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Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky

David Bentley Hart has a new article in First Things that argues for the unthinkable: the wholesale superiority of Tolstoy over Dostoevsky both literarily and theologically:

Among converts to Orthodoxy, for instance, as well as among many cradle Orthodox of a particularly rigorist kind, Dostoevsky is especially honored for having held firmly to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and having introduced the greater world to the figure of Father Zosima, from whom all the light of Eastern Christian contemplative spirituality shines out; and, more generally, among Christians of many confessions, Dostoevsky is revered as a prophet, the great Christian anti-Nietzsche, the voice of ancient Christian truth crying out in the spiritual desert of the modern West.

Tolstoy, by contrast, was practically a liberal Protestant, who thought of Jesus principally as a divinely inspired teacher of moral truth; he was not only indifferent to, but scornful of dogmatic tradition; he was even excommunicated, for goodness’ sake.

Fair enough, I suppose. I would observe, however, that there are all kinds of orthodoxy and all kinds of heresy. It is true that Dostoevsky personally assented—despite occasional episodes of doubt—to the creeds of the ancient church, and that he believed deeply in the mystical and sacramental traditions of the Orthodox church, and that in general his vision of things was shaped by traditional Christian understandings of sin and redemption.

That said, it is also true that his Chalcedonian orthodoxy was often almost inextricably confused with a dark, semipagan mysticism of the “Russian Christ” and of Russian blood and soil, and that he nursed slightly deranged fantasies of an Eastern Christian crusade to recapture Constantinople by violence, and that his virulent and contemptible anti-Semitism was anything but an accidental feature of his moral philosophy.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, despite his creedal heterodoxy, at least believed that, say, the sermon on the mount should be taken quite literally, and that Christ’s injunction to love our enemies and Paul’s claim that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek (and so forth) meant that Christians really ought not to kill Turks or hate Jews. If we were really to make conformity to Christian teaching our chief criterion of comparison between the two men, I would still hesitate to concede Dostoevsky the advantage.


  1. I’ll grant that Tolstoy is theological superior, but it is aesthetic heresy to suggest that he is a better writer. Heresy I say!

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  2. myles wrote:

    DBH is full of crap on both counts.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    He’s going to eventually convert to Protestantism to maintain his contrarianism :)

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    And he’ll probably do something crazy like become a Pentecostal.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Chris Donato wrote:

    You say tomāto, I say tomăto.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Scott wrote:

    Myles, Amen! Dostoyevsky wipes the floor with Tolstoy theologically :-) You could argue that there is plenty of the moral teaching which is found in Tolstoy in Father Zosima’s discourse, even though it may not be explicit.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  7. myles wrote:

    My gosh–there’s more theology and Christological reflection in Dostoevsky’s work than you’ll ever scrape out of Tolstoy, including ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’. The Idiot floors me. How one could ever argue Tolstoy over against Dostoevsky theologically is beyond me. See Rowan Williams’ book on Dostoevsky for details.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Everyone has to make a living.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  9. kim fabricius wrote:

    The Russian elephant and whale, both God’s beautiful creatures.

    George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, followed Berdyaev in insisting that there is an “unbridgeable gap” that divides “those who are drawn to Tolstoy’s mind and those drawn to Dostoevsky”. All I can say is that the bridge is, demonstrably, crossable. You can draw literary (e.g. epic/tragic, quotidian/liminal) and theological (e.g. moralist/mystical, individual/ecclesial) contrasts bewteen Mr. T and Mr. D over a bottle of vodka until you’re drunk as a cossack – and then, when you sober up and do some wide and close reading, find passages to fuzzy your either/or for all its fundamental plausibility. I prefer to occupy (if you like) the broken middle.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  10. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Nobody would or could argue for Tolstoy theologically. It seems to me that his task in “The Kingdom of God is Within You” is to strip Christianity of theology: “Christianity not as mystic religion but as a new theory of life.” So, perhaps Hart’s point could have been summarized thus: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Though Tolstoy was something of a hypocrite (the byline in “The Kingdom . . ” reads Count Leo Tolstoy!), so that complicates matters.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  11. roger flyer wrote:

    I’ll say. And I haven’t read anything by him.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  12. roger flyer wrote:

    right miles

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  13. roger flyer wrote:

    they were both madmen

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  14. Dave Belcher wrote:

    This comment is awesome in so many ways…

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  15. Chris Donato wrote:

    While I was arguably more succinct, you’ve provided a much richer way of saying it. Thanks.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  16. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Wait, DB Hart isn’t a pentecostal?

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  17. ken oakes wrote:

    I’ll have to side with Hart on this one, if only because reading Dostoevsky makes me feel like I’m in a damp, dark closet, while reading Tolstoy is like taking a train through the countryside.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  18. Austin wrote:

    That is ridiculous! Tolstoy is the greatest novelist in any language. Every page he writes is perfect. Dostoevsky is excellent, and funny, but his pacing is sometimes horrible, he wrote half of his novels pay-by-word, and so aesthetics wasn’t always high on his priority list. He has run on sentances all over the place, and unlike Faulkner, he could not pull of the three page paragraphs very well.

    Of course that’s not to say he wasn’t an excellent stylist most of the time. But you just can’t compare him to Tolstoy!

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  19. Its been a while since I read The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Wisdom of Tolstoy but I wouldn’t say they evacuate Christianity of theology, rather they challenge Christians to take some of their theology seriously.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  20. roger flyer wrote:

    but what a closet of thoughts when you come out

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  21. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I agree. I’ve read War and Peace 5 times (will read it again this year sometime). Tolstoy’s novels are brilliant. Dostoevsky comes in second in my opinion.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  22. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    Does Dostoevsky lose a few points for inspiring Ayn Rand?

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink

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