A Confession

A Confession


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An unabridged, digitally enlarged edition to include an epilogue by the author.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486438511
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 01/05/2005
Series: Dover Books on Western Philosophy
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 429,466
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Novelist, essayist, dramatist, and philosopher, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is most famous for his sprawling portraits of 19th-century Russian life, as recounted in Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

Date of Birth:

September 9, 1828

Date of Death:

November 20, 1910

Place of Birth:

Tula Province, Russia

Place of Death:

Astapovo, Russia


Privately educated by French and German tutors; attended the University of Kazan, 1844-47

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By LEO TOLSTOY, Aylmer Maude

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Leo Tolstoy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11256-5


I WAS baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Christian faith. I was taught it in childhood and throughout my boyhood and youth. But when I left the second course of the university, at the age of eighteen, I no longer believed any of the things I had been taught.

Judging by certain memories, I never seriously believed, but had merely relied on what I was taught and on what was professed by the grown-up people around me; and that reliance was very unstable.

I remember that before I was eleven, a boy, Vladimir Milyutin (long since dead), a grammar school pupil, visited us one Sunday and announced as the latest novelty a discovery made at his school. This discovery was that there is no God, and that all we are taught about Him is a mere invention (this was in 1838). I remember how interested my elder brothers were in this news. They called me to their council, and we all, I remember, became very animated, and accepted the news as something very interesting and quite possible.

I remember also that when my elder brother, Dmitry, who was then at the university, suddenly, in the passionate way natural to him, devoted himself to religion and began to attend all the Church services, to fast and to lead a pure and moral life, we all—even our elders—unceasingly held him up to ridicule and called him, for some unknown reason, "Noah." I remember that Musin-Pushkin, the then curator of Kazan University, when inviting us to a dance at his house, ironically persuaded my brother (who was declining the invitation) by the argument that even David danced before the Ark. I sympathized with these jokes made by my elders, and drew from them the conclusion that though it is necessary to learn the catechism and go to church, one must not take such things too seriously. I remember also that I read Voltaire when I was very young, and that his raillery, far from shocking me, amused me very much.

My lapse from faith occurred as is usual among people on our level of education. In most cases, I think, it happens thus: a man lives like everybody else, on the basis of principles not merely having nothing in common with religious doctrine, but generally opposed to it; religious doctrine does not play a part in life, in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and in a man's own life he never has to reckon with it. Religious doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it. If it is encountered, it is only as an external phenomenon disconnected from life.

By a man's life and conduct, then as now, it was and is quite impossible to judge whether he is a believer or not. If there be a difference between a man who publicly professes Orthodoxy and one who denies it, the difference is not in favour of the former. Then as now, the public profession and confession of Orthodoxy was chiefly met with among people who were dull and cruel, and who considered themselves very important. Ability, honesty, reliability, good-nature and moral conduct were often met with among unbelievers.

The schools teach the catechism and send the pupils to church; and Government officials must produce certificates of having received Communion. But a man of our circle, who has finished his education and is not in the Government service, may even now (and formerly it was still easier for him to do so) live for ten or twenty years without once remembering that he is living among Christians and is himself reckoned a member of the Orthodox Christian Church.

So that, now as formerly, religious doctrine, accepted on trust and supported by external pressure, thaws away gradually under the influence of knowledge and experience of life which conflict with it, and a man very often lives on, imagining that he still holds intact the religious doctrine imparted to him in childhood, whereas in fact not a trace of it remains.

S., a clever and truthful man, once told me the story of how he ceased to believe. When he was already twenty-six, he once, on a hunting expedition, at the place where they put up for the night, by habit retained from childhood, knelt down in the evening to pray. His elder brother, who was at the hunt with him, was lying on some hay and watching him. When S. had finished and was settling down for the night, his brother said to him: "So you still do that?"

They said nothing more to one another. But from that day S. ceased to say his prayers or go to church. And now he has not prayed, received Communion, or gone to church for thirty years. And this not because he knows his brother's convictions and has joined him in them, nor because he has decided anything in his own soul, but simply because the word spoken by his brother was like the push of a finger on a wall that was ready to fall by its own weight. The word only showed that where he thought there was faith, in reality there had long been an empty place, and that therefore the utterance of words and the making of signs of the cross and genuflections while praying were quite senseless actions. Becoming conscious of their senselessness, he could not continue them.

So it has been and is, I think, with the great majority of people. I am speaking of people of our educational level, who are sincere with themselves, and not of those who make the profession of faith a means of attaining worldly aims. (Such people are the most fundamental infidels, for if faith is for them a means of attaining any worldly aims, then certainly it is not faith.) These people of our education are so placed that the light of knowledge and life has caused an artificial erection to melt away, and they have either already noticed this and swept its place clear, or they have not yet noticed it.

The religious doctrine taught me from childhood disappeared in me as in others, but with this difference, that as from the age of fifteen I began to read philosophical works, my rejection of the doctrine became a conscious one at a very early age. From the time I was sixteen I ceased to say my prayers and ceased to go to church or to fast, of my own volition. I did not believe what had been taught me in childhood, but I believed in something. What it was I believed in I could not at all have said. I believed in a God, or rather I did not deny God; but I could not have said what sort of God. Neither did I deny Christ and his teaching, but what his teaching consisted in I again could not have said.

Looking back on that time, I now see clearly that my faith—my only real faith—that which, apart from my animal instincts, gave impulse to my life—was a belief in perfecting myself. But in what this perfecting consisted, and what its object was, I could not have said. I tried to perfect myself mentally—I studied everything I could, anything life threw in my way; I tried to perfect my will, I drew up rules which I tried to follow; I perfected myself physically, cultivating my strength and agility by all sorts of exercises, and accustoming myself to endurance and patience by all kinds of privations. And all this I considered to be the pursuit of perfection. The beginning of it all was, of course, moral perfection; but that was soon replaced by perfection in general: by the desire to be better, not in my own eyes or those of God, but in the eyes of other people. And very soon this effort again changed into a desire to be stronger than others: to be more famous, more important and richer than others.


SOME day I will narrate the touching and instructive history of my life during those ten years of my youth. I think very many people have had the same experience. With all my soul I wished to be good; but I was young, passionate, and alone, completely alone when I sought goodness. Every time I tried to express my most sincere desire, which was to be morally good, I met with contempt and ridicule; but as soon as I yielded to low passions I was praised and encouraged.

Ambition, love of power, covetousness, lasciviousness, pride, anger and revenge—were all respected.

Yielding to those passions, I became like the grown-up folk, and I felt that they approved of me. The kind aunt with whom I lived, herself the purest of beings, always told me that there was nothing she so desired for me as that I should have relations with a married woman:

'Rien ne forme un jeune homme, comme une liaison avec une femme comme il faut.' Another happiness she desired for me was that I should become an aide-de-camp, and if possible aide-de-camp to the Emperor. But the greatest happiness of all would be that I should marry a very rich girl and so become possessed of as many serfs as possible.

I cannot think of those years without horror, loathing, and heartache. I killed men in war, and challenged men to duels in order to kill them; I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was no crime I did not commit, and for all that people praised my conduct, and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man.

So I lived for ten years.

During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil. And I did so. How often in my writings I contrived to hide under the guise of indifference, or even of banter, those strivings of mine towards goodness, which gave meaning to my life! And I succeeded in this, and was praised.

At twenty-six years of age I returned to Petersburg after the war, and met the writers. They received me as one of themselves and flattered me. And before I had time to look round I had adopted the views on life of the set of authors I had come among, and these views completely obliterated all my former strivings to improve. Those views furnished a theory which justified the dissoluteness of my life.

The view of life of these people, my comrades in authorship, consisted in this: that life in general goes on developing, and in this development we—men of thought—have the chief part; and among men of thought it is we—artists and poets-who have the greatest influence. Our vocation is to teach mankind. And lest the simple question should suggest itself: What do I know, and what can I teach? it was explained in this theory that this need not be known, and that the artist and poet teach unconsciously. I was considered an admirable artist and poet, and therefore it was very natural for me to adopt this theory. I, artist and poet, wrote and taught, without myself knowing what. For this I was paid money; I had excellent food, lodging, women, and society; and I had fame, which showed that what I taught was very good.

This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion, and I was one of its priests. To be its priest was very pleasant and profitable. And I lived a considerable time in this faith without doubting its validity. But in the second, and especially in the third year of this life, I began to doubt the infallibility of this religion and to examine it. My first cause of doubt was that I began to notice that the priests of this religion were not all in accord among themselves. Some said: We are the best and most useful teachers; we teach what is needed, but the others teach wrongly. Others said: No! we are the real teachers, and you teach wrongly. And they disputed, quarrelled, abused, cheated, and tricked one another. There were also many among us who did not care who was right and who was wrong, but were simply bent on attaining their covetous aims by means of this activity of ours. All this obliged me to doubt the validity of our creed.

Moreover, having begun to doubt the truth of the authors' creed itself, I also began to observe its priests more attentively, and I became convinced that almost all the priests of that religion, the writers, were immoral, and for the most part men of bad, worthless character, much inferior to those whom I had met in my former dissipated and military life; but they were self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is. These people revolted me, I became revolting to myself, and I realized that that faith was a fraud.

But strange to say, though I understood this fraud and renounced it, yet I did not renounce the rank these people gave me: the rank of artist, poet, and teacher. I naïvely imagined that I was a poet and artist and could teach everybody without myself knowing what I was teaching, and I acted accordingly.

From my intimacy with these men I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride, and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what.

To remember that time, and my own state of mind and that of those men (though there are thousands like them today), is sad and terrible and ludicrous, and arouses exactly the feeling one experiences in a lunatic asylum.

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote—teaching others. And without remarking that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life's questions: What is good and what is evil? we did not know how to reply, we all not listening to one another, talked at the same time, sometimes backing and praising one another in order to be backed and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another—just as in a lunatic asylum.

Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over Russia, and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us. It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people, we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: "All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men." This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money, and those on our side praised us; so each of us considered himself justified.

It is now clear to me that this was just as in a lunatic asylum; but then I only dimly suspected this, and like all lunatics, simply called all men lunatics except myself.


Excerpted from A CONFESSION by LEO TOLSTOY, Aylmer Maude. Copyright © 2005 Leo Tolstoy. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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A Confession 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
IronMike on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"A Confession" was first published in 1882 and there have been many publishings since then. My comments refer to the new publication from Hesperus Classics. The Hesperus version, although a paperback, is a unique addition to the fold. The book itself, (the contents of the book aside for the moment,) is very attractive. The cover is designed like a dust-jacket for a hard cover book. This is a simple idea, but I've never seen it before, and I like it. I liked it so much that I went to the publisher's website to see if all the Hesperus Classics were similarly designed. But the website was "under construction," which leads me to believe that Hesperus may be a new publisher, and if this is so, I wish them well. Their idea seems to be to make the lesser known works of the great writers available in an attractive format and at a reasonable price...a noble ambition.As for the contents of the book: I have developed a practise of skipping over prologues and introductions etc., and going right to the text. When I've finished reading the text I go back and read the introductions etc. If you decide to read this book I recommend that you do the same...skip the Foreword and the introduction. The Foreword by Helen Dunmore is quite good, as is the Introduction by Anthony Briggs (who is also the translator,) but they reveal parts of the book which I would prefer to get direct and first-hand from the author. Revealing some text from the book in a Foreword or Intro is almost inevitable, and doing so is not Ms. Dunmore's or Mr. Briggs's fault. In fact, I INSIST that you read their comments. I only suggest that you hold off till Tolstoy has his say. Ms. Dunmore, in fact, in her first page told me two things about Tolstoy of which I had been previously unaware, and I thank her. Mr. Briggs contextualizes much of what Tolstoy has said, giving the book a solid historical and philosophical footing, but they do give things away, such as Tolstoy's tale of falling into a well, which I would rather come upon in the text.The subject of the book (actually, two books: A Confession, followed by What is Religion) is the eternal one of "Why was I born? Why am I living? What should I do? My life seems sort of dreary...should I maybe just hang myself? Or shoot myself? I think I gave more than one eternal question there. Sorry. But cheer up; the books are not as dreadful as those questions portend. In fact, there were several points in the book at which I erupted in laughter or guffaws at strange hours of the morning and may have startled my neighbors from their slumbers. For instance, Tolstoy, wondering why he hasn't already commited suicide, wonders: "I can see now that if I did not commit suicide it was because of a vague sense that my reasoning might be flawed." Tolstoy lived till he was 82. I guess that "vague sense that (his) reasoning might be flawed" was pretty strong.(Yes, I know: I've just done what I've previously chastised Helen Dunmore and Anthony Briggs for doing...I've quoted from the book before you had a chance to read it. Sorry about that.)When I see a book with "Religion" in the title, or with subject matter such as suicide, I immediately turn away. But Tolstoy is Tolstoy. You are guaranteed to get your money's worth from Leo's musings.Does Tolstoy answer the question of personal existence? I don't think so. But he does come close. At one point he says Solomon and Schopenhauer believe the answer is ...(I won't give it away) but Tolstoy is'nt satisfied by Solomon and Schopenhauer, and he presses on. For my money, I would have stopped right where Solomon and Schopenhauer did. The most amusing lines in the book were about Louis IX's belly-aches, and the Sumsky Hussars. I'm not telling you more than that. Enjoy life.I rate the Hesperus Classics edition of Tolstoy's "A Confession" a strong four stars.
jsoos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Confession is Tolstoy's autobiographical essay questioning the meaning of life. His evolution from warrior to writer to working with the peasants led him to question logic and reason - billions of people do not react logically to the "life is meaningless" position. Why? - because they have faith. In fact, "where there is life, there is faith". Tolstoy comes to the conclusion that faith is the life force (vs the need to maintain a church).He believes we need to abandon the comforts of life, work hard, show humility and show patience to adversity and charity to others ("truth is revealed in love.") These are the simple tenants to life as opposed to formalized religion which stresses sacraments, church services, fasting and bowing to the icons.The Hesperus edition includes both Tolstoy's Confession (1879-1882) with his essay "What is religion" (1902). What is Religion, is in part, Tolstoy's answer to the questions raised 20 years earlier in his Confession. The combining of these two essays into a single voume is excellent.Tolstoy tries to determine the basic truth of religion. Two quotes from the essay best express the essay:"Faith is man's awareness of his place in the universe"."Religion is the relationship between man the the infinity he feels himself part of, and from this he derives his code of conduct."
Brasidas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating! Tolstoy here reflects on the emptiness of his early life--military service, writing ambition, fitness/strength frenzy, etc.--and his subsequent loss of God. He does not see how he can go on in midlife without both the materialistic and spiritual ways denied him. What follows is a contemplation of death---a horror!---floridly expressed. He touches on both the fear and the inevitability in such a way that had this reader feeling terribly sorry for all his fellow humans' final "indignity." Buddhists, especially, though not solely, should find the book absorbing. It crystalizes a kind of consciousness which we as a species are only now, slowly, glacially slowly, beginning to leave behind. Will we make it? Will some future watershed event catapult us into an enlightened future? In other words, will compassion win the day?
antiquary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a fairly conventional mainstream Christian, it is probably natural that I very much liked the first part of Confession, which brilliantly dissects the still highly recognizable failings of the secular educated elite --it is often hard to remember this was describing events in the 1830s or so . On the other hand, it is also very natural I was made uncomfortable by the latter part of the Confession and nearly all of "What is Religion?" which explains why Tolsoy, having already rejected atheism, now went on to reject conventional religion and especially the Russian Orthodox Church. While on some points I can say, "Well, yes, 19th century Russian Orthodoxy was a state church which indulged in persecution in ways that are irrelevant to the modern American churches (even modern American Orthodoxy, of which I am quite fond, though not Orthodox myself). But in other ways I must admit that his critique could be justly applied to modern Christians as well. Some of it I think simplistic --calling the mass of believers "hypnotized" by tradition, for instance --but on some points he must be taken seriously, notably the failure of many Christians (particularly myself) to live up to the faith they profess. Whether the belief system he ends up with can still be called reigion, let alone Christianity, is very doubtful --I suspect many modern secularists would be more comfortable with it than many modern Christians --but there is no mistaking the excruciatingly painful honesty with which he did his best to work out and then live up his beliefs.(Though on the living up to, as the foreword remarks, he did no better in some respects than other fallible humans, especially where his poor wife was concerned.)
TheCrow2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tolstoy's A Confession consists his two essays about his view of religion. He was raised as a Russian Orthodox but in his young age became an atheist. After it he always felt his live missing something felt his life meaningless. After long years of struggling he returned to religion but it was his own. He distinguish the organized religions and some kind of 'true faith'. Although IMHO he asking the wrong questions and got to false answers, his intellect guarantees a fascinating journey through his life and mind.The Hesperus paperback edition's a neat volume. The cover's simple but nice and it has two interesting forewords about the essays.
EnriqueFreeque on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Say what you will about Leo Tolstoy post-Anna Karenina. Say he completely lost it as a writer (and his marbles too), as most critics, far more subtly, say. Say the once singularly incisive and dynamic Russian master had gone out of his creative freaking mind. Say he turned his back forever on his Art at the age of fifty; turned his back on his very name that had become synonymous with Greatness; and embraced, in place of the fame and fortune and accolades, an idiosyncratic, self-styled monastic hybrid of asceticism, Christianity, and a rigorous social consciousness that abandoned the trappings and accoutrements of wealth in favor of an obsessive obedience to peasant life - to a strict adherence to "the faith of the poor" - from which he resurrected meaning and a sense of purpose to his life. Once his life, he realized, was no longer just about satisfying the dictates of his desires, but about living humbly among the poor, he could be happy. Apparently, all the literary success a person could ever imagine or hope for, wasn't enough (not nearly enough) to fulfill Tolstoy and to induce inner peace; rather, success and its material benefits became an albatross, in his mind, stuffed with the existential weight of meaninglessness, that nearly snuffed him out.So, say what you want: Say he went insane (and perhaps you'd be partially correct in saying so; I mean, how could a man not be forever happy and content having composed War and Peace?), but don't say his Confession, that in 93 packed pages, explains, in harrowing, psychologically minute detail, his spiritual crisis of identity and purpose, that took him - one of the most successful and famous writers of his time (of any time) - to the brink of suicide, isn't as dramatic a reading experience as the tomes he's most famous for.His Confession chronicles his interior transformation from high-society-minded artist to peasant, and how during the process the option of suicide became for him the most rational reaction to what he considered his "joke of a life; his empty and meaningless life," the very brilliant life, that is, that had authored two of the most renowned novels ever created, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Incredible in the light of his accomplishments, how low he'd sunk inside. His Confession outlines his emotional and philosophical descent - and eventual ascent from suicide - in terse, conversational style. Like talking to a friend, reading Tolstoy's Confession.I think Tolstoy's Confession is one of the most fascinating psychological odysseys I've ever read, documenting a person's darkest despair and then unexpected U-turn of rebirth and revival. Based on just the writing in his Confession, I think it'd be difficult to argue that Tolstoy had gone insane, as some attest he did. For the writing is remarkably lucid and concise. His self-analysis is rational. His arguments and reasoning, logical. Granted, he wrote it after, not during his crisis, so knowing the exact state of his mind when he was literally in despair; when he was in the moment, suicidal, is probably not precisely knowable or attainable. But Tolstoy, nevertheless, painted quite the unpretty interior picture (think Edvard Munch's, The Scream) of a mind and a man about to implode.Thank God Tolstoy lacked what he describes as "the courage" to commit suicide, but instead persevered through his year-and-a-half long crisis, and came out on the other, brighter side, maybe not as the Leo Tolstoy anybody recognized (or even wanted), but as a man, nonetheless, who in the least, drilled a great hole through the darkness of suicidal despair with his still mighty pen, and a hole big enough that maybe future others who've found themselves in similar, suicidal predicaments, might crawl, led by Tolstoy's words, through. And live. I can't fault a man who, on the brink of suicide
TakeItOrLeaveIt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading Tolstoy's A Confession was a rite-of-passage as much as Leo's ultimate retrospective was for him, for me. Well, not quite because I'm still in my self-indulgent phase not ready to become an aesthetic and a believer in purpose and meaning found through faith. The first 3/4 of this is some of the best introspective writing I have ever read, then...faith takes over. Still, Leo is the man.
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tippiosax More than 1 year ago
Tolstoy was confused, but very entertaining.
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Great, new perspective! Little slow in parts, but overall a time worthy read!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book which provides different perspectives on faith and philosophy. Enlightening...
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