Is Tolstoy a humanitarian?

(Author: B. Jeyamohan Translation: Suchitra Ramachandran)

(Original Article: தல்ஸ்தோய் மானுட நேயரா?)

Part 1: Humanism


Why do we read literature? Early in life, we may read because reading creates an imaginative fantasy,  an escape from life as we know it. Then, we may read to satisfy our idealistic aspirations. At some point, readers read because they want to understand their own lives. Fiction allows them to see their own lives as if in a mirror. The reader then develops a voracious appetite for experiencing all the facets of life, and reads work after work, trying to catch a glimpse of all the little nuances, inside and outside, that make up the human experience. A reader may then become someone who is interested in only exploring novel forms of expression. However, reading literature merely with a taste for novelties of form  is like wandering around a desert. Only the reader who is able to make his way back and see literature as a reflection of the whole of life itself, as a statement on the entirety of life, and is thus able to gain insight into life as his lives and sees it, can truly appreciate literature in its best possible sense. That is the mark of a truly fine reader.

Thus, a good reader reads in order to understand life both in its subtleties and in its entirity . He seeks works that can show him life in all its multifaceted glory, but also show him, with a burst of insight,, a sense of what life essentially, really, is, what it all means. The reader may fan out and read  a variety of books in the beginning. All kinds of imaginative literature, experiences, travelogues, biographies. Fiction in all possible formal modes. But at one  point, his focus narrows. He realizes that he wants  a vision of the essence of life, like the vision of the plains and rivers and cities from a mountain peak. There is very little place on a peak for a man to stand. But he can see everything from there.

It is in the fourth stage of development as a reader that many readers come to encounter Tolstoy, when they seek to understand all the subtle aspects of life. Tolstoy is a master at this. He shows aspects of the human personality and relationships that the reader may have never encountered in their lives. Especially, if they are a young reader used to looking at life and relationships through  a sentimental, romantic lens, Tolstoy’s unsparing realism may leave them gasping for breath. Every incident he depicts is plainly factual and uncompromising, without even a little bit of compensatory softening that Dostoevesky or Chekhov may afford us. He delivers blow after relentless blow to shatter our illusions. At one point, the reader understands that this is, after all, the nature of life. Then he is able to view his own life the same way. He is able to stay slightly detatched from everything, watch the carnival of life pass by with a compassionate smile on his face. From there, the reader can travel onward to understand Tolstoy’s insight into life as a whole, an outlook that Tolstoy obtained   from his unsparing realistic view of life.

I remember the shock I received when I read War and Peace for the first time in 1987, when I came to the part where Natasha decides to throw everything  precious to run away with with Anatole. I felt like I had been betrayed by the whole world, by god. I flung the book acroos the room. . It took me ten days before I could pick it up again. But later, when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Lolita, the depictions did not shock me. I felt like I had already lived through these experiences earlier. That is what Tolstoy does to you. 

One can read through the library, stack after stack. But when one comes back to Tolstoy, there is always something new to be discovered. That is the hallmark of great literature. Today, I am able to find moments of tender romanticism in Tolstoy. For example, in the way he shows how the plain Marya Nikolevna starts to appear beautiful in the eyes of Nikolai Rostov, with the gentle touch of a sparrow feather floating through the air. This is very different from the urgent romanticism  of youth,  of physical beauty.  

Readers of Tolstoy seldom reread him, but his novels are always in their thoughts. Many critics mention this curious aspect of his fiction. This is because, Tolstoy has the ability to rise up from the pages of the book and become a part of our life. We feel that  his novels are episodes from our own lives. Every time we think of the novels, we relive them. Happenings from our own life echo with incidents from Tolstoy, keeping his novels as immediate as our own life. I would say that no author before and since has succeeded in making his fiction a part of the reader’s life.

As I write this essay, I feel that I should write it only on the basis of my recollections of Tolstoy’s works. I last read him in 1998, for the second time. I have not touched his books since then, and not a day has passed when I don’t recollect them. I want to see what has stuck with me.

But it is also true that he has evolved with me. In these twenty years, he has mellowed in me, aged with me. Today when I write about Tolstoy, I find that all of his celebrated aspects – the uncompromising realism, the various sides of life he portrayed, his depiction of historical time, his moral ideas – have all receded to the background.

Today, I am preoccupied with the question of Tolstoy’s philosophy of life – , more precisely, his personal spirituality. It is on that basis that I wish to understand him.


There are many practical difficulties in endeavouring to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual foundations . Most commonly, the individuals who engage in such exercises propose a general philosophy or ideology in the form of a few ideas associated with it, and claim that the writer’s works are a faithful representation of those ideas. Usually, such ideas tend to be older than the works themselves. In the past, the proposed influence was usually religious in nature. After the twentieth century, it was some form of Marxism or Western liberal ideology.

This happens all the time in academia. Academicians do their best to slot a creative writer into an ideological mould. Politicians use this approach as a rhetorical tool. But the truth is, beyond providing a way to ‘grasp’ a work the way you would grasp a saucepan by its handle, it is not very useful. It is certainly not useful if we want to understand the full scope of a creative writer’s vision. It will only end up in a limited, false understanding of the author. No writer can be slotted into any ideological system in a simplistic way. It will be the death of the writer if we attempt it.

For example, Maxim Gorky can be read as a ‘Marxist writer’ but that does not improve our reading of Gorky. On the contrary, he is reduced to a simple, one-dimensional caricature. DH Laurence is often read as a liberal thinker who spoke in favour of liberal sexual mores. But that is also a simplification. We will lose DH Laurence by reducing his work to a single ideological framework. A reader who is satisfied with such a reductionist reading of DH Laurence will never appreciate his ultimate philosophical view – a view that centred the salvation of the individual in the individual alone. 

But it is also true that individual ideas can only be understood in the context of a few mainstream ideas that form the zeitgeist of that era. Our 3000 year intellectual history is largely made up of a few such great ideas, that flow like rivers through time. Millions of streams and tributaries emerge and pour into the mother river, but it is the mother river that has left an impression, a riverbed in time. The tributaries rise from each other, they contradict and cancel out each other, and they can be seen as a part of history. It is not possible to understand a literary work without having a basic understanding and appreciation of this intellectual history. Nobody can be a philosophical or spiritual island unto themselves.

For example, it is impossible to read (the great 12th century Tamil epic poet) Kamban forgetting the context of the Bhakti movement, that took root in the south of India and fanned out all over the subcontinent. It is impossible to understand the Bhakti movement without contextualising it in the human-centred religious movements that arose in all the world religions from the 10th century onwards.

But it would be foolish to make any kind of a final statement that Kamban was simply a fruit of the Bhakti movement. Kamban did come out of the Bhakti movement, but there were also elements of the previous heroic age in his work. Thus, it would do justice to a creative writer only if we adopted the following strategy: first placing him in the intellectual tide of his times, but immediately dissemble that image to point out where he differs from and contradicts those ideas. Only a synthesis borne out of these contradictions will be an honest attempt to understand the artist in all his roundedness. Critical theorists on the other hand, are mostly preoccupied with ‘catching hold’ of the writer with brute force. 

Aesthetic criticism is a mode of examining a piece of art like a butterfly – the reader must lightly touch its wings with their fingers, but let go almost immediately. The powdery wingcolours should absolutely not be disturbed. No statement can be said with absolute finality about a creative work. Any such interpretation should be contravened immediately. Even synthesis of various statements is not truly possible, for the work itself is greater than any synthetic interpretation. My attempt to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual outlook is not to slot him into a particular shelf for once and all. It is only to better understand the writer, and to be able to further enter his world and go towards him. 

I wish to understand Tolstoy philosophically, spiritually, in my own view. However, the difficulty with trying to obtain a fresh perspective on a writer like Tolstoy is that many many pages have already been written about him. To understand him, for ourselves, on one’s own terms and for one’s own needs, is a very challenging task. In the one and a half centuries since he wrote his great novels, Tolstoy has been interpreted in the light of all possible political, aesthetic and spiritual lines of thinking. My mentor Sundara Ramasamy used to say that one could write a social and cultural history of Europe just from the mountain of Shakespeare criticism available from the past four hundred or so years. This also applies to Tolstoy.
“So much has been written. What is left to write?” asked asked a good friend of mine when I told him I was writing this essay. Perhaps. But there is always something new to be investigated, particularly if one changes the perspective of inquiry. I quoted (the Malayalam writer and literary critic) M.Govindan, whose litmus question when faced with any new idea was – “Alright, so what does it mean for my little town of Ponnani?” What does Tolstoy mean to me today, in Nagarcoil, in these times? In what shape and form has he survived in me in all these years?


There are various ways of classifying the changes in human thought down the ages. They can be classified based on historical epochs, or on the basis of shared ideas and features. I think that very very broadly it is possible to group them into five epochs.

1. Triumph of Man

This idea is characteristic of the Heroic Age. It recognises the heroic aspect in man, and extolls his lordship over nature and victory over evil. Man, in such a framework, is shown as being able to surpass himself and the will of the gods. This idea had the greatest sway in pre-historic and early historical times, for man was in constant struggle with nature and fellow man then. Man’s enduring survival, in fact, depended on this idea. This idea became embedded in the philosophies and spiritual doctrines of the time.

2. Common Ethics

As Man moved from the tribal, hunter-gatherer stage to the civilized, agricultural stage, there was a need to move from family – and clan-based ethics to a common ethics that would apply to people regardless of their birth clan or occupational status. In fact, if it is at all possible to make a reductive statement about the Mahabharata, it is that it was a great endeavour to formulate a common ethics from the various clan-based ethics previously prevalent in the Gangetic plain.  Clan-based ethics were commonly practiced, a common frame of ethics were an ideal dream. In any society, it takes some force and a lot of work to go from the practical to the ideal.

3. Liberation of the Soul

Many streams of human thought have been independently, and repeatedly, invigorated by the central idea of the liberation of the soul. This goes by various names. Mukti, nirvana, veeduperu, all these names refer to the same idea. They refer to liberation or freedom either directly or indirectly. All the world religions refer to some form of liberation. In a lower level, it may be characterised as heaven. But even heaven something to be attained after a release from this world. it is a wholesome world, without strife or suffering.

Liberation, release or freedom, is liberation from everything here. All of the world’s sufferings. Everything that binds man as if in a prison. As long as man is in the world, his association with everything around him drags him down, makes him miserable. Liberation is a release from all that, a state of wholeness. Different religions have different conceptions of what it means to be liberated. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the story of a journey to liberation. Jeevakan’s journey in Jeevaka Chintamani is the story of another kind of journey to liberation. Despite the differences, the common vision is astounding. 

The idea of triumph of man that was popular in the first phase of history thus becomes symbolic in the context of liberation. We see this idea in all the great epics of this age. The journey of the hero becomes the quest for knowledge. Homer and Virgil speak of the perilous journeys undertaken by man – Ulysses, or Aeneus – in the quest of some goal. But these are also journeys with a symbolic philosophical meaning. It is the journey from Varthamana, a tirthankara, to Mahavira, the great hero, ever non-violent.

4. Naturalism

The idea that the world operates on naturalistic principles, and there are no forces or god outside nature itself, has been a significant stream of thought in the West from the 16th century onwards. The basic form of the idea is, that man is just a simple elemental part of nature, and that everything man seeks to know is in nature itself.

This idea became popular through the works of the British Romantic poets, in particular Wordsworth. Its philosophical instantiation can be found in Emerson’s transcendentalism. This idea held great sway over modern thought. Very few modern writers exist without direct or indirect influence of Thoreau.

Naturalism is commonly understood as a part of the Romantic Movement today, but it gained new form in the rise of modern ecological studies. Man is defined simply as an element of nature. This idea stands in opposition to humanistic idea, where man is envisioned as having special status within nature.

5. Humanism

Briefly, humanism can be defined as a view that holds that man is the centre of the universe. It is a very natural way of thought for man. From that dawn of man, he could not help but think otherwise. Any school thought in human history willy nilly has man at its focus. The early idea of Triumph of Man arises from such a view. Humanism can perhaps be called a stage of philosophical refinement of the same idea. This idea is also called by other names, such as love for man, humanitarianism etc.

Humanism can only be defined loosely, this has been the case throughout human history. There are many differing points of view about the best way to define humanism. Since the 17th century, many facets of humanism emerged in Europe. Ideas like moral responsibility, free will and reason characterised humanism in this period. All of these ideas led to the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.

5.1 Moral Responsibility

Humanism envisioned man as an entity with a personality of its own, with his own particular thoughts and choices. Thus it argued that man is morally responsible for all the happenings in the world around him. If in a society an individual is deemed untouchable, then the whole of that society has to take responsibility for that. An individual cannot say that he he was not aware of it, or that he does not share responsibility in it. By virtue of his sense of reason, his ability to think and ability to exercise his will, he also inherits the responsibility to use those powers well. It is only when a man takes moral responsibility for his surroundings that he becomes a political entity. Only then does he live up to the true spirit of ethics. Social ethics depends on the individual acts of such men.

The truth is, this idea is the gateway to modern democracy as we know it today. In the beginning, it evolved as a response to the Catholic church, the endless power wielded by the hegemony of church and state. Then it grew to become a powerful idea in its own right. Today, when I see the arguments from the orthodoxy defending the Manu Smriti, I am convinced deeply that we as a society have still not fully internalised the notion of moral responsibility that forms the basis of a civil democracy. Any orthodoxy that does not share the spirit of basic moral ethics is simply morally wrong. No orthodoxy that persists in viewing a section of humanity as ‘lesser beings’ will lead one into any kind of spiritual elevation.

5.2 Doctrine of Free Will

The doctrine of free will states that man has the right to choose what is right and good for himself. There is nothing that is determined or fated, for example by a god in heaven. Man has the ability and right to change his world by exercising his choice. This is the idea of free will. The influence of this idea on Europeon thought is staggering. The idea of modern democracy rests on the idea of free choice. The various democratic constitutions that emerged in nation after nation in the 20th century all record their faith in the rights and ability of man to make a free democratic choice. 

The basic right to vote for all is enshrined in the Indian constitution. When this statement was incorporated into that text, it was this very idea that the makers of the constitution examined. Does a tribal man, or a woman from the slums, who has no education, no cultural training, no contact with the outside world, have the qualification to decide who will rule the whole country? Can we give them the right? The response was, such rights are not ‘given’ or ‘bestowed’. That is because, they said, the right to choose is not dependent on any external trapping like education  or culture or knowledge of the world.

No, the right to choose is a fundamental right and a fundamental ability of man. He has free will. By virtue of his inherent sense of reason and intuition, every man has the right and duty to make a free choice. It is a moral imperative.

5.3 Doctrine of Reason

The doctrine of reason follows and shadows the ideas of moral responsibility and free will. Man should make his choices rationally. Not on the basis of faith, or the dictates of tradition, or on the basis of empty emotions. Even if it is based on intuition, man should be able to reason it out to himself. There is a fine line of difference between reason and rationality (‘meyyarivu’ and ‘pagutharivu’ in Tamil1). Reason includes intuition and poetic insight. Rationality only accepts external logic.

1 Translator’s note: This distinction is relevant to the Tamil intelligentia. Pagutharivu is often associated with the rational minded justice movements of the early 20th century championed by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy and others. This ideology is noted for its non-recognition of poetic and spiritual intuition as a valid means of knowledge. Meyyarivu is often associated with the Kural (5th century CE). 

ஐயுணர்வு எய்தியக் கண்ணும் பயமின்றே 

மெய்யுணர்வு இல்லா தவர்க்கு.  (குறள் 354)

“All five senses, though present, are useless

For he who lacks intuitive reasoning” (Kural 354)


I can’t help but think when I see the course of events in India today that these fundamental ideas that shaped the course of modern western civilisation were introduced very very superficially in India. Some of the voices that rise in defence of honour killings in India make me wonder whether ideas like the right to choice or reason have even been introduced in India. There are educated upper caste males in Tamil Nadu who advocate for child marriage in their discussions online. Such ideas are unfortunately gaining traction today.

The truth is, when such modern ideas entered India, they came in through the educated elites and became part of our constitution, while completely bypassing the general public. Even today, these ideas are pushed into public discourse from above, through laws, through the courts, through journalism, through literature. The idea of free political choice in India exists only because the right is enshrined in the constitution and pushed by the law. If this push is challenged or opposed in any form, then I fear it might send India back to a dark, pre-humanistic past very very soon.


The introduction and entrenchment of humanistic thought may be regarded as the forement event in the last 150 years of Indian history. It created a very deep impact on India’s collective mind. It was the basis for the great socio-religious reform and political movements of India, and paved way for the emergence of the nation as a modern democratic republic. Today, India is one of the liberal societies of the world thanks to the influence of humanistic thought.

There are two branches of humanistic thought influential today. One is western liberalism, other other is marxism. Although they have many significant differences, they share common ground in their beliefs – man’s central place in nature, the equality of all men and man’s basic rights. Western liberalism is founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty includes freedom of worship, speech and faith.

All the dominant waves of thought washed up on the shores of various lands all over the world roughly around the same time. “Triumph of Man” was never a popular or central thought in India, as our literary works reveal. Perhaps we could have found them in ancient heroic ballads of the past. We find its traces in folk songs and stories. The folk songs of Mayandichaami, Sudalaimaadan and the Vadakkan songs of Kerala are all stories of the heroic triumph of man. The Ramayana, to some extent, can be claimed as a story of heroic triumph.

But it was the quest for common ethics in India that created our epics. Many of the kavya literature in India share that spirit, all the way down till the Kamba Ramayana. Parallel to this was the quest for liberation and transcendence. The goal of the later Vedantic schools including Advaita was liberation. The Bhakti tradition that evolved subsequent to this era was also motivated by the goal of liberation, although it had elements of human equality in it.

Around the time when India came under British rule, the dominant wave of thought that held sway over India was still Bhakti. Great exponents of traditional Indian music including Thyagaraja, Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramadas belonged to this period, the 17th century. They were the last offshoots of the Bhakti era. After this point, the influence of the modern schooling system pioneered by the British in India took over. We started moving towards modern European thought.

At the end of the 18th century, naturalism and humanism reached India from Europe. But naturalism was not very popular in India, and did not exercise a large influence, except on some litterateurs. It found common ground with some ideas related to asceticism already prevalent here. 

But humanism came to India with the force of a thunderbolt. The Hindu Renaissance movement could be described as an attempt to interpret traditional Indian ideas in the light of the new ethics proposed by European humanistic thought.

A great movement originated from this synthesis. It included the contribution of pioneers like Rajaram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, Aurobindo, Vallalar etc. The Hindu Renaissance movement gave birth to reform movements throughout India. Reformers including Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Iyothee Thaas Panditar, M C Raja, E V Ramasamy, Mahatma Phule, Gandhi and Ambedkar all emerged under the influence of humanism. For a hundred years, the course of Indian literature was charted on the waters of humanism.

When humanism came to India, it was first translated as manithabhimanam, love for humanity. The word was translated into all Indian languages and came into widespread use starting from the 1880s. It was Tamil, it was later translated as maanuda neyam, concern for human welfare, or humanitarianism. These words associated humanism with a philanthropic outlook. Humanitarianism became the basic requirement of a modern thinker. 

Observe the phrases that captured the public imagination in the past century. “Whatever be the religion, it is good if man becomes good” [Narayana Guru], “I wilted for every wilted sprig” [Vallalar] etc. The word ‘human’ became synonymous with ‘humanitarian’. The greatness of humanity was discovered even in Kamban – “Man triumphed!” All the thinkers of the preceding age, like Thirumoolar, were found to have ideas that were profoundly humanistic in character.

Today, there is an attempt to find humanistic expressions in all the important thinkers in our history. Humanism has become the greatest ideal of our age, the idea that has wielded the maximal influence. That is natural. Democracy is the political expression of humanitarianism. 

Even when naturalism, that is fundamentally antithetical to humanism, became popular, it was understood in terms of humanism. That is, man, who is considered part of nature, should take pains to conserve nature – not because man is not more important than nature, but because because man’s future depends on nature remaining conserved. Thus modern ecology, which stems from naturalism, is also interpreted under a humanistic framework. Man is given the “responsibility” of taking care of nature. David Attenborough keeps repeating how man is but a part of nature, and in order to realise that, man should let go of his perception as a special, privileged creature that has ownership over nature – but there is no room for such thought today. Religious individuals, from any religious background – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – cannot digest the naturalistic idea of Man being “a vain insect” – he is after all the seat of the soul, an image formed in God’s own mould.

Thus the idea of naturalism – where man’s special status as the centre of the universe simply does not exist – never formally became a part of modern Indian thinking. Even naturalism was interpreted in terms of what it meant for man, his welfare. Privileging “human welfare” is just another way of stating “human superiority”.

Humanism and human welfare have captured the imaginations of all writers in the past century. Once can even claim with some liberty that modern writers have written nothing except for humanism; indeed, it is the philosophical ground on which any modern literary work is written. One of the goals of literary criticism written over the past hundred years  was to find humanistic ideals in literary works – either liberal or marxist ideas, or instances where the story reveals a love of man, human rights and humanitarianism.

Humanistic discourse in Tamil literature usually operated under one of two modes. The first was a general love of mankind, maanuda neyam or humanitarianism. The greatness of man, his rights of man and his equal status to all men were its tenets. Many of the forereunner writers in Tamil, including Pudhumaiputhan, Ku.Pa Rajagopalan, Thi.Janakiraman, Na.Pichamurthi, Ku. Azhagirisami and Sundara Ramasamy, had such ideals which find expression in their works. Their acclaimed stories, including Mahamasanam, Raja Vandhirukkirar, Silirppu, Prasadham are fine examples.

The other mode is Marxist. It is called murpokku – forward thinking, progressive – in Tamil. Marxist aesthetics and humanism are related to each other. Human centrism is the philosophical basis of Marxism, and Marxist art extols the greatness of man.  “Man! What a great word!” exclaimed Maxim Gorky. In Tamil Nadu, Marxism was always synonymous with humanitarianism. “Love for man is progressive” wrote Tho.Mu.Si.Ragunathan, a pioneer of the movement in Tamil Nadu.

Thus humanism was inseparable from humanitarianism, love of man and philanthropy. Humanism holds that (1) Man has a central position in the universe (2) He is the focus of all human efforts and activity, and everything in the world belongs to him (3) He has moral responsibility for his surroundings. Humanitarianism and philanthropism are its idealistic expressions. However, the two are synonymous in everyday practice.


As I organise my thoughts in this manner, I feel it may be necessary to add a caveat. Many people have written extensively about these ideas already. Generally, they are discussed as a part of philosophy and the history of ideas. Philosophers have their own academic language, and generally approach these ideas much more sharply, whether they are placing them in history, or analysing their relationships to each other. That level of detail is not necessary for a reader of literature, nor should they attempt to bring those debates in their entirety into a discussion on literary aesthetics. It is not only unnecessary, it may also lead to wrong ways of thinking.

That is because the precise, detailed approach is the way of philosophy. Philosophical discussions consist of internal arguments, sharp, thin, focussed, one contradicting the other and itself being contradicted by the next, leading to a vast scape of arguments and counterarguments. Only a serious student of philosophy with a keen logical mind can follow it all. 

Literature does not, cannot take those endless, subtle, internal contradictions and branches into consideration. It sees that massive wall of ideas, but relates to it intuitively, emotionally. The endless internal debates of philosophy are not of much use when it comes to understanding literature.

Thus, in order to place literature in context of a broader intellectual framework, the progress of human thought needs to be understood. But literary criticism can engage with these ideas only to a certain extent. How is literature influenced by intellectual history? the critic asks. And then he engages with intellectual history only so far as it helps him answer this question. Literary criticism thus puts aside technical philosophical language and razor sharp distinctions, and handles these ideas in the context of, and with the motivation to, understanding literature.

Part 2: Tolstoy and Humanitarianism


There is a scene in War and Peace. Prince Andrew sees a soldier in full military uniform, seated on a horse. His gold-plated decorations glimmer in the sunlight. Andrew is spellbound. Man – what a noble creature! he muses. This scene also features in Tolstoy’s autobiographical sketches. When he witnesses a soldier on horseback make a glorious jump over a stream, he weeps thinking how great and noble the form of man is.

Many Indian critics refer to this scene. In a speech from 1940, the Malayalam critic Puthezhathu Raman Menon refers to this scene. The Kannada master Shivaram Karanth refers to this. Most recently, Kalpetta Narayanan recounted this scene, although with some amusement.

The perspective of the critics who repeatedly refer to this one scene out of the many thousands of scenes from that a great feast of a novel is important. Those critics lived, are living, in deeply humanistic times. They believed humanism to be the highest value of man. There was no doubt that Tolstoy was a very great writer. So, they might have concluded, that must have been Tolstoy’s vision too.

But is that all War and Peace is saying? A great army drifts along. It comes to a stop at the mouth of a narrow bridge. There, man pushes against man, the orderly lines break and the soldiers spill sideways. To one side is a great lake. It has frozen over, and stretches on like some great playfield. Dolokhov, always rash with a bit of the delinquent in him, jumps on the ice and runs. “Friends, this way!” he hoots. Unthinkingly a great mob follows him. The ice will break, shouts Andrew. But no one listens. Men drown in droves as the ice cracks and gives way under them.

We find that this repeats over and over in history. Fools and criminals sway huge crowds easily. They push them to annihilation. So what is it that Tolstoy really thinks of man, of humanity? In War and Peace, there is a scene where large groups of soldiers are bathing in a lake to cool off. Naked, dripping, fleshy bodies, reddened from the heat. “Cannon fodder,” says Andrew to himself. He feels like throwing up. Tolstoy was the creator of this phrase that was later much used during the two world wars. But why did no critic of that age mention this scene?

This is because, India always thought of Tolstoy in connection with Gandhi. Tolstoy came to India via Gandhi. Gandhi wrote long letters to Tolstoy. His experimental commune in South Africa was called the Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi was enamoured by his pamphlet, “What is to be done?” The book has since been translated into all the Indian languages. Perhaps that was the first work of Tolstoy to be translated into Tamil.

Tolstoy’s later ‘moral’ fables were translated extensively into Tamil. They also became popular as oral tales, told and retold endlessly. They are simple human stories. They found their way into the school syllabi. The Gandhians translated others works of Tolstoy into Tamil. Ka.Santanam translated Anna Karenina. T.S.Chokkalingam translated War and Peace.

But astonishingly, the Marxists of that era did not feel any kinship with Tolstoy. None of them attempted to translate Tolstoy. Tho.Mu.Si.Raghunathan, S.Ramakrishnan and others translated the key writers like Maxim Gorky, Alexei Tolstoy, Sholokhov and others of the Stalinist era, but not Tolstoy. Out of them only Maxim Gorky was widely read in Tamil.

Tolstoy’s works which became popular in Europe, like The Death of Ivan Ilych, or The Kreutzer Sonata, were never translated into Tamil. His early novel, ‘The Cossaks’, or his later novel, ‘Resurrection’, was also not translated into Tamil. Russia reissued the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevesky, Kuprin etc. only after the end of the Stalinist era. They were published by Raguda and Progress Publishers.

It was only in the second wave that a handsome book called ‘Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas’ was published in Tamil. The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Kreutzer Sonata were featured in this book. It was around the same time that Dostoevesky’s novellas and Turgenev’s short stories were translated.

What was Tolstoy’s influence on the Tamil intellectual landscape? The Gandhians introduced Tolstoy in India as a Russian sage. His fables were popular in India. But when Gandhians like Ka Santhanam and T.S.Chokkalingam translated their great novels, there was hardly readership. Only a few hundred readers of hardcore literature read them. The readers were mostly writers with a Marxist bent, like Jayakanthan and Ponneelan. 

Tolstoy does not seem to have left a deep impression on the modernist writers of the following generation. Essays, sketches, memoirs or speeches from the 1960s till almost the end of the 1980s hardly mention scenes or characters from Tolstoy’s novels, or his short stories. 

It was only in my generation, through the efforts of myself and colleagues like S.Ramakrishnan, Konangi and Devibharati, that Tolstoy came back into the discourse. In the eighties, I wrote extensively about Tolstoy and Dostoesvky, comparing the two writers, and the particular moral problems they chose to engage with. They were my yardstick for literature. I argued that they developed the fundamentals of the literary novel, it was an opinion that came under fire then. Some post-modern writers thought that Tolstoy had become obsolete, but others felt that fresh readings of both Tolstoy and Dostoeveskey were possible.

Why was Tolstoy read so little in Tamil for most of the 20th century? An understanding of our literary history might provide some insight. Modern Tamil literature was synonymous with modernism. The 20th century masters of Tamil literature, including Pudhumaipithan, Mouni, Asokamitran and Sundara Ramasamy were all torchbearers of the modernist aesthetic. Tolstoy was a classical realist. The modernist writers had aesthetic differences with Tolstoy.

Secondly, the modernists were not particularly interested in Tolstoy’s preoccupations with religion, spirituality and philanthropism. Modernists saw life as a worldly, material affair, blind, without ethics, largely bereft of spiritual considerations. They spoke of the alienation of the individual in such an unrooted world. In War and Peace, Tolstoy was concerned with the great sweeping march of history. The modernists were largely ahistorical. Only the individual man, his surroundings and his inner workings were of importance to them.

Tolstoy took up thousands of pages to talk about the flow of history. The modernists wrote about everyday, contemporary life and the individual’s place in it in tight, two-hundred-page long prose. They believed that such compact writing constituted literature, and anything longer was often in danger of losing focus. They believed that a literary work should be focussed, and should have the compact structure necessary to retain the focus. 

Sundara Ramasamy had not read War and Peace in its entirety. He thought that the novel lacked focus. I argued with him that a tight focus was not necessary for a novel, that it was mostly a negative trait in a novel. I argued that it was the dialectical agon between multiple points of view that creates the texture of great novels, and later enlarged upon these ideas in my book ‘The theory of the novel’. There is little evidence that the literary critics that era, like Venkat Saminathan and Ka.Naa.Subramanyam, were extensively familiar with Tolstoy. Only Si.Su.Chellappa had imbibed the influence of Tolstoy, it can be seen in his novel Suthanthira Thaagam. 

In general, novel writers of the modernist era ignored the grand novels written by other writers (Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya, Shivaram Karanth’s Marali Mannige, Tarasankar Bandhopadhyayay’s Arogya Niketan etc.) in favour of shorter works with focus, like Bhibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyayay’s Pather Panchali or Per Langerkvist’s Barabbas.

But had the novelists read Tolstoy’s works like The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Illych, The Two Hussars etc., they might have found that these works are exemplary candidates for the modernist aesthetic, achieving with far more brevity and focus what the modernists were attempting in their own fiction of that era. I consider these novellas to be the beginning of the modernist wave all over the world, and in some ways, their peak achievements too. No Tamil modernist writer has mentioned these works. It was only after the modernist wave in Tamil literature had passed that both Tolstoy and Dostoevesky began to be read closely.

However in Tamil Nadu, neither the progressive Marxist, liberal writers nor the postmodern writers wrote extensively about Tolstoy. For the Marxists, he was a pioneer figure, a forerunner to Gorky, who was always represented as their central and exemplary literary figure. The post-modernists were as a rule more interested in Dostoevesky than they were in Tolstoy.

Thus, Tolstoy was introduced into Tamil by the Gandhians. He was seen as someone who represented the ideals of the Enlightenment era. He was seen by the modernists who were primarily concerned with the existential crisis of man as an old-timer, writing about the problems and preoccupations of a different era. The liberal writers simply considered him as a pioneer of liberal, politically minded writing. However, none of these camps really engaged with his writing deeply.

Whatever place he holds in Tamil today was accorded after the modernist era. But even the writers of this later period saw Tolstoy in two lights. The first was as a prophet of the Enlightenment values, the first priest of the Church of Reason, a great humanist. But they also took the view that Tolstoy, by his subtle and detailed depiction of life and psychological inquiry, often transcended that mantle. Thus to read him closely and identify these points of transcendence would accord the reader a glimpse into how fiction is able to independently construct historical and moral narratives.


In summary, we see how any intellectual front in Tamil Nadu that engages with Tolstoy places him under the banner of ‘humanitarian idealist’. They considered Tolstoy as someone who engaged with questions such as: What can be done to make life better for man on earth? What is the humanitarian ideal? Is there a humanitarian utopia? What are the historical and social barriers that stand in the way of realising such an ideal state? This is how Tolstoy is viewed almost anywhere in the world. A half-page piece about Tolstoy in a weekly seldom fails to be accompanied by the byline “The Great Humanitarian”.

But is that really true? Can he be labelled thus? The problem with any such label is that it reduces a complex personality to just the label. A politician can perhaps be labelled in this way, if we need to understand his politics and ideology. Labels on a philosopher end up simplifying his thought, stultifying its dynamics by flattening the nuances of his arguments. But labels on a creative writer are death to the life in his work. Placing an ideological label on a work of art strips it of its emotionality, its internal paradoxes. It is the greatest act of violence that can be inflicted on an artist. Those who bear hatred for the artist, those who oppose him, engage in such tactics. But those who worship the artist do the same thing.

Tolstoy belonged to the era when humanism was at its peak in Europe. He was one of its architects himself, that cannot be denied. His essays clearly reveal the humanist in him. He sought to integrate the old values of Christianity into the new humanistic framework. Some his protagonists are profoundly humanistic. However, I feel that it would not be right to say that humanism is at the centre of Tolstoy’s fictional universe. Humanism is not the overarching vision that rises out of his novels.

The roots of humanism lie in Greek thought. Christianity was centred on humanity. Its mission was the salvation of all human beings. The architects of the Reformation integrated the humanistic ideals of the Greeks with the human-centric approach of Christianity, and founded the basis of modern humanistic thought. The French Revolution took the idea to the masses. The Hegelians made a philosophy out of it. The Marxists dreamed up a new world that would be born out of its ideals.

What were the historical and cultural forces that shaped Tolstoy’s thought? Historically, the French revolution had a great impact on the 19th century. There were hardly any European writers or thinkers of that age who were not influenced by the French revolution. Tracing its influence on Tolstoy and his contemporaries will offer much clarity. 

Protestantism evolved in opposition to the political-cultural-spiritual hegemony of the Roman Catholic church. The humanistic ideals which were born out of this conflict resulted in the development of modern principles of democracy. The French revolution was a political manifestation of the same ideas. The Enlightenment era French humanists like Voltaire and Rousseau shaped these ideas during this period.

The French Revolution placed humanism front and centre in the intellectual discourse of that period. Tolstoy was born thirty-six after the French Revolution. During that time, the French Revolution had turned around and birthed a Napoleon. His expansionist plans had brought him all the way to the doorsteps of Moscow, and he had been routed and turned back. Tolstoy spent his earliest years in a Russia haunted by the memories of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The greatest of his fictional works was about this epoch. The French Revolution was defeated in the political arena. Perhaps, that was why it lingered on as a great dream in the sphere of ideas.

The Russia of Tolstoy considered France to be its model state. The elites of Russia all spoke French. The Russians eagerly studied the latest in French thought and French philosophy. In his youth, Tolstoy was tutored by French and German teachers who had upon them the lasting influence of the French Revolution. It is useful to place all of Tolstoy’s ideas in the post-Revolutionary intellectual landscape, and compare him to other literary figures from this era.

Tolstoy was also influenced by the great philosophical debates of the 18th and 19th centuries. These debates evolved out of the debates between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, and took a similar form. There are many branches to these debates, but broadly speaking, it was a debate between historicism and essentialism. Friedrich Hegel is the best known representative of the historicist schools. Arthur Schopenhauer stands at the head of the essentialist position. Their predecessor Immanuel Kant contributed equally to both doctrines.This debate somehow pulled in any and every thinker of that era. All the creative writers of that age were influenced by this debate. Tolstoy was born in this philosophical ground. He wrote his great novels while this debate was still raging.

The Catholic religion was God-centred. It considered God as solely responsible for all life on earth. The Church, the pope, the king and the landlord were all God’s representatives on earth. But the Protestant religion was concerned with both the individual human and God. It accorded a central position to the welfare of man in God’s universe. It held the position that God decreed man’s welfare, that anything that was against the welfare of man could not be from God. 

Protestant Christianity foregrounded man. Therefore, intellectually, it had to rise to the challenge of understanding man completely. There was the need to define man beyond the archaic understanding provided by religion. Man had to be defined in relation to life, history and nature. Ethics and morality and justice could no more simply be taken as god-willed decrees, but had to be reshaped and reinvented according to the needs of modern man. They had to evolve with the emerging ideas about man and his place in history.  These movements led to the emergence of Enlightenment-era humanism.

During this period, man’s identity and his relationship to history was defined broadly on two lines. One philosophical camp placed the identity of man outside religion, and claimed that his identity was shaped by the forces of history. The other philosophical camp held that man’s identity depended on his essential nature. This was the basis of the great philosophical debate of the 19th century. Hegel believed that man, his nature and his behaviour are shaped by the clash and resolve of historical forces. Schopenhauer held that man’s nature and behaviour are the result of his own inner nature. For Hegel, the dialectics of material forces shaped history; the ground of the conflict was man. For Schopenhauer, history was simply the field on which the fundamental elements of human nature manifested themselves. 

Both these ideas influenced the writers of that age. Some writers were influenced more by one idea, some by the other; in any case, this gives the reader one more tool to attempt to understand the writer a bit better. The writers who bore upon them the influence of Hegel’s historicism approached man as a part of history. Even when they probed his psyche using their fictional tools, they still placed it at the epicentre of the clash of historical forces. Their thought often was guided by objectivity and facts.

Our progressive writers are all influenced by this mode of thinking. Their perspective is shaped by a strong sense of rationalism. When trying to understand history, they take nothing into account except for the dialectics of material forces. They reject interiority, emotionality and spiritual quests as mere idealism. 

Those belonging to Schopenhauer’s camp, on the other hand, were more interested in the essential nature of man. All over the world, their eye turned towards the essential forces within man that shaped his behaviour, and consequentially, history. Their mode of thinking is shaped by intuition. The will to live, the will to power, the uneasy relationship between nature and man – all these ideas were intuitive. His ideas could not stand long in the more objective realms of sociology and politics. Being intuitive, they could not be studied empirically.

But these ideas were a constant source of influence on generations of European artists and writers. We can trace the influence of Schopenhauer on Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, all the way to Kazantsakis. Even Tamil writers have not been free of the (albeit indirect) influence of Schopenhauer – it is revealed in the work of writers like Sundara Ramasamy. 

Where does Tolstoy lie in this binary? Critics and writers very often tend to place him on the Hegelian side. This is what the Gandhians and progressive writers in Tamil do as well. It is on this basis that he is identified as a humanist, a humanitarian. It is only after defining Tolstoy as a humanitarian is anything more ever said about him.

The writers who call Tolstoy a humanitarian do so, usually, on the basis of his books like “What should I do” and his later day fables. They definitely have a humanitarian slant, particularly stories like “After the Ball”. Secondly, the novel “War and Peace” is often tritely assumed to be a novel about war and its spoils, and a call for peace. There is often the facile assumption, based on its title, that the novel talks about how man’s identity and existence are defined and circumscribed by various historical forces. And if one reads War and Peace with such an assumption, it is very easy to reach that conclusion.

But is it really fair to Tolstoy to limit him in this way? Would it be fair to read his novels on the basis of such a limited assumption about his ideology?


Tolstoy was accepted by the Soviet state only in the post-Stalinist era, after the 1950s. To be more precise, he was accepted only after the idea of a Russian nationalist identity emerged, after Russia had distanced itself from its Marxist ideological identity and its place at the head of global communism. This nationalistic era considered Tolstoy one of the architects of the modern Russian nation, a national treasure. What stood in the way of his acceptance until then? At the core, Tolstoy was not a writer who accepted Hegel’s historicism based on dialectical materialism. On the other hand, his beliefs accorded more with Schopenhauer’s ideas about human nature and ethics. Marxism considers such an outlook individualistic; classical Marxists usually reject such ideas. 

Much has been written about the relationship between Tolstoy and Schopenhauer. Tolstoy translated Schopenhauer in order to understand his ideas better. He went to his estate in the country and stayed there for many months while he worked on the translation. He did not think the translation was very good, it was never published. Nevertheless, during this period, he was occupied very deeply with Schopenhauer’s ideas. 

However, when we read Tolstoy’s diaries, a different pictures emerges. Tolstoy, at first, is captivated by Schopenhauer. But slowly, he seems to distance himself from Schopenhauer. He formulates some ideas of his own. They cannot be said to be strong, well-formed ideas; they are half-doubts, apprehensions, hesitations. It is these hesitations that he explores in his great novels. He further moved away from Schopenhauer to write moralistic novels like Resurrection.

Many critics have explored the philosophical and literary influence of Schopenhauer on Tolstoy’s fiction, on his great novels as well as his later day fables. But I would not call it an influence in the sense of unquestioning acceptance of the philosopher’s ideas. These ideas disturbed Tolstoy, made him restless. They made him doubt and question his pre-existing notions.  They generated only more doubts and confusions and questions. This led to a clash of ideas in his heart, and that allowed him to move forward. This is the only way in which a philosopher can exert influence on a writer. Today we find that a great many pages that Tolstoy has written about Schopenhauer are in effect, doubting and rejecting his ideas. The influence of Schopenhauer on Tolstoy, in particular his view of history as revealed in novels like War and Peace, can only be understood by a reader reading the text itself closely and independently.


A bird’s eye view of the matter shows that there were five major ideas of Schopenhauer that primarily influenced Tolstoy.

  1. Will
  2. Eternal Justice
  3. Individualism
  4. Pursuit of Fulfilment
  5. Political Anarchism

I avoid Schopenhauer’s philosophical language deliberately. I believe that literary criticism should not be steeped too much in philosophical jargon. Its primary mode of reasoning is aesthetic, and the too much precise philosophical chopping goes against the grain of aesthetic involvement. We will see how these five ideas evolve in the course of Tolstoy’s novels, and stand as rallying points around which the novel organizes.

Does Tolstoy accept that material forces shape literature? Like any other thinker of that age, Tolstoy does accept it. There is certainly a Hegelian strain of thought in War and Peace. The various material forces that exerted their influence on European history in the post-Napoleonic age are all delineated very clearly in War and Peace. The power circle of the aristocracy constitutes one material force. The aspirations and growing power of the peasants represents another material force. The army is shaped by both these forces. Their dialectics shapes the march of Russian history. The Orthodox Church is the third material force. Tolstoy does paint a Hegelian picture of history in War and Peace.


But War and Peace also continuously depicts the force of Will on the individual and on history. Schopenhauer defines Will as a blind driving force that is present in everything, a desire for existence, a determination to self-preserve. Schopenhauer hold that it is Will, a combination of desire and determination, that drives history. If history was a tadpole, then its tail is its essential Will. Its tail and hands and legs are all the Will that propel its motion. War and Peace depicts over and over how the Will that drives the course of history is revealed in every individual as his personal desire and his personal sense of duty and determination. All the characters in War and Peace have their own Will. That is the source of all their restless strifes, troubles and tribulations. It is because they are pushed by their individual Wills that they try to attract each other, push each other away. But their individual Will is but a drop of the collective human Will of that period in history.

The dynamics of War and Peace is apparent if we see that each character as a manifestation of different facets of the Will. Andrew is the Will of idealism. Nikolai Rostov exemplifies a rather pedestrian, lowly form of the Will. A great image of the Will to power is painted in Napoleon. Petya Rostov is the adolescent version of an idealistic Will. Boris is a minor character who uses his Will to attain worldly victories. Kutuzov reveals a prosaicness that stands in opposition to Will. There are minor characters like Anatole, whose Will is revealed as lust and Dolokov, in whom the Will manifests as roguishness. But all the different wills of the individuals transform into one massive Will that cartwheels unstoppably down the great novelistic landscape of War and Peace.

Will binds man to the earth, to life. It is the pasam that Saiva Siddhanta speaks of, the tightening noose around one’s neck. It is ego. There is no room for questions about the meaning of life there. Its aim is only to attain whatever the Will wants, then and there. In Pierre Bezukhov, is Will is usurped by his quest for meaning. That makes him restless. In other words, his Will is his quest for truth and realization. It is not exterior to him, nor is it Will that is imposed on others. The Will in his case is turned inward, it drives him forward on the path of his quest.

Andrew, driven by his Will, catches a glimpse of it as if from above in the battlefield, as Napoleon passes by. He is stunned by what he sees. The will that he has known so far as his own is only a tiny vector of directionality in great, flood-like vector field. It is like watching the mad dance of some magnificent beast from above. After this experience, he undergoes a change. He becomes a witness of history. Individual human beings vanish from his visual field. He is able to see both the Czar Nikolai as well as an ordinary foot-soldier as but two tiny drops of the rolling ocean of history, two wills driving the Will of history.

This perspective allows him to stay detached from all the events rushing around him. He abandons his grand dreams and ambitions. He becomes a witness of the caravan of life, silent, no longer aroused or excited by anything life has to offer. And thus he dies. He has no sense of loss or regret when he dies. Neither does he consider himself a victor. In that sense, Andrew did attain to a certain kind of realization.

Wherever Tolstoy talks about the army in War and Peace, the reader may consider it to be a commentary on history.  The intrinsic essence of the army and the intrinsic essence of history are one and the same – it is the summation of all human Will. A war is nothing but the tussle between the Wills of two armies. Its victory or defeat is determined by the Will of history itself.

When describing Napolean’s invasion of Russia, Tolstoy writes the following in narrative voice. “Driven by some great force that they could scarcely fathom, a great mob rushed north-east. It killed many thousands, conquered many nations, and still kept going, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The force driving it started to slacken. Like an arrow that had lost steam, its trajectory curved, gravity took over. Another great mob that was scattering aimlessly under the force of this attack now regathered, gained strength and hit back. The invading force now scattered, broke and turned around” – this was the grand sum of the impression Tolstoy had about that great event that shook Europe to its depths –  Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow.

This view is in no way ‘human centric’. Neither is it ‘humanistic’ in character. No reader can take stand on any page of War and Peace and declaim, Oh! what a noble piece of work is man. On the contrary, War and Peace depicts man as being troubled ceaselessly by forces beyond his control, that he can scarcely understand. Not just man, but all of humanity. This is the understanding of history that War and Peace offers the reader. Marxists certainly hesitate in the face of such an idea.

Sitting here, a century and a half after Tolstoy, and looking back, a rather startling truth becomes apparent. Everything that Tolstoy said about Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow could equally well be said about the Russian Revolution. The forces of history can be dissected and analyzed. But it was only the Will of history that revealed itself as individual wills. The Russian Revolution was nothing more than a historical event that created dreams, then repressions, then destruction. It was a small bubble on the surface of human history. Nothing more.

Humanism views history very differently. Humanists believe that with each historical event, man resolves a dialectic and ‘ascends’ on a path towards an ideal future. That perspective is not part of War and Peace. The Hegelian view would try to find advantages in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, despite the great havoc it wrecked. Tolstoy does not attempt to do so. On the contrary, he is interested in the psychological drivers of the war. He is curious about the origin of the Will, the dangerous instrument that turns upon the man who wields it and destroys him, the dangerous instrument that man is unwilling or unable to abandon.

And then there are a few instances in War and Peace that run contrary to all our assumptions and expectations. They can be very instructive. The French army decides to turn back from Russia, but they are caught in a famine. Pierre observes two soldiers dismember a dead horse and gorge on its flesh. The ugly grins, the vulgar expressions on their faces, all disgust him thoroughly. There are many such instances in War and Peace depicting the rather easy fall of man into absolute horror and chaos. Humanity doesn’t seem quite so noble then. The horrifying looting and preying that takes place in Moscow evacuated ahead of the entry of Napolean’s army is a case in point. 

One of the fundamental tenets of humanism is that man is a great being. The Malayalam writer Uroop titled one of his books ’Sundaranmaarum Sundarimaarum’ – beautiful men, beautiful women. It is an idealistic title, lofty and dreamy and ethereal in its conception. Human beings are always, in any circumstance, says the novel, beautiful beings. Many great novels of the past century abound with such instances. But there are hardly any such moments extolling the nobility of humanity in Tolstoy. There are hundreds of characters and plots in War and Peace, but I could not recollect even a single such instance from this novel.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of the baseness of human beings, the depths human beings can sink. Napoleon, who believes that he is single handedly shaping the course of history. The little captains of little units, who sit around in candlelight all night long talking big talk about how they will win the war for the army. Andrew’s wife Lisa, in the throes of labour, scarcely recognising her husband who returns after miraculously escaping death. Natasha, ready to throw everything away for a few moments of pleasure. The tumult after the battles when each soldier thinks only of his own life, when each man pushes and shoves another to get ahead and live a bit longer. That is indeed a very pessimistic view of humanity.

In Anna Karenina the morally conscientious Levin decides to give away his lands to the peasants. But the peasants do not believe that somebody would give his lands away for free. They are suspicious; Tolstoy draws a fine picture of their doubts and suspicions. The peasants bargain that they should get a sum to accept the freely given lands. The peasants had witnessed nothing but cruelty and baseness on the part of their masters all those years. So soaked were they in such depravity, that they could scarcely believe that someone would act decently out of his own free will; there had to be strings attached. They did not believe Levin. They had no hesitation in exploiting and destroying each other, so they could not bring themselves to believe in any extreme display of benevolence.

Till then end, Tolstoy was preoccupied with the darkness in man. He did not have a very good opinion of man, if we go by his novels. There are prisoners sentenced to Siberia in Resurrection who take pleasure in the sufferings of other prisoners and grin when they see them shiver in the cold. Maslova, sexually exploited and abandoned, gives herself up quite easily to a new, corrupt life as a prostitute and rejoices in her victorious, morally dubious exploits. Tolstoy repeatedly depicts the vigor with which the human soul decays and corrupts itself into a rancid rotting mess.

In summary, the picture we get from a close reading of War and Peace and the other great novels of Tolstoy is that, far from depicting an ennobling image of man, Tolstoy did not even depict man with compassion and belief. Whenever Tolstoy depicted humanity – men in a group – he only painted a picture of a blind mob, an organised human form of an invisible driving force. All his great characters are doubters, loners, suspicious of crowds. In that sense, Pierre, Levin, Nekhlyudov are all cast from the same mould. They are driven by love for humanity. But they are not ready to believe in human beings.

Common Ethics

One of the major ideas that Tolstoy pursued in all his fictional works, starting from War and Peace, was that of the possibility of formulating a common framework of ethics – perhaps an eternal law – for all of humanity. If there could be a code of ethics for man, that man could devise for himself, that is in no way dependent on the decrees of any religion or god, what would that look like? Would would be the nature of a morality based on such a code of ethics? Tolstoy was very interested in these questions. Europe in the Enlightenment era was starting to re-examine the nature of moral responsibility, these questions were but an extension. Both Pierre and Andrew in War and Peace are troubled by these questions in different ways.

War is endlessly justified by conceptualising it as the clash between two nations or two races or two cultures, and taking a stand on one side or the other. However from the standpoint of humanity, war is nothing but collective suicide. This is the understanding that we reach from reading War and Peace. Battles and strategies and killing and maiming are justified on the field with many many words of reason and logic. But ethics, rights and morality exist simply between a man and his own conscience. Each man formulates them for himself so as to be able to live with some degree of harmony with himself and his fellow man. This is the understanding that Pierre arrives at. 

Ten years later, when he wrote Anna Karenina, Tolstoy sharpened the same inquiry about universal ethics and morality through two of his characters, Anna and Levin. Both of them are characters who are haunted by moral dilemmas in two different spheres of life. Anna’s moral crisis is interior, domestic. Her tale centres on sexual morality. Anna’s suffering emerges from clashes between trust and betrayal, duty and desire, individual will and social mores. Levin seeks to find an objective moral code. Is it ethical to assert the authority one is born with, to exploit others, because that is what one’s ancestors did? What is the right moral action in the face of such exploitation? These were Levin’s questions. 

An even sharper moral questioning can be observed in Resurrection. Nekhlyudov takes responsibility for his past sins. He tries to atone for his sins by his actions. In that journey, he comes to realise that he, too, is fully responsible for all the sins in his society. This evolved view of moral responsibility is the essence of the novel Resurrection. 

These questions took Tolstoy to the quest for eternal justice. That was how he came to see Christ in a new light. He came to see Christ, not as the symbol of god’s law, but as the symbol of man’s own innate sense of right and good. He went on to develop a code of ethics based on life itself. He attempted to find the roots of such an ethical code in the Bible. This new dawning took the form of simple fables. These stories were full of moral goodness. They spoke for the weak, for the oppressed. They were tales that preached the equality of all men, the rights of all men. It is on the basis of these tales that Tolstoy is called a humanist, a humanitarian. 

But it is in the human spirit that Tolstoy found these values. Man’s spirit rejoices in idealism. It finds contentment by self-sacrifice. It finds peace when it seeks goodness. It was on the basis of these entirely human, spiritual experiences that Tolstoy attempted to form his code of ethics. He did not formulate it on the basis of dialectical materialism, riding on the back of historical tussles. Neither did he found it on the basis of social mores or ideas of social justice. Even as he put forward his code of ethics, he was well aware that man’s darkness (his dark triad qualities, his psychopathy) stood against its values. His later stories like Father Sergius depict the strength and pull of human impulses. One of his final works, a play called ’The power of darkness’ is, as the name suggests, about the inner dark forces inside human beings that stand in the way of man doing the right thing. So while Tolstoy argued that the notions of right and good can be founded in the human spirit, he does not necessarily believe that the human spirit itself is essentially all good or always humane or eternally reliable.

For example, the Communist government of later-day Russia was a dictatorship of the masses. It was constructed on the basis of the idea that the individual worker is inherently good, humane, ethical. There was nothing in the system that checked the power of the worker. It was argued that s Communist government will never err because it is not in its enlightened nature to err. Tolstoy would never have allowed for such a system of power that relied wholly on the idea that people are inherently good. 


Tolstoy believed in man’s sense of self. This was an idea that he had inherited from Schopenhauer. Man’s sense of being is grounded in his individuality. When he feels alive, it is ‘as himself’ that he feels that sense of life. Every man attempts to construct for himself his sphere of action, his joy and his sorrows. Every man has a quest, however little or big, for his own fulfilment. Be it ever so slight, man tries to find points of difference in him that distinguish him from other men around him, that make him uniquely ‘himself’. His sense of being is tied up to this feeling. In truth, man’s inner and outer lives are often dictated by the demands of creating this sense of individuality.

Among Tolstoy’s characters, Pierre, Andrew, Levin and Nekhlyudov attempt to find their place in the world, in the universe. They want to understand where they stand in the wider society, among other human beings, as well as within themselves, by asking themselves who they are, and examining the meaning their existence has for themselves. They subject themselves to all the suffering and strife that such a quest brings. On the other hand, smaller characters try to identify their place in their everyday life, and are content with a smaller identity boundary and a simpler definition of their self. These inquiries fundamentally serve to point out that there is an important force operating from within man, always trying to establish its place, always driving him forward in that push. It is the force within man that identifies itself as ‘I’ – the ego. Humanitarianism always fails to recognise this.

When a begger extends his bowl, he clearly identifies as a beggar. It is as a beggar that he receives the coin that we place in the bowl. But if he identifies as a rebel on the inside, then his heart does not accept the coin we place in his bowl. Even while walking away with the offered coin, his heart may ridicule the giver, or look upon him with disgust. Tolstoy’s fiction abounds with such instances where man continuously negotiates within himself in his quest for self definition.

Tolstoy’s characters are constantly discoursing among themselves. They listen to what others say. But the conversation continues in their heads. They make fresh observations from their memories. Tolstoy’s stories do not concentrate much on characters who do not attend outside, who do not have an inner monologue. For example, Anatole or Dolokohov are mostly depicted as other characters see them. Tolstoy’s writing is constructed as a continuous sequence of show and tell – an event is shown, subsequently, the impression the event makes on a character is told. Through this, Tolstoy shows how man continuously engages with the world, by evaluating it, and his place in it. Man defines himself with respect to his surroundings, and his surroundings with respect to himself.

Pursuit of Fulfilment

One of the main plot points of War and Peace is Pierre’s quest for spiritual fulfilment. Tolstoy believes that every man has the right to seek self-fulfilment beyond his obligations towards his family and society. At first glance this seems no different from one of the cornerstones of rational, enlightened thought, the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness. But what Tolstoy depicts is man’s ineffable sense of insatiety, his desire for a feeling of contentment, for peace. This feeling of peace is different from happiness, for if man finds peace in sorrow, it is sorrow that he would pursue.

In War and Peace, Pierre finds fulfilment at the height of sorrow and suffering. In the beginning, all a man seeks is the satisfaction of his ordinary desires. Great wealth can buy any pleasure for a price, and Pierre attains that when his father dies. Pierre too, is seduced by the pleasures of wealth in the beginning. But when he realises that they can be obtained quite easily, he grows bored of them, and wants something that can grant him lasting peace. He cycles through many ideologies, many religious beliefs. Tolstoy shows how each of these are but a step in his journey. At first the common religion, there he is one face among the masses. Then slowly he starts seeking answers for his own particular questions. He joins various cults. He feels self-satisfied because the admission into such cults are limited; he is one of the special ones to be inducted. But in time, he grows tired of such pretensions. His search grows deeper, seeking the real meaning of life.

Pierre goes to the warfront solely to witness the war. He wants to get rid his boredom, have his brush with heroism. He goes to the warfront because it is in war that man’s lust for life and his abilities are expressed most potently. There, he is caught in its turmoil, he suffers terribly. At the height of his suffering, he finally finds the peace that he had been searching for. In hard work, great hunger, little food and good sleep, there is a sweetness far greater than anything he had ever known. “In the end, food enough to quench hunger and sleep – that is all,” says Thayumanavar. Pierre’s experience seems to be along the same lines.

Schopenhauer was interested in quietism. A variation on the Christian faith, the proponents of quietism emphasised still contemplation as a way to salvation. Schopenhauer believed that many of its practises would help in human liberation, including asceticism, solitude and endurance of suffering. These practices will liberate man from the three fundamental torments, of will, conflict and fear. Tolstoy intensifies the lesson Pierre learns in his later works. Nekhlyudov is liberated from his upper crust lifestyle, and in the harsh landscape of Siberia, amidst much suffering, finds peace.

There are two characters with the same qualities in Tolstoy’s fiction who represent this vision. Platon Karataev appears in War and Peace as a simple farmer with no desire for any material possessions, and therefore free to walk through in life without anything to weigh him down. He is free to be a simple man. His dog accompanies him through all the battlefields of Russia. It considers its owner its friend. It does not know the war beyond its everyday deprivations. It has no sorrow of any sort. We can consider it Platon Karataev’s soul. This state of ultimate freedom is presented as the ultimate vision of War and Peace.

In “Resurrection” Vladimir Simonson is a character who uses his suffering to improve himself. He spurns the taking of life, even for food. He becomes a vegetarian, rejects even leather. He renounces all the pleasures of the world, accepting for himself only its love. In the end, Maslova marries him. We can closely compare Platon and Simonson. Tolstoy took the values in the character of Russia’s traditional peasant as he had observed some twenty years before, and transformed them into a kind of philosophical stance. Both Platon Karataev and Simonson were representatives of this philosophical stance.

Quietism is against humanism. The very basis of humanism is the old idea of human victory. It says, it is in man’s nature to establish victory over the world and nature. Thus according to the humanistic tenet, man is simply not a part of nature or the world, he is at the centre of it. Consequentially, he stands in opposition to nature. Tolstoy, however, draws a line from the old Gnostic hermits to the naturalists of the 19th century. The only victory that man can truly lay claim to is victory over himself and his desires, he says. It is victory over his desire to rule, to exploit.

One can contemplate whether Lenin would have accepted these views of Tolstoy. Would he consider Platon Karataev or Simonson as ideal characters? These characters stand in stark opposition to his ideal worker who “craves to make the whole world his own by dint of his work”. In a conversation with Maxim Gorky, he appreciates Levin and Nekhlyudov for their acute desire to be free of the trappings of their class – landowning, or upper class urban. It’s an expression of the “Russian sense of justice,” he says. However, he would never have accepted Platon Karataev or Simonson as those who attained the peace and contentment that Levin or Nekhlyudov yearned for. The men that Soviet Russian hunted and destroyed in later years were all Platon Karataevs and Simonsons.

Political Anarchism

From the end of the 18th century, many thinkers all over the world proposed anarchy as a political ideology. Many of these thinkers, including Gandhi, were influenced, to greater or lesser degree, by Tolstoy. Tolstoy inherited the idea from Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer proposed a government that interferes very very minimally in the lives of individuals. Tolstoy restates the same idea. He proposed a system where individuals live in small groups with self-governance. He established his communes with this aim in mind. To live as a commune, it is important to consume less and possess little. The conflicts that arise from consumption and possession should not be allowed to manifest.

This view, too, goes against humanism. It opposes ownership of anything in the world. It also opposes the formation of a global society. The basis of humanism is that the life of a man can expand wide, encompassing the entire earth. Political anarchy opposes humanity’s tendency to spread and expand. Man loses by expanding himself, it claims. If he must find peace and contentment, then he should limit himself. This view is completely oppositional to the consumerist culture of our age. Man of our age is able to defeat diseases, poverty and natural disasters through advances in science and technology and forge ahead, establishing his might and power everywhere. Tolstoy’s views stand in opposition to such a worldview.

Tolstoy’s works show that he cannot be called a humanist or a humanitarian, if we go by how those words are defined today. He did not presume to understand man merely on the basis of his place in historical time. The will of an individual man is but a small drop of the great Will that shapes history. The will resides naturally in him. Man defines his own place. Tolstoy did not have any excessive love or respect for human beings. He never shied from depicting the darkness of man, his meanness, in all its depth. Although he believed that it is the right of man to obtain justice and rights and happiness and peace, he did not believe that man should win over nature and the world and build them out of its ruins.


Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables came out in 1862, seven years before War and Peace. Since it was serialised for a period of over seven years with many breaks and pauses in between, it would not be wrong to say that both the novels were contemporaneous. Both these classics made their way all over the world and inspired a generation of writers. They are still great living works. Les Miserables was published in many world languages over a short span of fifty years. The fountainhead of modern Malayalam literature was ‘Pavangkal’, a translation of Les Miserables by Nalapat Narayana Menon. In Tamil, a shortened form of the book was published by Kaviyogi Suddhananda Bharati.

In all possible ways, Les Miserables was a humanist-humanitarian work. All the humanist works of the world bear the stamp of Les Miserables. In Tamil, Jeyakanthan’s Unnaipol Oruvan, Yarukkaga Azhudhan etc. all ring with the echoes of Les Miserables. The structure of Les Miserables is simply a chain of the greatest expressions of human goodness.

In a way, it is a kind of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Jean Valjean, freshly out of jail, is caught stealing the silver candlesticks from an abbot. The abbot forgives him, and that touches his soul. He can be a thief only in a world of possessions. He is left gaping in a world without possessions. His journey starts from then on. He finds his identity as a worker, a rebel and a father. Eventually he finds peace.

Jean Valjean has no philosophical confusions. His journey is simple. He is not concerned with reaching anywhere; he simply gives up, he renounces. So he has no losses. Only spiritual victories. The novel has many instances when Jean Valjean seems to express the nature of the King Sibi who was willing to hack away at his own flesh to feed a starving bird. The point when he renounces his life of wealth and fame for Fantine is one such peak. His return to Paris for the salvation of Fantine’s daughter Cosette is another such peak. Les Miserables travels from peak to peak.

Jean Valjean is haunted by two opposing forces. One is his own human darkness, that turns him towards selfishness. But that is very weak. He is able to overcome its pull very easily. It is enough for him to be able to turn himself towards a sorrow in the outside world, and give himself up to it entirely. Inner darkness, says Victor Hugo, is something that can be won over easily by philanthropic work and kindness. That is a Christian notion. The  Marxists were also guided by a similar belief. Jean Valjean goes towards sorrows repeatedly just to overcome his inner darkness and go towards light. He purifies himself repeatedly through sacrifices and burns bright in its glow.

The second force that haunts him is the cruel policeman called Javert who pursues him relentlessly. In the novel, Javert takes the same place accorded to Lucifer the devil. Clever, relentless, unforgiving, treading his own paths. Jean Valjean’s salvation takes the form of his final, total victory over Javert. In the great epics of Europe like Faust, the devil usually is the ruler of the underworld. He is the face of darkness that opposes the light of god. In this novel, the face of Satan is the face of the government, the courts. This is important. The government is thus represented as a tool of social order, a crippling oppression that stands in the way of man’s spiritual freedom.

Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables when he was seeking political refuge in Belgium. The French intelligence was hunting him down. The government vehemently opposed some of his political views. Thus Jean Valjean can be understood as a greater version of Victor Hugo himself. He reflects all the doubts and fears and emotionalities and findings of Hugo. Javert was the face of the governmental power that pursued Hugo. He simply put together all the dark forces that he had to conquer and gave it the face of the French government.

Victor Hugo paints Jean Valjean as a man of great physical strength. This is a very important symbol. It is as far as it can get from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Jean Valjean lifts great weights. Many times, it is this great physical strength that reveals him to his pursuers. Victor Hugo seems to say that such great physical strength and labour is the foremost power of the working class. He shows that it is no lesser than spiritual strength. In a way, the journey of Jean Valjean is diametrically opposite to the journey of the religious seeker in monasteries, who starves and withers in pursuit of his salvation.

Jean Valjean’s life can be called ‘many lives in one life’. Throughout the novel, he faces crisis after crisis, and escapes from each one by taking on a new identity and new life. He gets into a crisis sometimes just by virtue of his own goodness. He gives himself up completely in each of these endeavours. As a result he experiences great suffering, and in order to escape that, finds himself elsewhere, and is ‘reborn’. Sometimes the ‘rebirth’ is literal, when he is believed to be dead and he resurfaces elsewhere. This is the same Christian idea of Resurrection. He births himself repeatedly, and thus finds his way to his truth.

(Perhaps this was a common theme in the French literature of that age. There is a similar death and rebirth sequence in Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo)

When Les Miserables was published, it was not received well. The critique on it took three forms. First it was deemed vulgar for showing the realities of urban street life. Next, its celebration of rebellion was deemed destructive. Aesthetically, it was criticized for being too sentimental. The French literature of the day had upper class tastes, with gentle, refined, modest expressions. The critics felt that Victor Hugo was trying to evoke false tears with cheap sentimentality.

However, Les Miserables was popular with its readers from the very beginning, and its popularity has never waned since. It became the guide book of all the democracies and people’s movements in nations all over the world. With the birth of democracy, there was the need for the construction of the image of the “revolutionary leader of the masses” in the nineteenth century. All those characters can be traced back to Jean Valjean. When I researched the life of the Marxist leader M.N.Govindan Nair for my novel Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural, I was surprised to find that he had tried to live the life of Jean Valjean (he inspired the character of KK Menon in the novel). Even in the image of the typical MGR hero, throwing out his hand to help the labourer struggling with his load, there is Jean Valjean.

Thus, if we look for an exemplar humanitarian work, it is Les Miserables. Whether humanitarianism as an ideology has a philosophical ground to stand on, whether as a view it can provide complete picture of life, those are different questions. But it is humanitarianism, more than anything else, that has done some of the greatest work in erasing human suffering. It laid the way for justice, for rights, for freedom. It brought democracy all over the world. It liberated many thousands of human beings from tyranny and oppression. It created benevolent governments. The world we see today is more humane, with lesser suffering, compared to any other age in human history. Enlightenment era humanitarian values are responsible for that. One of the books that took this idea all over the world was Les Miserables. Hence it is a great document of humanity.

Many parts of Les Miserables are not worth reading today. Some parts directly get into a discussion of the political and philosophical questions of that age. Some of the adventure portions of the book are banal by today’s standards. But Les Miserables is still like a great seed that, though buried deep underground, has given rise to a great ever growing tree. “Wherever idealism sprouts, you will find my book knocking there,” Victor Hugo is reported to have said this about Les Miserables. That is true.

War and Peace was published in Malayalam after Les Miserables had already been published and read widely. The literary critic and expert on epics, Kuttikrishnan Marar, questioned why War and Peace did not possess the epic poetic beauty of Les Miserables. “What did I not see that this grove appears to me like a desert? What did they see that this desert appears to them a grove?” he asked. It was the realism of War and Peace that disappointed him. That sort of realism is fundamentally opposed to idealism. Realism questions everything. It seeks truth in a practical, everyday sense, examines everything for its intrinsic value. Under such a lens, the higher idealism of humanitarianism will collapse. This is the reason why in Tolstoy’s works, including War and Peace, this kind of idealism is absent. 

Another piece of literary criticism can be written comparing these two novels in depth. Since the basic idealism of humanitarian is the predominant theme, we see how all the characters including Jean Valjean are defined, exemplar characters, without inner conflicts. They make their way through many problems in life, their position evolves. But they do not possess internal contradictions. They don’t have doubts or confusions, they don’t knock about inside their heads groping for their way out. Jean Valjean and Javert are two characters who are strictly oppositional to each other. But both of them are at two different poles. On the other hand, all of Tolstoy’s characters have many internal contradictions. They are always arguing with themselves in their own heads.

For example, a character like Eponine. The character has many transitions. She goes from riches to rags, is rescued by Jean Valjean and falls in love. But whatever changes her character undergoes, it never loses its essential self that recognises kindness and thrives in it. What role would a character that remains unmoved by man’s essential goodness have in the grand space of a novel like Les Miserables? If one truly has no conception of the greatness of sacrifice what would Jean Valjean have to say to such a person? Les Miserables, for that matter?

This comparison is made in order to show how far and removed Tolstoy’s world is from the moving humanitarianism of Les Miserables. By virtue of his realism, Tolstoy is removed from humanitarianism. It is astounding to think that this journey took him to two extremes. In the Tolstoy we see in his last days, on one hand, we observe one Tolstoy who wrote novellas like The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. On the other hand, there is the other Tolstoy, who wrote moral fables and children’s stories. 

The first Tolstoy was the dawn of modernism. That Tolstoy wrote those stories as from a direct sense of profound dissatisfaction with humanity. He showed how ego and desire imprisons man in its shackles, and isolates him from the world. Man’s ego makes him ambitious, ruthless and competitive; his desire can make him manipulative and exploitative. As a result, he finds himself lonely and empty. These stories point to the vision of man necessarily being doomed to failure. These stories are excellent expressions of existentialism, which would evolve as a philosophy in the next fifty years.

The second Tolstoy was one that Tolstoy fashioned for himself. The first Tolstoy was where he found himself at the end of his journey. The second Tolstoy was the height he wanted to rise up to. Tolstoy dreamed of becoming a Christian mystic. Like a mystic, he created moral fables and spiritual allegories. In the course of such pursuits, he came to his dramatic end.


It is a very simplistic view to consider Tolstoy a humanist or a humanitarian, and read his fiction with this preconceived notion. By reading his fictional works with this preconception, we stand to lose a nuanced understanding of the contradictions within his characters, and the quests that drove their development. We will also miss his subtle portrayals of human darkness. Tolstoy tried to derive man’s identity and his ethics from his inner nature. In this regard, he was philosophically influenced by Schopenhauer. Although he was interested in the question of man’s place in history, he did not see man as just a part of history and nothing more. Rather, he saw man as a vehicle for the great Will that shapes the course of history.

Humanitarianism is like a great surging river. It is like a sharp arrow. Its goal is not to understand man, but to reshape him. Humanitarian aesthetics are emotional, its nature is to challenge the reader. Tolstoy’s realism and his philosophical outlook that always sought to get to the heart of the human essence is like a broad wide shallow lake. Its goal is to understand man, inside and outside. It achieves this aesthetically by  slow, patient, elaborate, balanced storytelling. Its emotions are balanced by reason. It does not challenge the reader, but invites him to discuss. A challenge is timeless, it is like an edict of god, eternal. A discussion allows room for growth and progress.

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