Did Tolstoy Have Depression?

This blog will cover who was Leo Tolstoy, his book ‘A confession’, the source of his depression, and also answer frequently asked questions. 

Did Tolstoy Have Depression?

Yes, Tolstoy has opened up about his battle with depression and we will first get to know who he was and then explore his mental health and depression in the further sections. 

Who was Leo Tolstoy? 

Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer born on 8 September 1828. He was known for his fiction work and was considered one of the best novelists of his time. 

Tolstoy’s two longest works, War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), are often considered to be among the best novels ever written.

By 1880 Tolstoy was at the peak of his career. He was extremely wealthy from the money produced by his estates and royalties from the works he wrote. He was married to a wonderful woman and was a loving father to several children. 

Despite all his achievements in his professional and personal life, all he could think about was to end his life. 

A Confession: Book by Tolstoy on his existential crisis

A confession is a painfully written book by Tolstoy that captures the existential crisis faced by him when he turned 50. He remarks in his book that by the age of 50 life for him had become flat, more than flat it was dead. 

This book plays an important role while discussing mental health for three reasons. A Confession accurately captures the sentiments experienced by many depressed people for those who do not have a mental health or depression problem and also for those who are concerned about a person who has such a problem. 

Tolstoy’s book reassures persons suffering from mental illness that they are not alone. Furthermore, Tolstoy is able to articulate all the random thoughts that go inside our heads in an elegant manner. Third, Tolstoy offers his answer to individuals who are suffering from despair and “soul-sickness” after explaining his efforts in detail.

Tolstoy’s explanation of depression 

Tolstoy felt as if his life had come to a dead end. Breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping were the only task on his schedule. Nothing provided him with a sense of fulfillment. Even if he wanted to do something, he knew in advance that it would not be gratifying for him. 

If a magician could fulfill all his wishes, he still wouldn’t have any. If Tolstoy was drunk he would still have some desires, but as soon as he got sober all of them just vanished away. It was like he was living in a delusion. He was under the impression that he didn’t desire anything. He was not at all interested to know the truth. 

The truth is that life has no purpose. It seemed as if he had continued to live and walk until he came to a cliff’s edge which he could clearly see that there was nothing else in front of him than annihilation.  

But it was difficult to come to a halt or to turn around, back, or cover his eyes to avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead of me other than the deceptions of life and happiness, and the reality of suffering and death. 

The suicide occurred to him as readily as thoughts of bettering his life had previously occurred to him. This concept was so appealing to Tolstoy that he had to employ deception against himself to avoid acting too quickly. 

He didn’t want to rush since he wanted to put forth every effort to solve the problem. He persuaded himself that if he couldn’t solve the problem right now, he still had time.

He developed the classic signs of anhedonia, losing interest in his work and dismissing the eternal glory he had once aspired to as useless. He even stopped going out shooting with his gun for fear of succumbing to the temptation to commit suicide. 

He began to believe that his life was a cruel joke performed on him, a comedy made all the bleaker by our unavoidable impermanence.

Source of Tolstoy’s depression 

Tolstoy’s melancholy and emptiness confused him. He paused to consider his life’s journey. In that reflection, he saw that he had concentrated on the same issues as his colleagues had. He had been guided by a desire for perfection and a competitive spirit.

Tolstoy was a perfectionist. The only motivating force in his life was to achieve perfection. But what perfection actually means was still unclear to him.  He tried to achieve perfection by studying everything he came across in his life. He tried to improve his willpower by setting rules for himself. 

Physically, he improved his strength and dexterity by undertaking a number of workouts, as well as growing endurance and patience via a variety of tasks. But soon this task of being better turned into being best. 

The relentless pursuit of perfection made Tolstoy obsessed with how he looked in the eyes of others. This ambition to be better than others quickly transformed into a desire to be more powerful than others.

A question that kept bothering Tolstoy was “Why should I live, why to wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” 

Tolstoy searched answers in science

Tolstoy went to science for a response to this seemingly simple yet paralyzingly complex question, but instead of recognizing and answering the question, science bypassed it by asking its own questions, which are then answered. 

Most importantly, he discovered that it was incapable of enlightening the infinite, and instead limited its queries and solutions to the finite.

He then turned to philosophy but was disillusioned as well. Instead of an answer, he finds “the same question, only in a more complicated shape”. He bemoans science’s and philosophy’s failure to provide a true answer. Tolstoy, frustrated, asks himself, “Why does everything that exists exist, and why do I exist?” “Because it’s there.”

This idea is the most closely related to Buddhism’s spiritual tradition. Tolstoy, in fact, turns to spirituality in a final and desperate attempt to find an answer – first by observing how individuals in his social circle dealt with this all-consuming question. He discovered four ways for dealing with existential despair among them, but none of them was successful in resolving the problem.

People, he observed, are illiterate and unable to recognize that life is pointless. Such people may not have considered or do not consider a life goal.

Tolstoy and Epicureanism

Epicureanism was the second approach. These people believe that life is fleeting and that one should savor every moment of it. However, Tolstoy noticed that this approach only captures those who can afford a luxurious lifestyle and are not struggling to make ends meet.

Tolstoy and his opinion on suicide

“Suicide” was the third option. Those who have grasped the futility of existence “act dutifully and bring an end to their life.”

And the ultimate option he came to was to continue living a meaningless life, knowing that nothing would come of it.  He resonated with this approach.

Tolstoy begins to wonder why he hasn’t committed suicide. He suddenly recognizes that a portion of him was doubting the veracity of his melancholy ideas, expressing “a hazy uncertainty” about the soundness of his judgments about life’s futility. The realization that the mind is both a puppet and a puppet-master humbled him.

And he finds the answer not in science, philosophy, or hedonistic lifestyle, but in people who are living life in its most basic and pure form.

Many people reach a moment in their lives when they lose their desire to live. Even if they are very successful in their life, they, like Tolstoy, feel hollow, weary, and devoid of drive and purpose. 

The emptiness and sadness reveal themselves in poor work performance, lack of motivation, and deteriorating relationships with family and others.  Coping mechanisms that are ineffective lead to erratic conduct, substance abuse, severe depression, and, more frequently than we might think,  Suicide. 


Tolstoy realized that the more he learned about poor people’s lives, the easier it became for him to live. As a result of this realization, he felt compelled to assist the impoverished and suffering.

He realized that just like animals he would also have to work hard for his existence. But the thing that will differentiate him as a human being is that he will work for his existence, not just for himself but for everyone. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs): Did Tolstoy Have Depression?

What was Tolstoy’s existential crisis?

After turning 50, Leo Tolstoy began to experience existential crisis and became depressed and despondent. Despite being one of Russia’s wealthiest and most admired men, he was depressed.

What was Tolstoy’s motivation for wanting to help humanity?

“The sole meaning of existence is to serve humanity,” declared Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer who is widely recognized as one of the finest authors of all time. Humanity entails putting our own interests aside when others require assistance. Humanity entails showing unconditional affection to all living things.

Is it true that Tolstoy was a genius?

Tolstoy, the author of two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, is still regarded as a great writer. Tolstoy, like Leonardo da Vinci, abandoned his artistic endeavors, claiming that “art is not only useless, but even harmful,” and instead focused on intellectual, political, and religious writings.

Is Tolstoy a cynic?

One of the best literary works of nihilism, depression, and suicide is Leo Tolstoy’s Autobiography: A Confession. He ponders his moral concerns about life’s inescapable meaninglessness, as well as his eastern assumptions about God’s existence, in that book.

Is depression classified as a mental illness?

Clinical depression is a serious mental condition that can be treated. It’s a medical problem, not a personal flaw.

It’s also quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression affects roughly 6.7 percent of the adult population in the United States. According to some estimates, the prevalence of serious depression could be as high as 15%. Everyone experiences melancholy at some point in their lives as a natural reaction to loss, grief, or low self-esteem, but clinical depression, also known as “major depressive disorder” or “major depression,” is a serious medical condition that requires expert diagnosis and treatment.

How can you tell if a disease causes depression or if depression causes a disease?

Major, chronic, and/or terminal illnesses are the most common causes of depression. When an illness causes depression, it is common to have long-term discomfort or physical handicap, as well as a drastic shift in lifestyle.

Depression affects the body in a unique way. It can decrease the immune system (cells involved in combating disease and keeping you healthy), leading a person to catch more colds or the flu, similar to psychological stress. A noticeable presence of “aches and pains” with no apparent explanation is common.

Depression may prolong and worsen the symptoms of another medical illness, although the exact link of depression-induced sickness to serious disease has yet to be fully defined.

If you believe you or someone you know may be depressed, it is critical to seek medical care. A smart place to start is with your primary care physician. They can do a depression screening and create a treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms.



Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!