirituality in Russia more than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Both of these figures had a complicated relationship with the official Orthodox Christianity. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Russian Patriarch in 1901. But while Dostoevsky's criticism of organized religion remained subtle and he emphasized the importance of faith, Tolstoy was scathing in his attacks on Russian Orthodox religion and at times he directly questioned the existence of God. Tolstoy was a strong rationalist. Nevertheless the question of God for him was of utmost importance and he, like Dostoevsky, possessed a profound spirituality.

As a rationalist, Tolstoy wanted to find reasonable answers to all the questions that bothered him. His criticism of the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church rested on the incompatibility of those teachings with reason. Therefore he rejected them. Although he said many times that he believed in Christ, Tolstoy rejected Christ's divinity and the whole concept of Trinity, describing it as "based on nothing" and "useless" (Rancour-Lafarriere, 2007, p. 80). Dostoevsky, on the other hand, believed that the complexity of life could not be solved through reason. Only by having faith, one could make sense of all the suffering in the world and understand the meaning of life. This is one of the themes of the Brothers Karamazov. There is no rational way of understanding so much suffering in the world; only through faith one can make sense of them and achieve mental and spiritual freedom. When critically analyzed, neither Tolstoy nor Dostoevsky had a coherent religious philosophy. It should also be noted that their religious views and spirituality were dynamic, changing through time and reflecting their life experiences.

Comparing the religious views and spirituality of two authors, as reflected in Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, Joshua Steele (2005) makes the following observation: "Tolstoy's Christian philosophy of daily living is admirable but cannot be supported by his reason-based religion. Dostoevsky's faith-based religion, on the other hand, is more theologically based in Christianity but the conclusions he draws from this faith and applies to everyday life, both in his fiction and his actual life, are suspect at best." This is an apt observation, as both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky expressed ambivalent feelings about the role of both faith and reason. Tolstoy argued for a Christian philosophy different from the one taught by the official clergy, but to what extent his philosophy then could be called "Christian"? Did Tolstoy profess Christianity as taught by the Christ or a "Christianity" he invented in his own mind? It is hard to give a definite answer to this question. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, argued for the supremacy of faith but he also subtly criticized Christianity and organized religion in general. One might therefore make an argument for the "closing" of the "distance" between the two literary titans (Rosenblium, 2009).

The Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov was not accepted well by Dostoevsky's friends and religious clergy. Here, the true meanings of Dostoevsky's discussion of faith remain a mystery, making ambivalent suggestions. On the one hand, Dostoevsky affirms the supremacy of faith for understanding the meaning of life, but he also suggests that the teaching of Christ is impractical in this world. It is the ideal one can aspire but is literally unachievable. The freedom given to humanity by Christ leads to "slavery and confusion," unless human beings are ruled by a despot like the Grand Inquisitor. As Williams (2008) explains, "the Inquisitor can guarantee the prosaic happiness of the ordinary and weak, the humble who are left without hope by the impossible demands and promises of the gospel, a gospel that could only ever make sense to a tiny minority of spiritual athletes" (p. 27). It is clear that Dostoevsky here is challenging fundamental doctrines of Christianity. So, while he has faith and argues for its supremacy, his understanding of Christianity makes his adherence to the teachings of Christ suspect. And unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky critiques the Christian doctrine in a subtle, but no less powerful, manner.

Tolstoy had no bones about questioning the wisdom of organized religion. In his diary entry of March 5, 1855, he wrote: "Talking about divinity and faith has led me to a great, immense idea, one I feel I can devote my whole life to fulfilling -- founding a new religion in agreement with the history of mankind and Christ's religion, but cleansed of all faith and sacraments; a practical religion that, rather than promising future bliss, gives bliss on earth" (qtd. In Boots, 2009, p. 46). He reiterated such feelings later in his life, as well. These confessions are indeed telling. It is clear that faith means a lot to him. He also has an admiration for the life of Christ. But Tolstoy, as a rationalist, wants to possess his faith in a practical way, in a manner that helps him achieve inner peace with himself -- a kind of faith that brings heaven to the earth. He has no patience for listening of the clergy who promise the heavenly bliss, while sustaining a system that oppresses the masses. Tolstoy also abhors religious sacraments that make absolutely no sense to him rationally.

Tolstoy wanted to privatize his faith and spirituality. All his attacks against religion were directed at the clergy and, as he believed, teachings of others who changed Christianity to suit their needs and wishes. Otherwise, Tolstoy could not imagine a life without faith. "All of my life I have been concerned with religious and questions, and outside of them I see no meaning in human existence," he said. "You say you don't know what I believe in. Strange and terrible to say: not in anything that religion teaches us; but at the same time I not only hate and despise unbelief, but I can see no possibility of living, and still less of dying, without faith" (qtd. In Rancour-Laferriere, 2007, p. 1). There is abundant documentation of Tolstoy's affirmation of the primacy of faith -- but faith which he privatized and rationalized. Unlike Dostoevsky, however, Tolstoy did not inquire the question of faith as explicitly in his fiction. He discussed his spirituality, faith, and moral crisis trying to reconcile those two with reason in his non-fiction works.

Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy became more explicit in affirming his belief in Christ. Especially appealing to him was the doctrine of nonresistance to evil. He believed that Christians had largely forgotten this law, at least since the era of Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century. As someone who studied Oriental religions in-depth and admired wise men who established Hinduism and Buddhism, Tolstoy nevertheless believed that Christianity was "superior" to those religions, primarily because of Christ's law on nonresistance to evil. In his letters to Chertkov, Tolstoy wrote that "there is one teacher -- Christ" and that "God's truth [comes] through Christ, there is no other path" (Rancour-Laferriere, 2007, p. 90). Tolstoy also saw a parallel between this law and the peaceful life of Russian peasants. In this regard, one might see a parallel between the views of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Tolstoy was averse to the idea of a state/Church but Dostoevsky, who believed in it, envisioned it based on the moral ideals of Russian peasants. As Rosinblium (2009) notes, this "feature of Dostoevsky's religiosity (unorthodox in so many ways) was somewhat congenial to Tolstoy" (p. 79).

It is ultimately hard to pin down religious views of both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because of the fluidity of their faith. They were both complex figures whose ideas sometimes changed with time. Both remained deeply spiritual throughout their lives. And both struggled with their faith as well as spirituality, sometimes unable to reconcile religious morality with their personal understandings of morality. For Tolstoy, the lack of rationality in religious beliefs was especially problematic, whereas Dostoevsky believed that trying to understand the meaning of life through reason was pointless. The life meant sense only through faith. Perhaps, Tolstoy believed the same. But he struggled hard to rationalize it. Dostoevsky did not express much interest in non-Christian religions. Tolstoy, on the other hand, studied them well, trying to find a common ground and see the wisdom in their teachings. What ultimately united both writers, however, was the quest for universal love. They both in the end believed that the only solution to the problems of the world was faith that had universal love at the heart of it.


Boot, a. (2009). God and man according to Tolstoy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dostoyevsky, F., & Dostoyevsky, F.…[continue]

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