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Theosophy and Tolstoy
GA 53

3 November 1904, Berlin

Translated by Dorothy S. Osmond

Life and Form are the two principles that must guide us through the labyrinth of the manifested world, in multitudinous forms, life is forever changing, coming to expression in manifold variety. Life could not manifest outwardly or present itself in the world if it were not to appear in constantly new forms. The form is the revelation of the life. But all life would vanish, would be lost in the rigidity of form, were it not ever and again to become seed for the building of new forms out of the old. The seed of the plant grows into the developed form of the plant and this plant must again become seed and give a new form existence. So it is in nature everywhere and so it is in the spiritual life of man. In the spiritual life of man and of mankind the forms also change; life maintains itself through forms of infinite variety. But life would lose all power were the forms not perpetually renewed, were not new life to spring forth as seed from old forms. Just as the epochs change in the course of human history, so also do we see life changing in infinitely diverse forms during these epochs. In the lecture on Theosophy and Darwin1Berlin, 27th Oct., 1904. German text in Nachrichtenblatt, Vol. 23 (1946) Nos. 10 – 12, also in Gegenwart, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (April, 1956) we heard of the diverse forms In which the civilisations of mankind have come to expression. We heard something of the forms that existed in the ancient Vedic civilisation of India, changing perpetually through the ancient Persian, the Chaldean-Babylonian-Assyrian-Egyptian, the Greco-Roman and finally through the Christian civilisation until our own time. But the significant point about spiritual development in our own time is that a common life flows more and more into external forms, for this reason it may be called the epoch of forms, the epoch when on every hand man is taught to devote his life to form.

Wherever we look we see the predominance of form. Darwin is the most brilliant illustration of this. What was it that Darwin investigated and bequeathed to humanity in his theory? The origin and change of the forms of animals and plants in the struggle for existence. This confirms that the attention of science is directed to the outer form, And what did Darwin openly declare? He asserted that the plants and animals live out their lives in the most manifold forms but that originally, according to his conviction, there were forms into which life was breathed by a Creator of worlds. This is what Darwin himself says. His eyes are directed to the evolution of forms, of the outer form, and he himself feels that it is impossible to penetrate into what imbues these forms with life. He takes this life for granted and does not attempt to explain it. He pays no heed to it, the question for him being merely the shape and form which life assumes.

Let us consider life in another domain, in the domain of art. I will mention one characteristic phenomenon only, in its most radical form. What a storm of dust was raised in the seventies and eighties of last century by the catchword Naturalism! I do not mean this in any derogatory sense, for this catchword is entirely in keeping with the character of our time. Naturalism emerged again in its extreme form in Zola, the Frenchman. His descriptions of human life are powerful and magnificent. Yet for all that his gaze is not focused upon human life itself but upon the forms in which it manifests. How life comes to expression in mines, in factories, in city districts where immorality is the undoing of men, and so forth. Zola describes all these various manifestations of life, and fundamentally speaking, all naturalists do the same. Their attention is focused, not upon life itself, but upon the forms in which life takes expression.—And now think of our sociologists who are concerned with giving details about the forms which life has assumed and ought to assume in the future. Catch-phrases about the materialistic conception of history and about materialism are much in evidence. But what is the approach of the sociologists? They do not concern themselves with the soul of man, with his inmost spirit. They study external life as it presents itself in the field of economics, how trade and industry prosper in one district or another, and how the human being is obliged to exist as a result of these configurations of life. That is how the sociologists study life. They say: Ethics and the idea of morality are no business of ours! Create better outer conditions for human beings and the standard of living will automatically improve.—in terns of Marxism, modern sociology has declared that the external forms of the economic life, not the forces of ideas, are of paramount importance in human life.

All this indicates that we have reached a phase of evolution when attention is focused primarily on the forms of outer existence. If you think of the greatest writer at the present time you will perceive how his gaze is riveted on the forms of outer existence because, since he is also filled with the warmest feeling for the life of the soul, for a free inner life, he has been reduced to despair by these outer forms of existence. I refer to Henrik Ibsen.2 See also Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies. Vol. II, lecture XVI. He is one who depicts life in most diverse forms, who shows us how life in form always evokes obstacles, how souls go to pieces and are destroyed by the forms which life assumes. The way in which he concludes the poem When We Dead Awaken, is symbolic of the prevailing forgetfulness of the soul find spirit. It is as though Ibsen wished to say: We men, of modern civilisation are completely caught up in the external form of life we so often censure ... and when we awaken, how does the life of soul present itself to us in the tightly knit forms of society and thought in the West?—That is the fundamental trend in Ibsen's dramatic works.

Certain flashlights have now been thrown on the form-culture of the West. In considering Darwinism we saw how this culture is bound up with the outer, mechanical life of nature and how the soul is yoked to rigidly circumscribed forms of life and of society. We saw how this state of things has been reached by slow degrees, how our Fifth Race (the Aryan Race), starting from the spirituality of the ancient Vedic culture which recognised by direct Vision that life is filled with soul, has passed through the Persian, the Chaldean-Babylonian-Egyptian culture-epochs and then through Greco-Roman culture with its view—shared even by the Greek philosophers—that the whole of nature is ensouled. In the 16th century Giordano Bruno still recognised the life that fills the whole of nature, the whole universe and the great world of stars. But in later times, life has become wholly entangled with external form. This is the lowest standpoint. Again I do not say this in a derogatory sense, for every standpoint is necessary. What makes the plant beautiful is the external form, that which comes forth from the seed. Our cultural life has become externalised in every possible way. It is inevitably so, and least of all would it be fitting for theosophists to censure. Just as a culture imbued with spirit and with life was once necessary, so is a form-culture necessary for our age. In science we have the Darwinian view, in art the naturalistic, and in sociology a culture of form.

At this point we must pause and ask ourselves: According to the principles of spiritual science, what must happen when a form is actually present? It must be renewed, must again be imbued with new germinating life!

Those who from this point of view study Zola's contemporary, Tolstoy, attentively and without bias, find in Tolstoy the artist, the observer of the various types among the Russian people—the type of the Russian soldier, the martial type described in War and Peace, and later in Anna Karinina—a keynote quite different from that prevailing in the naturalism of the West. Tolstoy looks everywhere for something else. He describes the soldier, the official, the human being belonging to some class of society, family or race ... but everywhere he is looking for the soul, for the living soul that comes to expression in one and all, although not in the same way. He portrays the simple, straightforward workings of the soul—but at different stages and in different forms. What is life in its diverse forms, in its thousand-fold variety?—this is the basic question running through Tolstoy's works. And then he is able to understand life even when it seems to annihilate itself in death. Death is still the great stumbling-block for the materialistic view of the world. How can a man who regards the outer material world alone as real, grasp the meaning of death, how can he get the mastery over life when death stands at its end like a barrier, filling it with anxiety and terror? Even as an artist Tolstoy has surmounted this standpoint of materialism. In the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyitsch you can see with what artistry materialism in its roost extreme form is transcended, how in this figure of Ivan Ilyitsch there is complete inner concordance. We have a sick man before us, not one who is sick in body, but in soul. In everything Tolstoy says, one thing is clear: he is not of the opinion that there dwells within the body a soul that has nothing to do with the body; it is obvious from his words that he regards the constitution of the body as the expression of the life of soul; the soul, when it is itself sick, causes sickness in the body; it is the soul that pours through the veins of the body. This is a portrayal of how life comes to its own. And here we find a remarkable understanding of death, not as theory or dogma but in the life of feeling. This conception of the soul makes it possible to think of death not as an end but as an outpouring of the personality into the universe, a merging into infinitude, and the rediscovery of the self in the great primal Spirit of the world. The problem of death is here solved by the artist in a wonderful way. Death has become a blessing in life. a dying man feels the metamorphosis from the one form of life to the other.

As a contemporary of the naturalists in the domain of art, Leo Tolstoy was one who sought for life, who enquired into the riddle of life in its different forms. This riddle of life—in its scientific as well as in its religious aspect—lay at the very centre of his soul, at the very core of his thinking and feeling. He strove to fathom this riddle, seeking for life wherever it encountered him. Hence he has become the prophet of a new era that must supersede our own, an era that in contrast to the trend of natural science will again experience and know the reality of life. In Tolstoy's whole judgment of Western culture we see the expression of a spirit who represents fresh, childlike life, a spirit who strives to imbue this life into evolving humanity, a spirit who cannot rest content with a mature, nay an over-mature culture manifesting in external forms. This indicates the nature of Tolstoy's antagonism to Western culture. It is from this point of view that he criticises the forms of society and of life—indeed everything else—current in the West; this is the point of view on which his judgment is based.

In Darwinism, as we heard, Western science succeeded in grasping the forms of life. But Darwin himself declared that he was not able to understand anything of the life he postulates as a given reality. The whole of Western culture is founded on the observation of form—external form in the evolution of mineral, plant, animal, man.—Open any book on Western science and you will find that it is form which is everywhere brought into prominence. Western researchers have themselves declared that they are confronted by the riddle of life and are unable to fathom it. Ever and again, when information about life is expected from scientists, we hear the words: Ignoramus, ignorabimus (we do not know, we shall never know). Science is able to say something about how life is expressed in forms, but knows nothing about the operations of life itself. It despairs of being able to solve this riddle and merely says: Ignorabimus we shall never know. Tolstoy discovered the true principle for contemplation of life. I will read an important passage from his essay On Life,3All the quotations are from Tolstoy's work On Life and essays on religion. Translated by Aylmer Maude. O.U.P. 1934. which will show you how he emphasises the principle of life as contrasted with all science of the forms of life.—

“The false science of our day” (i.e. in the West) “assumes that we know what we cannot know, and that we cannot know the one thing we really do know. A man with this false knowledge assumes that he knows all that presents itself to him in space and time, and that he does not know what his reasonable consciousness tells him.

Such a roan imagines that good in general, and his own good in particular, are the most unknowable of all things for him; his reasonable consciousness seems to him almost equally unknowable, he himself as an animal seems rather more knowable, animals and plants more knowable still, and inanimate and infinitely diffused matter seems to him the most knowable of all.

Something similar happens with regard to man's sight. A man always unconsciously directs his look first to objects that are farthest away and which therefore seem simplest in colour and outline: the sky, the horizon, the distant fields and woods. The farther those things are away the more definitely and simply do they present themselves, while the nearer an object is the more complex are its outlines and colour.” ... “Is it not the same with man's false knowledge? What is indubitably known to him, his reasonable consciousness, appears to him unknowable because it is not simple, while what la certainly incomprehensible to him—illimitable and eternal matter—seems to him to be the most knowable of all things because its very remoteness from him makes it appear simple*

In reality it is just the reverse.” (p. 53)

The Western scientist looks first and foremost at immobile, lifeless matter. Then he perceives how plants, animals and human beings are built out of this as the result of the working of chemical and physical forces, be perceives how lifeless matter is stirred into movement, conglomerates and finally gives rise to the movements of the brain. Only he cannot grasp how life itself comes into being, for what he is investigating is nothing but the form in which life is manifesting. Tolstoy says in effect: Life is our immediate concern, we are within life, nay we are life; if we think that we shall understand life by investigating and observing it in form, we shall never do so. We need only contemplate life in ourselves, we need only experience life—and then we have grasped it. Those who believe that it is impossible to grasp the reality of life itself do not understand it at all.—Tolstoy investigates what the human being is able to apprehend as his life, although the overcomplicated mode of thinking cannot grasp it in the broad outlines of simple thought.—If you would truly understand form, you must look into its innermost essence. If you are willing only to investigate the laws of nature in their outer expression, how can you hope to discover how life that is subjected to reason differs from life that is not? Organisms are healthy and become sick in accordance with identical laws; the sickness and the health of a human being are governed by exactly the same laws.—Again Tolstoy speaks significant words in his essay On Life:

“However strong or rapid a man's movements may be in his death struggle, in madness, in delirium, in drunkenness or even in a paroxysm of passion, we do not recognise life in him, we do not treat him as a living man, we only admit the possibility of life in him. But however weak and motionless a man may be, if we see that his animal personality is in subjection to reason, we recognise life in him and treat him accordingly.” (p. 62)

Tolstoy means that the outer form has significance only when we do not merely study it from outside but grasp that which is not form, which is only spirit—the inmost essence. If we try merely to understand the form we can never penetrate to the actual life; but we shall understand the forms if, starting from life, we then pass to the form.

But Tolstoy did not approach his problem from the scientific side alone; he approached it from the moral and ethical side as well. How, as human beings, do we reach this true life with its law that extends into the outer form? Tolstoy asks himself: How do I, how do other men satisfy the needs of our own well-being? How can I achieve the satisfaction of my own personal life? If his starting-point is that of animal life, a man has no other question than: How do I gratify the needs of the external form of life?—This is an inferior viewpoint. A somewhat higher one is held by those who say: It is not a matter of the gratification of the needs of an individual; the individual has to lend himself to the common weal, to be a member of society—moreover to care not only for what satisfies the form of his own external life but to see to it that the needs of this form of life among all living beings are satisfied. We must be members of a community, we must make our needs subordinate to its needs. Subordination of the needs of the individual to those of the community—this is regarded as the ideal by many moralists and sociologists in Western culture. But—says Tolstoy—this is not the highest viewpoint, for what have I still in mind except the external form? How one lives in the community, how one participates in it—this, after all, is a matter only of the external form. And these external forms are perpetually changing. If my own personal life is not to be the aim, why should the life of the many be the aim? If the welfare of the single individual's form of life is not an ideal, no ideal of common welfare can be produced by an accumulation of individuals. The ideal cannot be the welfare of an individual, nor can it be the welfare of all, for this is a matter only of the forms in which life is contained. Where is life to be recognised? To what are we to put ourselves in subjection, if not to the needs dictated by our lower nature? If not to what common welfare or humanity prescribes?

That which in the individual and in the community alike craves for well-being and happiness is the life itself in the most manifold forms. It therefore behoves us not to shape our ethical, our innermost, ideal according to external forms, but according to what is vouchsafed as the ideal to the inmost essence of the soul itself by the indwelling God. That is why Tolstoy reaches out again for a higher kind of Christianity which he regards as the true Christianity.—Seek not the kingdom of God in outer manifestations—in the forms—but within you. What your duty is will become clear to you when you knowingly experience the life of the soul, when you allow yourself to be inspired by the God within you, when you give ear to the utterances of your soul. Let not the forms engross you, great and impressive though they may be! Go bade to the original, undivided life, to the divine life within you yourself. When a man does not take the ethical ideals, the cultural ideals, into himself from outside, but lets that which arises in his heart, that which the Godhead has imbued into his soul, stream forth from his soul, then he has ceased to live only in form; then he is moral in the true sense. This is inner morality, and inspiration.

From this standpoint Tolstoy strives for a complete renewal of all conceptions of life and of the world in the form of what he calls ‘original Christianity.’ In his view, Christianity has been externalised, has adapted itself to the diverse forms of life produced by culture and civilisation in the different centuries. And he awaits an era when form will be vibrant with new, inner life, when life will again be apprehended in direct experience. Therefore he is never tired of exhorting in ever new connections that it is a matter of experiencing the simplicity of the soul's existence, not the complex existence which all the time is trying to learn something new. The ideal prescribed by Tolstoy is that the simplicity of the soul must be maintained, that the intricacies of external science, of external artistic presentation, the luxury-adjuncts of modern life. must be resolved Into the simplicity inherent in the soul of every human being, no matter in what form of life and society he is placed. And so Tolstoy is a stern critic of the various forms of Western European culture, of Western science. He declares that this science, like theology, has little by little stiffened into a body of dogmas and that Western scientists give one the impression of being outright dogmatists, filled with wrongly directed intellect. He passes stern judgment on these scientists, above all on the ideal striven for in these forms of science, and on those who regard the final goal of all endeavour to be our material welfare. For centuries past mankind has been at pains to make forms preeminent, regarding external possessions, external well-being as the highest goal. And now—we know that this should not be censured but regarded as inevitable - well-being must not be limited to particular ranks or classes, but shared by one and all.—Certainly there is no objection to be made to this, but it is against the form in which Western sociology and Western socialism endeavour to achieve it that Tolstoy directs his attacks. What does this socialism proclaim? Its aim is the transformation of the external forms of life. Material culture itself is to lead men to a higher level, to a higher standard of life. And then, so it is believed, those whose conditions improve, whose, prosperity increases, will also have a higher ethical standard. All ethical endeavour on the part of socialism is directed toward revolutionising the outer form of the conditions of existence.—

It is this attitude which Tolstoy attacks, For the obvious result of the evolution of culture has been the development of the most manifold differences of rank and class. Can you possibly believe that if you make this culture of form preeminent, you will actually produce an ideal civilisation? No, you must take hold of the human being where he himself creates form. You must enrich his soul, imbue his soul with divine-moral forces, and then, acting from the very source of life, he will change the form. That is Tolstoy's socialism and it is his view that no renewal of moral end ethical culture can ever arise from any metamorphosis of the form-culture of the West, but that this renewal must be brought about by the soul, from within outwards. Hence he is not a preacher of dogmas but the champion of a complete transformation of the human soul. He does not say: Man's ethical standard is raised when the outer conditions of his life improve ... but he says: It is just because you have based yourselves on outer forms that you have brought upon yourselves the wretchedness of your existence. Not until you transform the human being from within will you be able to surmount this form of life. In sociology, as well as in Darwinism, we have the last offshoots of the old form-culture. But then we have, too, the preliminary factors for a new culture of life. Just as in the former case we have the line of descent, here we have the line of ascent. As little as an aged man who has already attained his settled form of life is capable of complete self-renewal, as little can an old culture produce a new form of life. It is from the child with its fresh forces of growth that the new form of life springs—inwardly quickened—from what is as yet undifferentiated and able to unfold into infinite diversity. Hence in the Russian people Tolstoy sees a people not yet entangled in Western forms of culture; it is within this people that the life of the future must germinate. From his observation of the Slav people who still regard the European ideals of culture—European science as well as European art—with apathetic indifference, Tolstoy declares that in this people there lives an undifferentiated spirit which must become the bearer of the future ideal of culture. It is there that he sees the hope of the future. His judgment is based on the great law of evolution, on that law which teaches us the principle of the change of forms and the perpetually new, germinal up-welling of life,

In the tenth chapter of his essay On Life, he says:

“And the law we know in ourselves as the law of our life is the same law by which all the external phenomena of the universe are ordered, only with this difference, that in ourselves we know this law as that which we must ourselves fulfill, while in external phenomena we know it as the law by which things take place without our participation.” (p. 47)

Thus Tolstoy himself bears witness to life that is evolving, that is eternally subject to change. We should be very poor representatives of spiritual science were we unable to understand such a phenomenon aright and were only to preach ancient truth. Why do we study the ancient wisdom? Because this ancient wisdom teaches us to understand life in its depths, because it reveals to us how the Divine manifests ever and again in an infinite variety of form. Anyone who becomes a dogmatist, who speaks only about the ancient wisdom without ears or words for happenings of the immediate present, is anything but a worthy representative of spiritual science. The ancient wisdom is not taught to us in order that we shall repeat it in words but in order that we shall live it, and learn to understand what is round about us. The development of our own race, which has been separating into different forms from the time of the ancient Indian civilisation up to our own, is accurately described and portrayed in that ancient wisdom, which speaks, too, of the development to come in the future, in our own immediate future. It tells us that we are standing at the starting-point of a new world-era. Our reason, our intelligence, have developed as this result of the passage through the different domains of existence. The powers of our physical intellect have attained their greatest triumph in the form-culture of our time. Intellect has penetrated the natural laws of form and has achieved mastery of them in the stupendous advances made in applied technology, in the standards of our life. We stand now at the starting-point of an epoch when something must pour into this intellect, something that must lay hold of and mould the human being from within outwards. That is why the Theosophical Movement has chosen as its guiding principle and aim, the establishment of the kernel of universal brotherhood among men without distinction of creed, class, sex or colour: it is the life that is to be sought in all these forms. The spiritual ideal hovering before us is an ideal of Love, an ideal which the human being, when he becomes conscious of divinity, experiences as the other divine principle that is within himself. The culture of intellect, of the spirit, is called by Theosophy, Manas; Buddhi is the principle that is inwardly pervaded by love, the principle that arrives only for such wisdom as is filled with love. And just as our race has produced a culture founded on intellect the next stage will be a culture where the individual, filled with love, acts out of his inner, divine nature, without losing his bearings in the chaos of the external world, be it in the domain of science or the social life. If we have this conception of the spiritual ideal we may claim to have understood it rightly—and then we shall not fail to recognise a personality who, living among us, is striving to instill into the evolution of humanity the Impulse of a new life.

Much of what Tolstoy says about the essential nature of man is in perfect accord with this. Let me read just one more passage that is particularly characteristic of his ethical and moral ideal:

“The whole life of such people is directed to the supposed increase of the welfare of their personality. And the good of their personality appears to them to consist in the gratification of its needs; and these needs are all those conditions of individual existence to which their attention is directed. The needs of which they are conscious—those to which they have directed their attention—always grow to infinite proportions as a result of this attention, and the gratification of these overgrown needs hides from them the demands of their true Life.” (pp. 82/3)

Tolstoy therefore says in effect: The reasoning consciousness is not enclosed within the confines of the personality. Personality is a quality of the animal and of man as an animal. Reasoning consciousness is an attribute of man alone. Not until man learns to become impersonal, to let the impersonal life hold sway in him, will he grow out of a culture of form into a culture of life—despite the continuing development of outer form. Man learns to live on rightly into the future when his being is steeped in the eternal, the imperishable. The culture based on intellect must be superseded by Buddhi, the culture based on wisdom. The most important factors here are those forces which operate in life itself.4At the end of a lecture given in Berlin, 30th September, 1905, (the fifth of the so-called “Thirty-one” Lectures, Dr. Steiner says: “Buddhi-Manas must now be developed. Man must learn to do something more than mere speaking. With his speaking he must combine another force, such as is found in the works of Tolstoy. What Tolstoy actually says is of less importance than the fact that behind what he says there is an elemental force which has in it something of Buddhi-Manas. The reason why Tolstoy's writings make such a strong impression is that they contain, in contrast to Western European culture, something new and rudimental. The element of uncouthness in Tolstoy's writings will be leveled out as time goes on. Tolstoy is merely an instrument of a higher spiritual force which was also behind the Gothic Initiate Wulfila. This spiritual force uses Tolstoy as its instrument.”

It behoves us to recognise and understand such a truth. The greatness of Leo Tolstoy lies in this: he has shown that the ideals are not to be found outside, in the material world, but can spring forth from the soul.

See also: The following passage is from Lecture VI of the Course The Gospel of St. John in relation to the other three Gospels, especially the Gospel of St. Luke:

“... Such a thinker merits the very greatest respect, above all in the West, where whole libraries are filled with lengthy philosophical dissertations on the same thing which Tolstoy expounds with greatness and power in a single work such as his essay On Life. There are pages in Tolstoy's writings where with an elemental force, certain deep knowledge of theosophical truth is set forth.”

See also: Tolstoy and Carnegie. Lecture given 28th Jan. 1909.