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Leo Tolstoy On The Paradox Of Love And Time


The Russian author spoke of the great misunderstandings of love and the paradox still surrounding this mythical human feeling.

In addition to being one of the most brilliant writers of his time, Tolstoy was also a fascinating thinker who composed – in essays and journals – numerous reflections on the human spirit and feeling. He even went so far as to write his own rules for living.

Tolstoy’s political and spiritual stance, deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, and his ideas on the dissolution of being, scandalized both the Russian government and the church (judging by the censorship of his writing). This was so even by the time he’d achieved significant fame in the outside world.

In 1888, the visionary English publishing house The Free Age Press published On Life, a compendium of his texts on morality and spirituality. In one chapter in the book Tolstoy examines love and relates his ideas about its complex nature. (His are suggestive conceptions that build on the thoughts on love of many great thinkers, among them Stendhal and Ortega y Gasset.


For Tolstoy, the assumption that love is the remedy for all the miseries of life is completely wrong. This errant assumption derives from an insufficient curiosity about the true meaning of life and a poor understanding of the nature of feeling itself, which is to be considered a part of life, but not its most essential manifestation.

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.

Another great mistake, according to Tolstoy, is the habit of defining and explaining love through reason, a contradiction that can only detract from the true meaning of feeling:

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.


Of all the profound contradictions surrounding love, Tolstoy notes the inherent solipsism of the human being, as opposed to the feeling of universal love. Here, he seeks a paradoxical reconciliation between the two apparently opposing ideas.

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.

Tolstoy’s reflections thus bring us to unanswered questions: to what extent is it right to sacrifice our individuality in order to love others, all the while understanding that this individuality makes us human? It’s only from questions such as this one that a true awareness of the multiplicity and vastness of love in all its forms is possible. Thus, the feeling of love is rethought not as a hypothetical idea, but as a way of life, as a state of being that is only able to live in the present. Fortunately:

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.

*Images: 1) Wikimedia Commons; 2) Ilya Repin, Ploughman, 1930 /  Wikimedia Commons; 3) Tolstoi with his gran children / Wikimedia Commons

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