Tolstoy's Theory of Life, July 11, 1902


A Lecture by Miss Jane Addams Describing the Views and Theories of the Great Russian.

Miss Jane Addams lectured last Friday evening at the Hall, on "Count Tolstoy's Theory of Life," as follows:

Today we may take Tolstoy as a man of his kind, if we are willing to admit that there are two kinds of men.  Perhaps it is because he is able to make a synthesis between such divergent classes as the peasant and the Russian noble, the type of the uneducated and the educated, that his life is of such interest.

When we approach labor from the standpoint of the man who does little of it with his hands, on the theory that he is doing something more valuable to society, then we get to the view that many people hold.  From that point of view Tolstoy radically dissents and claims it is leading us into all sorts of difficulties.  He considers that everybody ought to do four kinds of labor.  He would, of course, always excuse the ill, the aged, and little children, but the bulk of the people ought to do some <[thing]> of these four kinds of labor.

The first he describes that which involves the heavier muscles of the body, what we call manual labor when we do not mean the use of our hands, but the brute force, which resides in us all; that kind of labor which is involved in the plowing of the field, the carrying of bricks.  He says that what we do now is to insist that a certain portion of the community shall perform a part of this brutalizing and dehumanizing labor that it would not be brutalizing and dehumanizing if it were done in small quantities, but having to be done for long hours and for a long time, it becomes so.  If we all took a part of this, two things would happen: first, we should get a better companionship with each other, and get rid of a good deal of the twaddle of the heroism of it; and we should simplify our lives.  Many of the things now used are not necessary, but we [use them] because other people do the work.  He does not object to machinery.  He is only opposed to machinery in so far as it benefits only a few people; he would have it relieve those people on whom falls too much of this heavy labor.

The second kind of labor he would insist on everyone's doing, is what is ordinarily called skilled labor – what goes on in factories.  He himself makes shoes during the winter, when he can not do heavier work.  It is quite the custom to make fun of [Tolstoy's] [illegible]. Tolstoy himself is rather simple about this.  He says he did not learn to make them until after he was fifty-five, and a man does not ordinarily learn a trade very well at that age.  But he makes them conscientiously.  We see streams of people going into factories and we have nothing whereby to interpret their experience.  Here again, if we had some of this experience we would try to simplify our lives, because we would then realize, as we do not now, some of the work on which it is founded.  Many people would then stop wearing many things, and having many things in their houses which are not needed and which do not beautify us or our homes.  Many of these things are put constantly on the market simply because the manufacturers hope to make money on them.

Then we all ought to do some kind of literary work, and this, he insists, is the prerogative of everybody.  Nothing is more stupid than to have one class to write our books and deliver our sermons.  People who do that, he says, also become more or less dehumanized and brutalized by it.  They lose the ability to appreciate the standpoint of other people.  They need to exercise, and so they go into gymnasiums or ride trotting horses, and do a lot of other such things to break up the monotony.  He claims that no matter how humble a man, he has a right to give his point of view.  He insists that then the whole world would be much richer, because all men's minds differ in concrete values.  The hopes of every great democracy is to teach every child to use his mind consistently and easily, and thus to add to the sum total of the world's [missing line] one ought to engage in, is social effort, labor which no one can perform by himself, associated effort of various sorts, from the reception of party, where people come together to free their minds, up to the larger social relations involved in the promotion of religion, philanthropy, education and other causes.  He says that to set people aside to do this professionally is to make a mistake; they get into a treadmill, and they cannot do it with power, with that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.

I think we should all agree that there is much in this division of labor; that it is a mistake to settle down to carry bricks or write books or do anything else alone.  Tolstoy, when he came to this point of view, acted on it without any thought of doing anything else.  He does his heavy work in the summer in the fields with the peasants, carries the water supply for the house up to the reservoir at the top of the house, and takes his turn at the wood pile.  In bad weather, or when there no heavy work on hand, he makes his shoes or does some other piece of work.  In his study there are various things he has made, some of them with beauty and all of them with character.  And then he does his writing.  He has done an immense amount of literary work since he began this course twenty years ago.  He insists that he does more writing with this method of life.  He says that when he tried simply to write, he would get tired after two or three hours' work, so he had to stop and take long walks or get other exercise.  He has not written so many novels in this period but that is because he thinks they are not so useful.  In the evening he gives himself over to social life, trying to get the point of view of his visitors.  He has the sweetest and humblest attitude possible – the only thing that could give social intercourse.  The evening I happened to be at his house there were [illegible words] [a large] company, who at considerable inconvenience had come together in this out-of-the-way place to sit in the room with the kindly old man.  We perhaps thought ourselves too valuable to spend our morning in the field and our afternoon making shoes, but here was the sage and saint willing to do it, thinking himself quite too much a part of his fellows not to do it.  It is the sermon which the deed preaches.

Let us look at Tolstoy's theory in regard to art.  For many years he wrote these stories, and then he became convinced that the novels were not attaining their highest usefulness because they were read by a limited number of people.  Not that his books were not read, for they had a great sale in every country.  But he said they appealed only to one class of people; they were not read by working people as a rule, by the people who have very little time for reading and feel that they must then take that which feeds the hunger of the heart, but they were read by people who wanted to be amused and who would not act on anything they read in the novels.  So he gave them up.  He said if the peasant supplied him with the common needs of life, so far as he could he hoped to give it back. So we went back to the essay, giving the deeper views of life.  He does not deny that he liked novel writing, that it gave him pleasure and he could do it fluently, but for twenty years he has tried to cultivate the other, which seemed to him like the higher form.  One of the most pathetic things in literature is the letter which [Turgenev] wrote him when he heard of his attitude.  He begged him not to give up the work of a great novelist.  Letters came to him from all over the world, but he refused them all.  He said, "What is this reason of ours for if it is not to follow?"

Tolstoy's theory of art has been expounded in his book "What is Art."  This is great fun for the critics.  He quarrels with the theory of art of the Greeks and the French, and even with the simpler definitions of Morris and Ruskin.  He sets aside much that has been called beautiful in literature.  He [missing line] [Shakespeare].  Tolstoy says that only is art which conveys from one mind to another mind the state of feelings which the artist has for the moment; that which gives you the experience of the artist.  It may or may not be beautiful, but it carries you over into the other man's mind.  If you hear a story and for a moment break out of yourself, then the writer is an artist; if he fails to touch you, then he is no artist.  The same thing he would say of pictures and music.  It is that which breaks through the individual point of view which is art.  That artist is great who loses his self-consciousness and lives over again the thing as it happened that moment and tells that which seems worth telling because it touches all human experience.

He illustrates this theory in various ways.  He imagines a lot of men working together in a field.  At the end of the season they divide the product of the field according to their labor.  One man goes to the edge of the field and gets a reed and cuts holes in it and finds it gives music.  The others are so pleased that they say they would rather have his music than to have him work in the field.  They are willing to do the other tenth of the work if he will play for them.  Tolstoy says that is the legitimate place of the artist.  But, what too often happens, the artist gets tired of playing to the men in the field and he grows into feeling that he is not appreciated, that the men in the field do not know what art is.  So he puts his pipe under his arm and goes searching for appreciation.  He goes to Paris and joins an orchestra and loses himself, he thinks, in the study of art.  He no longer solaces people who labor, the people who hear him are not the ones who labor; many come because they believe in that way they are leading a cultivated life.  The artist responds to all these demands.  He becomes ambitious to excel; he forgets to solace his audience and forgets [the vast?] [illegible words] [people still] tilling the field and who have nothing to do with this art of his.  The people who have been left to labor without art sometimes get their art of the lowest type, the music which purposely appeals to the sensual, the pictures that appeal to the baser instincts, and then the artists say this is the kind of art they like; that they could not condescend to degrade art to them; they must keep art so they can get up an artistic atmosphere.

Tolstoy takes an example the music of Wagner, whom he dislikes.  He says Wagner produced his first great music because he felt himself in the great political struggle of his country.  He felt that Germany must be unified, and the best way to do this was to go back to the old German myths.  He made every possible effort to universalize these stories and bring them to bear on the emotional life in a way that the plans of Bismarck could not do.  He says the painter neglects to go among his own people and see their longings which he might express for them, but cultivates a technique and thinks that is art.  No one can say that Tolstoy, in his work, has underestimated technique, but he has always kept it under the spirit of his message.

Rightly or wrongly, here again Tolstoy exemplifies his own theory by giving over this comfort of his novel writing.  We ask why he broke over for the sake of writing "Resurrection"?  We know he has not tried to be consistent.  This novel was begun, but laid aside with some half dozen others, when he was converted to the theory of labor and art.  The Doukabars, a sect of from six to eight million people who did not believe in going to war and were always ready to stand out against the conscriptions of the czar, were being so prosecuted that permission was obtained for their emigration.  For this there were needed great sums of money and sums were sent from all parts of the world.  Tolstoy was much urged by his friends to finish this book, have it published, and give the proceeds for the emigration.  He had given over to the countess his lands and property, including the copy-[page 2] [missing line] ago, Tolstoy [expressed] [illegible words] [regret] for having diverted from this rule about selling copyrights.  There has been considerable said, you will remember, about the book.  The Russian censor cut out many pages from the Russian edition, and Tolstoy was excommunicated from the church.  France cuts out many things in regards to the army. Germany cuts out many things said against the established church.  England cuts out many things in regard to the tenure of land.  In America the Cosmopolitan, in which it was first published as a serial, cut out pages of the disquisition on sex morality; perhaps we are sensitive there.  At any rate the book failed to please anybody, and came under the ban of good people generally.  It has been called the great challenge to the twentieth century.  Here are these great social situations.  Are we going to ignore them or shun them, or are we going to take them in hand and meet them courageously?  Tolstoy does not believe in remedy coming through government but through the regenerated human soul here, there and everywhere, who is willing to act on what he believes.

To sum up Tolstoy's position: He says you must do your share of bread labor.  You must depend on force for nothing but always on the moral appeal, and look at life from the moral standpoint.  You must leave out art for a selfish end, for self-cultivation, or it will crumble in your hands.

Tolstoy's influence: The working people are divided into two kinds.  The peasants whom he formerly helped by supplying with machinery and other conveniences, are, many of them, disappointed because he gave up that course of life; they want the loaves and fishes.  On the other hand, all over Russia there are peasants immensely attached to him.  Various attempts have been made to start a colony, but he refuses.  He tells them to stay where they are and live out their lives there as best they can; that spiritual life does not come from one spot or another.  In Russia he has great influence, and I suppose is the only man there who dares to say many things about the Russian government.  The younger, more hot-headed Russians feel he is too much of a quietist, that he does not stir up the virility of the people; but more and more people are beginning to get his point of view.

The government looks upon him as a dangerous person.  All his correspondence, both coming and going, is examined.  They say he disintegrates loyalty.  At the same time, nothing, I imagine, would raise such a protest all over Russia as to have anything done with Tolstoy.  He stands there as an example of his own teaching.  So long as he sticks to this teaching of the New Testament it is hard for the czar to find anything against him.  He has translated the New Testament from the Greek into the language of the common people.  He belongs to a society which publishes little books for the Russian people.  He prepared the Sermon on the Mount as a little tract, but the censor on examining it sent it back as being dangerous teaching.  It was then prepared under the title "Earliest Scripture Reading," and this time it went through all right.

In regard to higher education, he thinks much of it is nonsense.  He himself has an immense range of information and reading.  I have never met anyone else in Europe who knew so much of American literature.  He has, also, quite the most finished and courtly manner one is apt to meet.  He puts aside none of these things, but he thinks it is wrong, in order to obtain them, to step aside from labor.  He thinks the Russian and German universities tend to destroy the best moral fiber in their students, and send them out with undue stress toward the intellectual life.

In his religious views, Tolstoy is a [missing line] to so literally follow the teachings of the New Testament.

His family have not agreed with him.  The Countess Tolstoy and the eight living children have gone their own ways.  He long ago turned his property over to his wife.  One son has taken a part of the estate and manages it as an ordinary Russian nobleman would, only more kindly, doing everything possible for the welfare of the peasants.  Tolstoy lives with his family but much more simply.  The apartments occupied by the rest of the household are furnished not luxuriously but very adequately, and quite well for a country house.  In Tolstoy's own study everything is extremely bare.  He writes on a plain table and sits on a box.  At the table the rest of the family live well and are served in courses, but he lives as an ordinary peasant would.  Sitting side by side with his family, he does not try to impress upon them that they are wrong and he is right, and that he wishes to convert them.  In the education of the children the countess has had a hand.  The younger children, of course, have their governesses.  One of the sons has gone to the university at Moscow.  One son, also, has entered the army, thus being a matter decided between him and his mother.  But there is great affection in the family, and perfect tolerance and sweetness in their family life.

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