The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Leo Tolstoy on Love and Its Paradoxical Demands

Leo Tolstoy on Love and Its Paradoxical Demands

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910) began tussling with the grandest questions of existence from an early age. As a young man, he struggled through his search for himself, learned the hard way about the moral weight of immoral motives, and confronted the meaning of human existence. By late middle age, his work had gained him worldwide literary acclaim, but had also managed to antagonize both church and state at home — the Russian government found his social, political, and moral views so worrisome that they censored him heavily and threatened imprisonment, while the Orthodox Church was so offended by his spiritual writings that they eventually excommunicated him.

Leo Tolstoy

What his homeland withheld the world gave and gave heartily — especially England, where a small but spirited Tolstoy fan base had mushroomed. The author’s devoted secretary and supporter, Vladimir Chertkov, who had landed in London in 1897 after being exiled from Russia, invested his resources and his enthusiasm for Tolstoy’s writing in the Free Age Press — a visionary publishing outfit he founded in Dorset, as spiritually and morally idealistic as Tolstoy himself, dedicated to promoting “reason, justice, and love” and “spreading the deepest convictions of the noblest spirits of every age and race.” The Free Age Press operated from the belief that life has an essential spiritual dimension and that “man’s true aim and happiness consists in unity in reason and love in place of the present insane and unhappy struggle which is bringing and can bring real good to no one.”

The Free Age Press was also a pioneering model for a culture built on sharing rather than ownership and on the understanding that sharing itself is what gives rise to culture. Their original mission statement read:

We earnestly trust that all who sympathize will continue to assist us in circulating these books. No private person has benefited or will benefit financially by the existence of The Free Age Press; the books are issued free of copyright, so that anyone may reprint them who wishes; and any profits made (necessarily small) will go to assist the same work in the Russian language. For the hundreds of kindly letters received from all parts of the world, and the practical help in publicity which has enabled us to circulate upwards of 200,000 booklets and 250,000 leaflets since July 1900, we are very grateful, and tender our hearty thanks.

Vladimir Chertkov working at the Free Age Press workshop, 1902
Vladimir Chertkov working at the Free Age Press workshop, 1902

The press began publishing Tolstoy’s spiritual and moral writings — works bowdlerized or entirely unpublished in Russia in his lifetime — standing as a powerful testament to Neil Gaiman’s assertion that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.” Among the most widely circulated of these works was Tolstoy’s On Life* (public library), originally written as Tolstoy approached his sixtieth birthday in 1888.

In one of the most poignant chapters of the book, Tolstoy examines our gravest misconceptions about love — what he bemoans as “the confused knowledge of men that in love there is the remedy for all the miseries of life,” which stems from our insufficient curiosity about the true meaning of our lives. At the center of his argument is a conceptual parallel to the ethos of the Free Age Press — the insight that sharing only increases the sum total of goodness; that the ownership-based impulse to withhold diminishes it; that love, in its grandest sense, is never a zero-sum game wherein the love we extend to one being is at the expense of another.

He writes:

Every man knows that in the feeling of love there is something special, capable of solving all the contradictions of life and of giving to man that complete welfare, the striving after which constitutes his life. “But it is a feeling that comes but rarely, lasts only a little while, and is followed by still worse sufferings,” say the men who do not understand life.

To these men love appears not as the sole and legitimate manifestation of life, as the reasonable consciousness conceives it to be, but only as one of the thousand different eventualities of life; as one of the thousand varied phases through which man passes during his existence.


For such people love does not answer to the idea which we involuntarily attach to the word. It is not a beneficent activity which gives welfare to those who love and for those who are loved.

Our self-harming delusions about the nature of love, Tolstoy argues, spring from our over-reliance on reason, which is invariably an imperfect faculty and can be led astray by our misbeliefs. (His compatriot Dostoyevsky had addressed this in a beautiful letter to his brother half a century earlier.) Tolstoy writes:

The activity of love offers such difficulties that its manifestations become not only painful, but often impossible. “One should not reason about love” — those men usually say who do not understand life — “but abandon oneself to the immediate feeling of preference and partiality which one experiences for men: that is the true love.”

They are right in saying that one should not reason about love, and that all reasoning about love destroys it. But the point is, that only those people need not reason about love who have already used their reason to understand life and who have renounced the welfare of the individual existence; but those who have not understood life and who exist for the welfare of the animal individuality, cannot help reasoning about it. They must reason to be enabled to give themselves up to this feeling which they call love.

Every manifestation of this feeling is impossible for them, without reasoning, and without solving unsolvable questions.

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Tolstoy’s 1852 book Nikolenka’s Childhood

Tolstoy turns to the central paradox of reconciling our inherent solipsism with the ethos of universal love. (Twenty years later, he would explore these issues in his little-known correspondence with Gandhi, with whom Tolstoy shared a profound spiritual kinship.) He writes:

In reality every man prefers his own child, his wife, his friends, his country, to the children, wives, friends, and country of others, and he calls this feeling love. To love means in general to do good. It is thus that we all understand love, and we do not know how to comprehend it in any other way. Thus, when I love my child, my wife, my country, I mean that I desire the welfare of my child, wife, and country more than that of other children, women, and countries. It never happens, and can never happen, that I love my child, wife, or country only. Every man loves at the same time his child, wife, country, and men in general. Nevertheless the conditions of the welfare which he desires for the different beings loved, in virtue of his love, are so intimately connected, that every activity of love for one of the beings loved not only hinders his activity for the others but is detrimental to them.

In a passage that calls to mind Hannah Arendt on the humanizing value of unanswerable questions, Tolstoy considers the inquiries that result from this paradox:

In the name of which love should I act and how should I act? In the name of which love should I sacrifice another love? Whom shall I love the most and to whom do the most good — to my wife, or to my children — to my wife and children, or to my friends? How shall I serve a beloved country without doing injury to the love for my wife, children, and friends?

Finally, how shall I solve the problem of knowing in what measure I can sacrifice my individuality, which is necessary to the service of others? To what extent can I occupy myself with my own affairs and yet be able to serve those I love? All these questions seem very simple to people who have not tried to explain this feeling they call love — but, far from being simple, they are quite unsolvable.

Out of these unanswerable questions, he suggests, arises an awareness and, finally, an acceptance of the multiplicity and variousness of love. This, in turn, furnishes the understanding of love’s essential nature not as a hypothetical conceit but as an active state of being — or, to borrow the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s term, “interbeing” with others — necessarily grounded in the present moment:

The demands of love are so many, and they are all so closely interwoven, that the satisfaction of the demands of some deprives man of the possibility of satisfying others. But if I admit that I cannot clothe a child benumbed with cold, on the pretence that my children will one day need the clothes asked of me, I can also resist other demands of love in the name of my future children.


If a man decides that it is better for him to resist the demands of a present feeble love, in the name of another, of a future manifestation, he deceives either himself or other people, and loves no one but himself.

Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.

On Life is a spirit-rousing read in its totality. Complement it with Tolstoy on personal growth, human nature, how to find meaning when life seems meaningless, what separates good art from bad, and his reading list of essential books for every stage of life, then revisit the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s timeless experiment in love.

* Curiously, the 2009 digital edition of On Life by an English publisher called White Crow Books bears this affront to the spirit and explicit anti-copyright ethos of the Free Age Press: “All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction, in any manner, is prohibited.”

Published September 9, 2016




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