After turning 50, Leo Tolstoy started suffering an existential crisis and fell into a state of depression and desolation. Despite being one of the richest and most admired men in Russia, deep down, he felt dejected.
Up to now, Tolstoy had already demonstrated his literary abilities and created two renowned masterpieces, War and Peace, completed in 1869 and, Anna Karenina completed in 1877. But he did not appreciate his literary success and labeled his novel Anna Karenina as “an abomination that no longer exists for me.”
He acquired celebrity status in 1910 because of his political and moral campaigning and his status as a visionary, apostle, moralist, and philosophical teacher than to his talents as a writer of fiction. A vegetarian, peace-lover, and enemy of private property, he was, over the last decades of his long life, a constant critic of the Russian imperial regime and of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As soon as he set foot in the worst phase of his life and started experiencing suicidal thoughts, he desired to give himself that one last chance to see the light amongst the darkness of his existence. This was the time when he translated his mental turbulence into an autobiographical memoir, The Confession. In this book, you can see Tolstoy struggle with his mind and how he tries to uncover the answers to the ultimate and mind-bending philosophical questions.
“If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?.”
What Sparked Tolstoy Depression?
The Confession was published when Tolstoy turned 51. He gave a detailed description of what he felt while he was in depression.
“Life had grown hateful to me, and some insuperable force was leading me to seek deliverance from it by whatever means. I could not say that I wanted to kill myself. The force beckoning me away from life was a more powerful, complete, and overall desire.
“It was a force similar to my striving afterlife, only it was going in the other direction. I fought as hard as I could against life. The thought of suicide now came to me as naturally as thoughts of improving my life had previously come to me.
All this was happening to me at a time when I was surrounded on all sides by what is considered complete happiness: I was not yet fifty, I had a kind, loving, and beloved wife, lovely children, and a large estate that was growing and expanding with no effort on my part”.
Tolstoy was not able to understand his impression. In retrospection, he realized that he always had a quest for a “perfect life” and a sense of competition with his peers.
“I tried to perfect myself intellectually and studied everything I came upon in life. I tried to perfect my will, setting myself rules I tried to follow. I perfected myself physically, practicing all kinds of exercises in order to develop my strength and dexterity, and I cultivated endurance and patience by undergoing all kinds of hardship”.
This took him to a point where he felt his life was worthless and death is inevitable.
Tolstoy’s observation on how others dealt with the meaninglessness of life
Tolstoy spotted four approaches that people have been using to deal with their mental health
- He observed that people are ignorant and fail to identify that life is meaningless. Such people may not have thought or do not think of a purpose in life.
- The second approach was Epicureanism. These types of people think that life is momentary and one should totally enjoy the time he has. But Tolstoy noticed that this approach captures only those people who could afford a wealthy lifestyle and is not struggling for survival.
- The third approach was “suicide.” Yes, you read it right, the people who have realized the meaninglessness “act duly and bring an end to their life.”
- And the final approach in which he found himself was to stick to a worthless life knowing that nothing could come out of it. We have to do what we have to do.
What was Tolstoy’s solution?
Tolstoy’s hopelessness and anxiety worsened when he understood that physical science and philosophy could not answer the most important question of life and existence.
Progressively, he observed that the people who are poor, uneducated, face hardship and suffering live the purest form of life. Even though they spend most of their lives working day and night, they are still “happy” in their lives.
However, Tolstoy found that people in his circle are rich but not satisfied.
Tolstoy spotted that the more he understood the lives of the poor, the easier it became for him to live. This realization wanted him to help the poor people and those who suffer.
“He, too, must work for his existence, just as the animals do, but with the difference that he will perish if he does it alone, for he must work for existence, not just for himself, but for everyone”.
Tolstoy abandoned his aristocratic lifestyle and lived the rest of his life preaching love, peace, non-violence, and helping the people in need. He died of pneumonia at Astapovo railway station in 1910.
“I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real-life, and — taking the meaning given to live by real humanity and merging myself in that life”.