Tolstoy’s Warped View of Authority Served to Destroy in Russia the Institution He Held Most Dear – The Family. Are We Doing the Same?

The authority of the Church is necessary. It is that familial authority that secures the foundations of civilization. It reinforces the sanctity of sacred institutions such as marriage and family. This is the authority that, in love, could have protected Tolstoy’s beloved Russia.

Summer Reading

Given that even writing was on the back burner for a few months in favor of a demanding summer, I was a little surprised when I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina 120px-Leo_Tolstoy,_portraitfor my summer reading. Maybe it was the relentless drumming of Russia, Russia, Russia over the airwaves every time I turned around. Or perhaps at a more subtle level it was the constant reference to socialism as a possible solution to our own country’s woes [Socialism, according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen is a “wet nurse to Communism” – Capitalism and Socialism Or Capitalism and Communism are Related?]. Or maybe I just really needed the intellectual stimulation that a classic would offer. Whatever the case, for a while I was basking in the sunlight and fragrance that only the most poetic language and intriguing ideas can offer. This man addresses issues that weigh on the soul of every human being. Family life, love, humanity and love of country. At some point I began to feel I’d found a kindred spirit in Tolstoy. Given the depth with which I was moved by his pointed defenses of the family, his patriotism and his romantic notion of traditional values and the idyllic lifestyle of the Russian farmer, I wasn’t exactly surprised by my infatuation. The more steeped I became in high society Russia, the more I began to wonder about the views of this man so driven to warn the world about the dangers he recognized in his own time – dangers that appear not so different from those I see in ours.

A Man who Cherished the Family

I began my research by turning back to the Introduction – something I am often loathe to do when it comes to classic fiction (In my experience, reading introductions takes away from the freshness of a novel). But in this case it was different. Reading the introduction made me all the more interested in Tolstoy and his writing. He witnessed tumult in his time as I do in ours, harboring great concerns about the direction of his beloved Russia. And he took to the pen to illustrate in a beautifully intimate way what he recognized as grave threats to a great country.

Anna Karenina was published only 40 years before the Russian Revolution of 1917. There are references throughout the book to communist ideology and to a distinct move toward nihilism in the way of sexual freedom and away from the traditional values associated with family life.

I was especially moved by these words in the Intro:

To publish such a book in the 1870s was an act of defiance, and Tolstoy meant it as one. By then the family novel was hopelessly out of fashion. The satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin noted at the time that the family, ‘that warm and cosy element…which once gave the novel its content, has vanished from sight…The novel of contemporary man finds its resolution in the street, on the public way, anywhere but in the home.’ The radical intelligentsia had been attacking the ‘institution’ of the family for more than a decade. Newspapers, pamphlets, ideological novel-tracts like N.G. Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done?”, advocated sexual freedom, communal living and the communal raising of children. Questions of women’s education, women’s enfranchisement, the role of women in public life, were hotly debated in the press. On all these matters, Tolstoy held conservative views. For him…family happiness was the highest human ideal. As Nabokov observed in his lecture notes on Anna Karenina, ‘Tolstoy considers that two married people with children are tied together by divine law forever.’ An intentional anachronism, his novel was meant as a challenge, both artistic and ideological, to the ideas of the Russian nihilists. — Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, p. ix (emphasis mine)

For his heroic defense of this foundational institution, I fell in love with Tolstoy.

But then I began to dig a little deeper.

A Man Who Misunderstood the Word Authority

I decided to Google Tolstoy and Religion, just to see where he stood with respect to the Church. After all, he shared with the Catholic Church a rather sacred view of family life. I wondered whether he was strongly convicted by Church teaching.

Apparently not.

Rather than find a great conversion story in his bio, I found that Tolstoy was actually excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 for his vocal rejection of traditional Christianity. He responded to his excommunication with a rather revealing entry in his diary:

“A conversion about divinity has suggested to me a great idea…the founding of a new religion…the religion of Christianity but purged of dogmatics and mysticism; a practical religion not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth.” 

It turns out that his rejection of organized religion influenced huge numbers of people, including other writers, philosophers, critics and public voices; this growing rejection of authority grew into a crescendo of “intelligentsia” who rejected any and all authority in Russia, which ultimately led to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, out of which – ironically enough – came a despotic authoritarianism the likes of which no Russian ever could have imagined. Communist rule resulted in the deaths of over 20 million Russian citizens (Soviet citizens) and over 5 million Ukrainians.

In the August 1917 issue of The Catholic World, a theologian called out Tolstoy for his great responsibility in the promotion of what was ultimately an evil that worked to destroy all that Tolstoy, himself, held dear:

He devoted the last years of his life to a ruthless war against Christianity. By terms he strove to deform the content and the teaching of the Gospels, to sneer at and repudiate the fundamental theses of Christian dogmatics; to launch the most violent invective against the clergy; to nullify or deny the supernatural and moral influence of the sacraments of Christian life. The religion of Tolstoy effaces all the characteristic features of Christian revelation. Under the pen of Tolstoy and his disciples Christianity was stripped of its supernatural brilliancy…Tolstoy and his school promoted a radical socialism with mystical anarchistic tendencies and imbued with a hatred against historical Christianity.

According to one report I read, even Dostoyevsky, his contemporary and another of my favorite authors, accused Tolstoy of “promoting, in effect, a Christianity without Christ.”

I must admit that I was shocked and devastatingly disappointed to find that Tolstoy, who considered the family to be a sacred institution, was complicit in its destruction in Russia. And we should take this opportunity to learn from his serious mistake.

Like the misguided Ayn Rand, who fled from the destructive authoritarianism of communism a generation later, Tolstoy threw all authority into the same pot, rather than distinguish between the good and the bad. He believed the authority offered by the Church was as destructive as that offered by czar. But according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen,

Authoritarianism is based on force, and therefore is physical, but authority is founded on reverence and love, and therefore is moral. – Life is Worth Living, 5th Series

The authority of the Church is necessary. It is that familial authority that secures the foundations of civilization. It reinforces the sanctity of sacred institutions such as marriage and family. This is the authority that, in love, could have protected Tolstoy’s beloved Russia.

This confusion remains in effect today, perhaps as a result of Tolstoy, Rand and other well-known writers, speakers and media representatives. Sheen addressed the confusion, which is no doubt worse, today, then when these thoughts were shared:

There is nothing more misunderstood by the modern mind than the authority of the Church. Just as soon as one mentions the authority of the Vicar of Christ there are visions of slavery, intellectual servitude, mental chains, tyrannical obedience, and blind service on the part of those who, it is said, are forbidden to think for themselves. That is positively untrue. Why has the world been so reluctant to accept the authority of the Father’s house? Why has it so often identified the Catholic Church with intellectual slaver?  The answer is, because the world has forgotten the meaning of liberty. – Communism and the Conscience of the West, 1948

In these days where Russia is so often in the news, perhaps we should acknowledge that, while we may stand in solidarity against the government that came to power in Russia in 1917, Americans may hold in common the threshold of a Russian people that sought to eradicate authority and thereby nearly suffocated beneath it.

This is where the West sits today. In a world that is increasingly hostile toward the idea of an organized Church. Of anything that resembles a moral authority, for authority has become a dirty word in the West. And yet, Christ, who is Christianity, exhorted us to submit to the Church. His Church.

We need His Church. Yes, she is made up of faulty human beings. Yes, some of her representatives have done horrible things. But that is exactly why we need her. Because horrible things are being done by people in every institution. Yet, unlike those institutions – which are also made up of sinners – from the beginning we were promised that The Holy Spirit would be with us forever, guiding the Church in all her work (John 14:16). That God, the Son, would never leave Her (Matthew 28: 18-20). Most importantly, we have been assured that the gates of Hell would never prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18).

It is critical that we understand this. As we stand here today, Americans share a lot in common with the Russians of Tolstoy’s time. The gates of hell are fast encroaching upon the institutions and values we hold most dear. How much have we already lost in the name of individual “freedom”? Are we going to follow Russia’s path? Will we make Tolstoy’s mistake? Are we confusing the authority of the Church with the authority of a rogue government? Like Tolstoy and Rand, will we ideologically lump them both together and toss them both out? If so, where will Americans sit in 50 years? Will history repeat itself in an ultimate display of irony, the likes of which the world has never seen?

We may want to think twice about how we’re addressing our nation’s greatest problems; because in the grand scheme of things, the Church may be our only safe haven from – nay, our only defense against – a culture that seems hell-bent on pursuing “freedom” (ahem. license) at all costs. At the rate we’re going, it’s only a matter of time before our most sacred institutions are destroyed as well.

The gravest danger to American democracy…is not from the outside; it is from the inside — the hearts of citizens in whom the light of faith has gone out. Keep God as the origin of authority and you keep the ethical character of authority; reject Him and the authority becomes power subject to no law except its own. — Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Whence Come Wars, p. 64



Leo Tolstoy and the Catholic Church, Fellowship of Cathoic Scholars Quarterly, Spring 2007
Anna Karenina, Introduction, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2000

Not Paying for Our Son’s College is one of the Best Decisions We’ve Ever Made – for Him

Not paying for our son’s college has been a great decision. It may not have started out as some genius parenting move. But in hindsight, I believe it may be one of the moves that has benefited him most.

Like millions of others across the country, our family embarked on a new adventure this fall, sending our oldest son off to to college and praying that he remembers all the good Scanthings we’ve taught him (and that he forgets all the bad).

For some reason, I never really imagined this day would come. Sure, we’ve spent the past 18 years trying to prepare him to be a good and productive citizen in the world. But as a mother, I don’t know if I will ever truly be prepared to let go.

Thankfully, our son is ready – not just for college, but for life.

Whatever happens in the future, God-willing, I know he will land on his feet.

How can I say that with such confidence? Because I had the privilege of watching him prepare for college. This past year, my husband and I witnessed a transformation in our son that could only come from taking responsibility for his own future.

We saw first-hand the look of concern when he realized the cost of college for his first year, even after having obtained a full tuition scholarship. We watched that concern turn into determination as he began working long hours so that he could afford his room and board. We were impressed as he sacrificed nights out with friends, purchased little and kept close track of his account.  We felt the pride he took in his accomplishment as he watched his savings build up over time. And the moment I heard him say, “I am not going to get a student loan,” I knew he had achieved victory over a culture that had spent an entire election year telling him, not only that everyone needs a student loan to afford a college education, but that those student loans should be forgiven and college should be “free.”

The Eleventh Commandment

Paying for our kids’ college has become almost the eleventh commandment of parenting in our culture. I know a lot of fine parents who do it. And I’m certainly not knocking them for it, because I also know a lot of fine kids who’ve been the recipients of the generosity of those fine parents.

But in our case, not paying for our son’s college has been a great decision. It may not have started out as some genius parenting move. But in hindsight, I believe it may be one of the moves that has benefited him most.

That said, this responsibility is not something we threw at our son last minute. Long before our kids were out of elementary school, my husband and I decided that we were not paying for college. There were essentially two reasons for this. First, we didn’t believe we’d be able to afford college for six kids without having some serious financial struggles. Second – and I’m embarrassed to admit it – I was the poster child for “entitled” teens when it came to my own college education, and I did not want to see that side of me in my own children. More on that later.

Needless to say, our kids have all been told from Day One that we will not be paying for their college; and so far the first three have taken us seriously. Please don’t read this post as an arrogant pat on our proverbial backs. I am the first to admit that there are plenty of things my husband and I could do better as parents.

But thankfully, in this area, it appears we may have done something right.

I’m sure a key component of our son’s success was the voice of Dave Ramsey wafting through the airwaves of our house day after day. NO DEBT, NO DEBT, NO DEBT, NO DEBT has been a message our kids have heard loud and clear for many years. And while, if you are a Dave Ramsey fan, you know that one of his steps to Financial Peace is, in fact, Saving for Kids’ College, we have always told our kids that paying for college is not our job.

Bucking the System

Our message to our children? You may call it harsh. Our kids call it love:

If you work hard, you will be rewarded with scholarships and job opportunities. But if you don’t care enough about your own education to work hard and earn it, then why should we be willing to foot the bill? 

I don’t think we ever worded it quite that way. But that was the message in a nutshell.

Face it. While there are some children with learning or other disabilities who might have greater challenges in the grade department, the majority of kids are perfectly capable of performing above and beyond – both in school and out. Whether they do or not is pretty much up to them.

And you know what?

So far, our three teens have worked hard.

They have owned their educations.

As I mentioned above, our first graduated this past spring with high honors and was offered a full tuition academic scholarship to a state university this fall. And he’s not some amazing anomaly in that way. Many of his friends and relatives received academic scholarships as well.

Also mentioned above, our son is responsible for his own room and board, which is a pretty steep requirement, considering freshmen are required to live on campus and –  based on our income – he wouldn’t qualify for financial aid. But he was undeterred. Once he realized he was just under a year from graduation and nowhere near secure enough to get through school without a student loan, he kicked it in gear, with nary a word from Dad or Mom.

I will admit, I was a little surprised at first. This was a kid who always wanted the latest gadget and the nicest clothes, and he ate out virtually every day through the first three years of high school – all of this with money that he’d earned through part-time jobs, of course. He had never been a big saver. Despite all our talks about being prepared, I did think he might have to learn the hard way that he would indeed be responsible for his own education.

But I was wrong. Thankfully, our son did have an appreciation for the value of work. As in, he knew where to go if he wanted money.  And boy, did he go. That kid spent all summer and much of last year working for a local landscaper. He worked more hours than I’ve seen any teen work in my life. We’re talking 12-14 hour days, and several 80 hour weeks. He came home filthy, day after day, often seven days per week, with grass-infested socks that virtually destroyed my washing machine.

But he was happy.

Not only did he save enough money for the coming school year, but he also had plenty left over to purchase his first car. He opted to treat himself by paying cash for a 2007 BMW. I should add that as a result, he also obtained his own car insurance, for which he alone is financially responsible.

I will admit that I am a proud Mama. But I am not sharing this with you in order to brag. I know too many amazing parents and I don’t feel qualified to comment one iota about what constitutes great parenting. Instead, I am simply here to share what the responsibility of paying for college has done for our son.

The American Dream

Through this process of working and saving, our son has become a man. And he feels like a man. He knows that he earned the grades that brought him a scholarship. He knows that he earned the money that has allowed him to live in a great dorm and pay for his food and books, his phone and now even a parking pass. No one handed him a ticket to prosperity or success. He can honestly say that he owns his education. And he stands a little taller because of the investment of sweat equity and patient saving that he has made toward his future. Even more, as a result of his accomplishment, he now feels empowered to achieve just about any goal he sets for himself.

The amazing thing? Our son’s success is no one-hit wonder. We have witnessed this maturity in our next two children as well. They’ve heard the same message from Dad and Mom. And they have the added benefit of witnessing the fruits of their brother’s labor. They want those fruits, and they, too, have been putting in the labor.

One of the greatest things we can teach our children, aside from the love of God and neighbor, is an appreciation for hard work. And in this world – a world where we are knocking down every barrier and squashing every potentially character-building experience – an appreciation for hard work is sorely needed.

In not a small way, our son has already experienced a piece of the American dream. It doesn’t matter what you start with. It doesn’t matter where you come from. In our country, if you are willing to sacrifice and work hard, the sky is the limit.

When I hear politicians and college students complain about how college tuition should be “free,” I cringe. It is not simply a book or a class that that provides an education. Even more profound are the effects of the blood, sweat and tears students invest in the process.

I ought to know. I’ve been on both sides of the fence.

Entitlement is Not a Virtue

Remember when I said I was the poster-child for entitlement? Well, I certainly wasn’t raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. Even more shameful was my behavior because I was raised by a single mother. My mom worked very hard to keep food on the table, and as much as she would have loved to make it happen, she could not afford to send me to college. Unfortunately, no one in my family had ever been to college and I never really thought about what it would take for me to go. There was no serious discussion about saving or scholarships (and if there was I didn’t listen); I just assumed I was going to college when I graduated from high school.

Imagine my shock when my mother broke the news during my senior year that we could not afford a 4-year college and that I would have to attend a community college the following fall. Nothing against community college; but I was surrounded by friends who were going to attend universities and rather than appreciate the opportunity, I felt cheated.  Eventually I did transfer to a university; but I took every advantage of my mother’s generosity while I was there. You see, my mother was so proud to have a daughter in college that she probably would have sacrificed her food or even her electricity just to make sure I was comfortable. When she visited, she brought groceries. She sent money when I complained of being broke. One summer she even paid my rent while I worked PART-TIME. She did everything she could possibly do to help me succeed. In effect, my mother owned my education.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about my mom. Her generosity was limitless. But I took great advantage of her. At the time, I didn’t appreciate her sacrifice one bit. I felt “entitled” to a college education. And other than studying for my classes, I was expected to sacrifice for very little to obtain it.

Fast forward a few years. Shortly after my husband and I were married, I was admitted to a Master’s Program. I was smart enough to know that this part of my education rested squarely on our shoulders – no longer could I depend on my mother. That being the case, I got to work applying for scholarships day and night – something I had never done in my undergraduate career. I worked. I studied, pushed myself. For my efforts, I was awarded with a graduate assistantship, which paid for a majority of my program.  My husband and I lived on a tight budget, saving for books and living on little so that we didn’t go into debt while living on one income. My hard work paid off in many ways. I was nominated by a professor for a national “student of the year” award in my particular program, and I received a well-paying internship just out of college that led to a great full-time position. Last but not least, I graduated without one cent of student loan debt.

When I stepped out into the world after graduation,

I was proud of myself.

I stood a little taller.

And I felt a lot more confident.

For the first time, I had owned my own education.

This sense of accomplishment was something I had not experienced during my undergraduate years. But I wanted it for my kids.

Through my experience, I learned that when things were handed to me, it was very easy to take advantage. And the more I accepted, the harder it became to stand on my own two feet. I took, and I didn’t think twice about it. Not until I was forced to do things for myself.

I’m sure there are many kids who benefit from their parents’ generosity and who appreciate it immensely, never taking it for granted for a moment. But as I look around at the culture, I am pretty sure there are many more whose undergraduate experiences resemble my own.

Again, please do not take offense to this post as braggadocios or judgmental. I share our son’s financial success simply to offer what I think today has become a minority perspective. College is doable. And it is something our children can accomplish for themselves. Without loans. Sure, this might be a challenge if they opt for a private school; but regardless, isn’t it possible that we pay our kids a disservice when we carry them through the first adult thing they do?

We opted not to carry our son. And we are pleased to see that he is standing pretty securely on his own two feet. He might not admit it, but I’m willing to bet that preparing for his first year in college might just be the most rewarding experience he’s ever had. And I’ve no doubt that it will lead to many more.



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