Noah Millman thinks he has located the essence of the conservative temperament in the works of Leo Tolstoy, which is hard to believe. Perhaps you know the old joke about the tenure committee’s verdict on Jesus Christ. (“A fine teacher but didn’t publish.”) Tolstoy’s verdict was worse. According to Gorky, Tolstoy “considered Christ naive and worthy of pity,” which is about what you’d expect from a man so arrogant that he first declared his intention to found his own religion at the age of twenty-seven. If the conservative virtues are humility, patience, deference to the past, and awareness of limits, then sweet angels in heaven, why would we look to Tolstoy to elucidate them?
Millman seems about 20 percent as aware of this problem as he ought to be. I give him the 20 percent because he does admit that Tolstoy’s “radical political ideas . . . cannot, I think, be described as ‘prudent.’” But that’s not quite the point. It isn’t Tolstoy’s opinions that make him untrustworthy, but his character. I don’t care that his interpretation of Christ’s teachings led him to anarchism, vegetarianism, and pacifism; I care that he considered himself more qualified to interpret Christ’s teachings than Christ himself. It’s not the conclusions he drew, but the presumption with which he asserted them.
In 1902, Tolstoy sent a letter to Nicholas II (insolently addressing him as “beloved brother”) in which he laid out all the ways the tsar was ruining the country and explaining the radical reforms that would put things right. The tsar ignored the letter, which led Tolstoy to conclude that he was “a pathetic, weak, and stupid” ruler. A person may advocate the redistribution of land, the abolition of the monarchy, an end to all wars, and the disestablishment of the national church and still have a conservative disposition (at least according to Millman’s definition of it). But what one may not do is dictate policies to a head of state and then sulk when he doesn’t heed your every suggestion.
Also—and this may be a small thing—Tolstoy hated Shakespeare. Judging from my book of Russian literary anecdotes, he repeated this opinion at every opportunity, phrasing it in the way that most arrogant people phrase their judgments, not as a personal opinion (“I don’t care for him”) but as an objective truth (“Shakespeare was terrible”). I understand that the Bard has not always fared well in translation—the French, I believe, have never understood what all the fuss was about—but in Tolstoy’s case his behavior is hard to excuse. Every intelligent person can think of a few reputed geniuses whose writing they can’t stand, but the sensible thing to do is to keep your mouth shut about it, on the logic that the problem almost certainly lies with you and not with a writer whose worth has been ratified by centuries of admirers. You don’t have to like Shakespeare, but sounding off about it is the equivalent of reveling in your own ignorance.
I could go on listing the ways Tolstoy is the last person to consult on the subject of the conservative temperament, but I’ll give the last word to Anton Chekhov, who knew the sage of Yasnaya Polyana personally. Here he is explaining to a friend why he finds Tolstoy’s arrogance charming (knowing Chekhov, he was probably being slightly dry):
I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. You could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s because he looks at us as if we were children.
Chekhov, incidentally, was almost Tolstoy’s exact opposite. Tolstoy yammered on about humanitarian imperatives; Chekhov quietly endowed schools, libraries, and hospitals with his own money, despite being the not-very-wealthy grandson of a serf. Tolstoy wanted to give away all his possessions in his will, leaving his large family with nothing to live on (his wife talked him out of it); Chekhov supported his impoverished family from the age of sixteen—the need to provide for them was his main reason for going to medical school and for embarking on a writing career in the first place. Tolstoy drove his wife mad with his insistence that she adapt their household to his mad notions; when tuberculosis forced Chekhov to move to Yalta, he insisted that his wife stay in Moscow for her acting career, which she would have had to sacrifice if she had moved to Yalta with him. His visits to her in Moscow, where the weather was bad for his health even in the warmer seasons, were probably what killed him. Chekhov embodied the conservative virtues. Tolstoy, one suspects, was too much of an egotist to even understand them.