Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Tolstoi, Count Lev Nikolaevich (1828–1910)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E039-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from

Article Summary

Tolstoi expressed philosophical ideas in his novels Voina i mir (War and Peace) (1865–9) and Anna Karenina (1875–7), which are often regarded as the summit of realism, as well as in shorter fictional works, such as Smert’ Ivana Il’icha (The Death of Ivan Il’ich) (1886), often praised as the finest novella in European literature. In addition, he wrote numerous essays and tracts on religious, moral, social, educational and aesthetic topics, most notably ‘Chto takoe iskusstvo?’ (’What Is Art?’) (1898), Tsarstvo Bozhie vnutri vas (The Kingdom of God Is Within You) (1893) and his autobiographical meditation ’Ispoved’’ (A Confession) (1884).

Tolstoi apparently used his essays, letters and diaries to explore ideas by stating them in their most extreme form, while his fiction developed them with much greater subtlety. Critics have discerned a sharp break in his work: an earlier period, in which he produced the two great novels, is dominated by deep scepticism; and a later period following the existential trauma and subsequent conversion experience described in ’Ispoved’’. Tolstoi stressed the radical contingency of events, valued practical over theoretical reasoning, and satirized any and all overarching systems. After 1880, he assumed the role of a prophet, claiming to have found the true meaning of Christianity. He ‘edited’ the Gospels by keeping only those passages containing the essence of Christ’s teaching and dismissed the rest as so many layers of falsification imposed by ecclesiastics. Tolstoi preached pacifism, anarchism, vegetarianism, passive resistance to evil (a doctrine that influenced Gandhi), a radical asceticism that would have banned sex even within marriage, and a theory of art that rejected most classic authors, including the plays of Shakespeare and Tolstoi’s own earlier novels.

Citing this article:
Morson, Gary Saul. Tolstoi, Count Lev Nikolaevich (1828–1910), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.