The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I recently finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and was struck by the philosophical wranglings of the character of Levin, particularly in the final book.

Some readers might write Levin off as a bit of a prig, especially in contrast to the wild passions of the eponymous female hero, but I find his incessant naval-gazing appealingly familiar.

In this blog post, I’ll pick out Tolstoy’s line of argument that takes Levin from the torment of existential doubt to the clear certainty of his purpose in life.

Throughout the book Levin wrestles with doubt over the meaning of existence, given his complete absence of religious faith. As a studious, rational man, he seeks the answer in books of philosophy and theology, without much luck.

These doubts fretted and harassed him, growing weaker or stronger from time to time, but never leaving him. He read and thought, and the more he read and the more he thought, the further he felt from the aim he was pursuing.

At times, as Levin reads such books, he follows the intellectual arguments and is perhaps convinced.

As long as he followed the fixed definition of obscure words such as spirit, will, freedom, essence, purposely letting himself go into the snare of words the philosophers set for him, he seemed to comprehend something.

Unfortunately, seeming to comprehend is as close as Levin gets. As soon as he is confronted with the realities of life, these pleasing philosophical arguments collapse ‘like a house of cards’. Tolstoy is clear: Levin will not find his answer in books of philosophy.

But Tolstoy also realises that Levin’s search is the cause of his misery.

When Levin thought what he was and what he was living for, he could find no answer to the questions and was reduced to despair

When Levin rationally grasps for ‘the right thing to do’, things don’t turn out so well. After his marriage, when he starts to live more on his instincts, he notices things improving.

[W]hen he had tried to do anything that would be good for all, for humanity, for Russia, for the whole village, he had noticed that the idea of it had been pleasant, but the work itself had always been incoherent, that then he had never had a full conviction of its absolute necessity, and that the work that had begun by seeming so great, had grown less and less, till it vanished into nothing.

But now, since his marriage, when he had begun to confine himself more and more to living for himself, though he experienced no delight at all at the thought of the work he was doing, he felt a complete conviction of its necessity, saw that it succeeded far better than in old days, and that it kept on growing more and more.

Tolstoy seems to be saying that if we examine life too closely, we can ensnare ourselves in the trap of our own rationality.

Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not. When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.

Levin’s final conversion happens in conversation with a peasant. They are discussing the character of two landlords and the peasant Fyodor says:

One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.

And in this moment Levin understands the importance of the distinction and the threat of rationality – the brain’s greatest weapon in pursuing one’s own wants and needs. Rationality would support the most despicable arguments, like the landlord who makes the most of his land by fleecing the peasants.

Fyodor says that Kirillov lives for his belly. That’s comprehensible and rational. All of us as rational beings can’t do anything else but live for our belly. And all of a sudden the same Fyodor says that one mustn’t live for one’s belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him!

Levin quite realises that Fyodor’s statement makes absolutely no sense – it goes against all logic. And yet Levin completely understands what the peasant is saying, and agrees quite instinctively.

And could one say anything more senseless than what he said? He said that one must not live for one’s own wants, that is, that one must not live for what we understand, what we are attracted by, what we desire, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can understand nor even define.

Tolstoy and Levin go further, arguing that goodness is beyond the reach of the rational laws of cause and effect, yet everyone (at least those from the same culture) agree on exactly what goodness is and what it takes to live a good life.

“If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.

“And yet I know it, and we all know it.

“What could be a greater miracle than that?

So to search for goodness in arguments of rationality, through philosophy and semantic callisthenics is as wasteful as children wasting milk because they do not appreciate the hard work that goes into its production.

In turning his back on the (religious) morality he was taught as a child, Levin wasted those precious resources of his culture. Growing up in a society dominated by the Church, he became scornful of its weaknesses and could not appreciate the value of its teachings.

Like the child who pours out a fountain of milk without understanding its worth, Levin wasted his time searching for intellectual answers to the meaning of his existence – a field of enquiry with which rational thought could never help him.

I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question—it is incommensurable with my question.

Instead, the living of life itself has provided all the answers Levin needs: his knowledge of right and wrong, given to him by his ancestors and culture, held in his soul.

The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given, because I could not have got it from anywhere.

What I love about Levin’s moment of transcendent realisation, however, is that he’s soon brought down to earth. Despite the transformation within, he’s still got a long way to go before he’ll be a good person by his own standards. Living a good life takes a lot of hard work.

The last, optimistic, words of this tragic novel are Levin’s realisation of the work ahead of him.

“I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.”

Anna Karenina is the novel of a man who begins tormented by intellectual confusion and existential horror, and ends with the clear determination to be nothing more than a decent human being, no matter how hard that may be.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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