Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tolstoy's Confession: A Quotable Format

One of my goals for this year was to read something by Tolstoy. Not wanting to dive into anything as long as War and Peace, I chose a much shorter, but no less heady excerpt: A Confession. Within these pages, Tolstoy explains his early life and his struggle for meaning and how he came to find it in his own way. I've highlighted some quotes that I think reveal the essence of this incredible little book, from beginning to end: 

"Judgements on what is good and necessary must not be based on what other people say and do, or on progress, but on the instincts of my own soul" (13). 

"It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience. It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?" (26). 

"I can find nothing resembling an answer. This is not because, as in the case of the clear, experimental sciences, the answer does not relate to the question, but because despite all the intellectual effort directed at my question, there is no answer. And instead of an answer all one gets is the same question, only put in a more complicated form" (33).  

"It appeared that mankind as a whole had some kind of comprehension of the meaning of life that I did not acknowledge and derided. It followed that rational knowledge does not provide the meaning of life, but excludes it; while the meaning given to life by the millions of people, by humanity as a whole, is founded on some sort of knowledge that is despised and considered false" (53). 

"I realized that no matter how irrational and distorted the answers given by faith might be, they had the advantage of introducing to every answer a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution" (57).

"Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death" (58). 

"If it were not so frightening it would be amusing to observe the pride and complacency with which we, like children, take apart the watch, pull out he spring and make a toy of it, and are then surprised with the watch stops working" (60). 

"In contrast to what I saw happening in my own circle, where the whole of life is spent in idleness, amusement and dissatisfaction with life, I saw that these people who labored hard throughout their entire lives were less dissatisfied with life than the rich" (65). 

"What happened was that the life of our class, the rich and learned, became not only distasteful to me, but lost all meaning. All our activities, our discussions, or science and our art struck me as sheer indulgence. I realized there was no meaning to be found there" (66). 

"I had been blinded from the truth not so much through my mistaken thoughts as through my life itself, which had been spent in satisfying desire and in exclusive conditions of epicureanism [enjoying life]" (67).

"The thing that saved me was that I managed to tear myself away from my exclusive existence and see the true life of the simple working people, and realize that this alone is genuine life" (71). 

"I realized that if I wanted to understand life and its meaning I had to live a genuine life and not that of a parasite; and having accepted the meaning that is given to life by that real section of humanity who have become part of that genuine life, I had to try it out" (71).

"I recalled the hundreds of occasions when life had died within me only to be reborn. I remembered that I only lived during those times when I believed in God. Then, as now, I said to myself: I have only to believe in God in order to live. I have only to disbelieve in Him, or forget Him, in order to die" (74). 

"What are these deaths and rebirths? It is clear that I do not live when I lose belief in God's existence, and I should have killed myself long ago, were it not for a dim hope of finding Him" (74-75). 

"What then is it that you are seeking? a voice exclaimed inside me. There He is! He, without whom it is impossible to live. To know God and to live are one and the same thing. God is life" (75). 

I renounced the life of our class, having recognized that it is not life but only a semblance of life, and that the conditions of luxury in which we live deprive us of the possibility of understanding life" (78). 

"Man's purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul he must live according to God. In order to live according to God one must renounce all the comforts of life, work, be humble, suffer and be merciful" (78). [Tolstoy's conclusion. However...]

"If it is to answer to people living in the most differing circumstances of life and of different education, and if there is only one answer to the eternal questions of life--why do I live? what is the purpose of my life?--this answer, although essentially always the same, must be endlessly varied in its manifestation" (80). 

"Religious truth cannot be attained by one man alone, but only reveals itself to a union of all people, united through love" (81). 

"As I rose early in the morning to go to church I knew that I was doing something good, if only in that I was sacrificing my bodily comforts in order to subdue my proud mind, for the sake of unity with my ancestors and contemporaries, and to find the meaning of life" (82). 

"'Love one another in unity'" (82). 

"The question that first presents itself is: why is the truth not to be found in Lutheranism, or Catholicism, but only in the Orthodox faith?...the Protestants and Catholics are equally convinced of the singular truth of their faiths" (90). 

"Then I understood it all. While I am seeking faith, the force of life, they are seeking the best way of fulfilling, in the eyes of men, certain human obligations. And in fulfilling these human affairs they they perform them in a human fashion" (91). ["human fashion" = imperfectly]

"I...was fully convinced that not all the teachings of the faith I had joined were true. Whereas before I used to say that all religious teaching is a lie, I no longer found it possible to say this. There could be no doubt that the people as a whole had a knowledge of the truth, otherwise they would not be here" (93). 

"I have no doubt that there is truth in the teachings, but I also have no doubt that there is falsehood in them too, and that I must discover what is true and what is false and separate one from the other" (94). 


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