Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy


This jeremiad against tobacco is a from "Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?" by Leo Tolstoy. The essay was originally published in 1890 as a preface to a book about the Temperance Movement. I enjoy the spirit of these particularly Tolstoyan comments but do not share his opinion. I believe in moderation in all things, and that is a concept alien to Tolstoy's mercurial and conflicted personality.

      W hat is this demand for stupefying things? What does it mean that everywhere, if there is not vodka, wine, and beer, there you find hashish, mukhomor, and tobacco?

      Ask a smoker why he began to smoke tobacco and still smokes, and he will reply, "Why, to cure low spirits; everyone smokes." Thus also will probably reply the devotees of opium, hashish, morphine, agaricum. "Why! To cure low spirits, for gayety's sake, all do it." But it is just as good as a cure for low spirits or for gayety's sake, because all do it, to twirl one's fingers, to whistle, to sing songs, and to play on the dudka.

      I remember being struck by the testimony of a cook who had killed a relative of mine, a lady in whose service he had been. He told how when he had sent away his mistress, the chambermaid, and the time had come for him to act, he went with his knife into her sleeping room, but felt that while he was sober he could not perpetrate the act which he had planned. This was "the conscience of a sober man." He went back and drank two glasses of vodka, and only then did he feel that he was ready, and acted.

      But when he went into her bedroom and cut her throat, and she fell back with the death rattle, and the blood spurted out in a torrent, a panic seized him. "I could not finish the job," he said; "I went from the bedroom into the drawing room, sat down there, and smoked a cigarette."

      Only when he had stupefied himself with the tobacco did he feel sufficiently fortified to return and finish dispatching the old lady.

      Such a definite necessity of stupefying oneself with tobacco in certain very difficult moments will occur to every smoker. I remember that in the days when I smoked I used to feel the special need of tobacco. It was always at moments when I wanted not to remember what I remembered, wanting to forget, wanted not to think.

      I am sitting alone, I am doing nothing, I know that I ought to begin my work, and I do not feel like it. I smoke and continue sitting idle.

      I am annoyed, and I say something disagreeable to a man, and I know I am doing wrong, but I feel an inclination to my bad temper -- I smoke, and I continue to be angry.

      I am playing cards, and I am losing more than I wanted to hazard -- I smoke.

      I have placed myself in an awkward position, I have done something wrong, and I must recognize my position in order to escape from it, but I do not want to do so -- I blame others and smoke!

      It is ordinarily taken for granted that a man who, like the majority of the people in our well-to-do classes, uses alcoholic stimulants every time he takes food, finds himself the next day, when he goes to work, in a perfectly normal and sober state. But this is absolutely false. The man who in the evening drinks a bottle of wine, a glass of vodka, or two tankards of ale, finds himself in the customary condition of headachiness or depression which follows exhilaration, and therefore in a condition of intellectual debasement, which is further increased my smoking.

      Thus the large part of all that is produced in our world is accomplished in a non-sober condition. now, do not let this be taken as a jest or as an exaggeration -- the ugliness and above all the senselessness of our lives proceed, primarily, from the constant condition of intoxication in which the majority of men find themselves.

      All the European nations have been occupied for decades in devising the very best means of destroying human life, and in training all the young men how to committ murder. All know that there is no danger of a descent of barbarians, that these preparations for murder are meant by Christian and civilized nations against one another; all know that this is burdensome, painful, inconvenient, wasteful, immoral, blasphemous, and senseless -- and yet all prepare for mutual murder: some inventing political combinations as to who shall be allied with whom, and who shall be killed; others taking the command of those prospective murderers; still others submitting against their will, against the dictates of their conscience, against reason, to these murderous preparations.

      Could sober men do this? Only intoxicated men could do such things. It is as if some external cause prevented them from taking a position which is natural to their conscience. And this cause -- if not the only one, at least the principal one -- is the physical condition of stupefaction which, by wine or tobacco, the immense majority of men of our time bring themselves.

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