What does Leo Tolstoy show us about depression?

This article will show how the writer Leo Tolstoy lived, and how depression was a part of his life and work. For that, the article will describe his biography, how the famous Russian writer was depressed and suicidal, and how his art and life lost meaning for him. 

Along with that, the article explained what the writer thought about how other people dealt with mental health issues.

Who was Leo Tolstoy?

Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer born on the 9th of September of 1828 in a regain of the Russian Empire and died on the 20th of November of 1910 of pneumonia. He wrote two notable novels War and Peace, in 1869, and Anna Karenina, in 1878.

Aside from those, he wrote many short stories, such as the greatest known one The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in 1886. He was from an influential family, and became one of the most admired men in Russia, but also rejected the label of literary success.

And when he turned 50 he started to show signs of an existential crisis, and through his work called The Confession, he described his mental state. In it he wrote about how meaningless life seems to him, and that he started to have suicidal thoughts.

What symptoms of depression are possible to observe in Leo Tolstoy?

In his autobiographical memoir, The Confession, written when he was in his 50s, the author wrote that he felt life had become hateful to him. Let’s show a piece of his work where he describes how he felt and discusses it.

“Life had grown hateful to me, and some insuperable force was leading me to seek deliverance from it by whatever means. I could not say that I wanted to kill myself. The force beckoning me away from life was a more powerful, complete, and overall desire. It was a force similar to my striving afterlife, only it was going in the other direction. I fought as hard as I could against life. The thought of suicide now came to me as naturally as thoughts of improving my life had previously come to me.

All this was happening to me at a time when I was surrounded on all sides by what is considered complete happiness: I was not yet fifty, I had a kind, loving, and beloved wife, lovely children, and a large estate that was growing and expanding with no effort on my part.”

In this part, he shows how, although he had everything that people would assume to bring happiness, he felt like life had no meaning, it was something he grew to despise. This shows how depression hits people without choosing a place or time.

It makes, most successful people, lose the joy and interest in things they used to love. It shows how suicide starts to come to his mind as a way to get out of that situation. 

He highlights how hard it is to understand that, even though he had no reason to be unhappy, as he thought he had a seemingly perfect life, the sadness and melancholy made him their prisoner.

It is possible to say he presented some symptoms of depression that are common to people. He showed a sense of sadness, the loss of interest in things that he used to love, as well as the loss of meaning and purpose in life. Along with a negative view of things, and suicidal thoughts.

In trying to understand more about mental health, in this work, he also wrote about how he thought others dealt with mental health. Now let’s discuss that.

How did he think other people dealt with mental health issues?

In The Confession, he said that there are four ways people deal with mental health issues, called here the meaningless of life. Firstly, ignorance seems to play a relevant role. He assumed those who didn’t contemplate the meaning of life had no problem dealing with how meaningless it was.

The second category of people approached life in a way he called Epicureanism. They lived with the notion that life was fleeting, and people had to enjoy the best they could with the time they had. But for him, this was only possible for people that had enough financial means to live a life of pleasure.

Another category was one of the people that contemplated how meaningless life is, and because of that thought of suicide as a way out of it. Even though the author had suicidal thoughts, he assumed he didn’t dare to do it. 

Which leads to the fourth category. The one in which people find themselves trapped in a sad, meaningless life, aware that nothing positive would come out of it.

What did he think was the solution to depression?

In his work, he even described what ways he thought people could handle being depressed. He said that the anguish and despair got worse the more he realized that science couldn’t offer him an answer about what was the meaning of life.

He discovered that people are living simple life. In which they would work for their survival, and those who were uneducated had a better sense of satisfaction with their life. This was the opposite of what he observed in people with the same social and financial conditions he had. They were often dissatisfied people.

In his later years, he became someone that helped people living in worse conditions, and through that, and learning their way of living, life became easier to live. It seems that by helping others he found a meaning to his life, which caused him to feel somewhat better about himself and his mental health.

This supports the notion that depression and its improvement are deeply connected to the purpose a person has in life. How the lack of it can bring people to question why they are alive, and how, if it is possible to find meaning, life can get better.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Was Leo Tolstoy depressed?

Is Leo Tolstoy a nihilist?

In his last book, A Confession, Leo Tolstoy shows his nihilism. In it, he discusses his depression, his thoughts of suicide, and how he got to the conclusion that life is meaningless. Along with it, he discusses his thoughts on faith and religion and how that has changed over his life.

When discussing death, Leo Tolstoy shows how anxious he feels about it, and how death causes him to turn into the most nihilist person. Through his book, it is possible to understand that he has a mindset that since life is inevitable, nothing else matters.

According to Leo Tolstoy, what is the meaning of life? 

According to Leo Tolstoy, the only thing that gives meaning to life is faith. When he talks about faith, even though he was a Christian, he is not talking about a particular religion. He is rather discussing the subjective understanding of faith.

For some people, faith can be connected to a religion, to other people, it doesn’t necessarily connect to religion, but the existence of God. And other people will have faith in other things. It can be faith in the universe, in the kindness of people, or even in the infinite.

What is important, according to the writer, to have a meaningful life, is to have faith in something other than yourself.

Was Leo Tolstoy afraid of dying? 

According to Leo Tolstoy’s book The Death of Ivan Ilych, it seems the writer doesn’t necessarily fear death. As he writes about this man facing death, it seems Tolstoy is telling us that he rather was afraid of not living his life the best he could. 

This is a thought common to many people, even more so in recent years, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. People felt that they were unable to live the life they had planned. The pandemic took all the ability they had to make plans, and since it was a life-threatening moment, it even made people question if they would survive it.

When events like those happen, it might be hard to keep in mind that there still is a life to live after. Trying to keep planning can seem like a waste of energy, and some people might just surrender. 

When faced with that, it can be important to change the perspective. Instead of making long-term plans, a person might want to plan the next day. That can give you a better sense of control over their life, and it can feel like they are not losing so much.

What are the flaws of existentialism? 

Although existentialism may be so appealing to people, there are flaws to this theory. The main flaw in it is to set free will as a premise. Nowadays, even though people would like to believe, it is hard to maintain the idea that a person has free will.

We are constantly showered with information and ideas, and sometimes people can pick up on them without ever even realizing it. They can come to call the ideas that follow a decision made of their own free will, but it hardly seems like it.

What is possible, nowadays, is to look at what you are choosing and try to discover what is the root of that decision. And if you discover it is still based on other people’s thoughts, but you still decide to follow, this is the way you can execute your free will.

What are the main thoughts of existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical theory in which people are free to control their actions and thoughts. It believes that society shouldn’t have control over people’s wills and wishes.

For them, people should take responsibility for their actions, and society laws and religious beliefs shouldn’t be what guides people. People with this sort of belief tend to choose their actions based on how they want to spend their future. 

They will hardly choose paths based on money, or professional success, but rather on how it will make them feel.


The article discussed the life of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and how he talked about his depression during his work, comparing it with the known symptoms of depression. Aside from that, the article showed the author’s description of depression as he saw in other people.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, feel free to write it in the space below.



Anargyros-Klinger A. The thread of depression throughout the life and works of Leo Tolstoy. Int J Psychoanal. 2002 Apr;83(Pt 2):407-18. doi: 10.1516/0020757021601973. PMID: 12040704.