When Leo Tolstoy and his three brothers were children they used to play a game which had been started by the oldest, the eleven-year-old Nicholas. He possessed a wonderful secret that would make all men happy, he told them, and he had written it on a little green stick which he had buried at a certain spot by the edge of the road in the Zakaz Forest near their house at Yasnaya Polyana. By performing special tasks, his younger brothers would one day learn the secret. Huddled together in a shelter made of boxes and chairs covered with shawls, the children would talk fervently about the mysterious secret written on the green stick. When it became generally known, they decided, it would bring about a Golden Age on earth. There would be no more sickness, no human misery, no anger, and all would love one another.
Tolstoy never forgot this childhood game which may be said to mark the beginning of his lifelong quest for the secret of earthly happiness. That is, the search did not begin, as is commonly supposed, at the time of his intense spiritual experience at the age of fifty. Throughout his early years and during the period of writing 'War And Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', his diary, letters, and even his fiction contain abundant evidence of a preoccupation with religious and moral problems. To cite just one of numerous examples, at the age of twenty-seven he entered in his diary:
"Yesterday a conversation about divinity and faith suggested to me a great, a stupendous idea to the realization of which I feel capable of dedicating my whole life. This is the idea — the founding of a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind: the religion of Christ, but purged of all dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but realizing bliss on earth. I understand that to bring this idea to fulfilment the conscientious labor of generations towards this end will be necessary."
There can be no question, however, that shortly after finishing 'Anna Karenina' in 1877, Tolstoy experienced a shattering moral and spiritual crisis which brought him to the verge of suicide. 'A Confession', one of the noblest utterances of man, is the chronicle of his doubts and merciless self-examination. He admitted that he had everything to live for — a loving wife, family, wealth, fame, and good health. Yet life seemed stupid, a spiteful joke that someone had played on him. Why should he go on living, he asked himself? Did life have any meaning which the inevitability of death did not destroy?
In 'A Confession', which he began in 1880 and finished two years later, Tolstoy records the unique and overwhelming — personal experience of a man perplexed in the extreme by life's most agonizing problem — the relation of man to the infinite.
The result is a masterpiece of the highest art, comparable to the 'Book of Job' in its terrible human urgency of the need to know, as well as in its wonderful language, with biblical echoes, and its compelling use of parables to illustrate ideas. With courage not devoid of a certain humility he dared to tell cynical unbelievers that religion contained the only explanation of the meaning of life, and to believers in dogmatic and popular religions he declared that the very foundations of their faith were erroneous. With complete sincerity, he made it clear that he was uncompromisingly turning his back on all the joys and fame and magnificent artistic achievements of his fifty years of existence in the search for a new way of life that would enable him to seek moral perfection in service to God and humanity.
In a prolonged effort to formulate the direction and terms of his search, Tolstoy devoted the next few years to an exhaustive study of the works of renowned thinkers and the great religions of the world, especially Christianity. In general, he came to the conclusion that the teachings of the Christian churches consisted of meaningless verbiage and incredible statements which afforded no satisfactory direction to man. But in the thoughts of Christ, corrected as he felt they should be if they were to retain their original substance, he discovered an answer to his question about the meaning of life. To put his conclusion in very simple form: the purpose of life on earth is to serve not our lower animal nature but the power to which our higher nature recognizes its kinship. There is a power in each of us, he asserted, enabling us to discern what is good, and we are in touch with that power. Our reason and conscience flow from it, and the purpose of our conscious life is to do its will, that is, to do good. This is the purpose of life which Tolstoy finally accepted.
In the Gospels, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy sought light on the practical application of this purpose in daily living. From the commandments he extracted five which, he maintained, were the true utterances of Christ. Set down in brief form they are: do not be angry; do not lust; do not bind yourself by oaths; resist not him who is evil; be good to the just and the unjust. All of Tolstoy's future teaching, as well as his own behaviour, were guided by these commandments.
Tolstoy's new convictions drove him into a comprehensive examination of the whole organization of modern society. His findings astonished many and convinced others that he was somewhat insane and government authorities that he was a dangerous threat to established order. To his own satisfaction at least, he proved that modern religious faith as preached by churches amounted to a belief in what one knew to be untrue. The Russian Church replied by excommunicating him. Next the institutions of government came under his lash. The result was their theoretic destruction. For a man who will take no oaths, that is, will not submit his will to another, who will not resist evil by force, and who loves all nations and peoples equally and will not punish the just or the unjust, such a man obviously can take no part in war, be patriotic, or hold property, since force is necessary to protect it.
In essence, during the last thirty years of his life Tolstoy labored mightily toward the realization on earth of the kingdom of God, which for him meant the kingdom of truth and good. He did not demand that men be truthful and do good in order to achieve a personal immortality, but because this was the fullest expression of their own personalities and the only way that peace and happiness could be achieved. He saw in the simple tillers of the soil, the hewers of wood, and the drawers of water a deeper understanding of the meaning of life, of goodness, and of truth. Organized government was for him a vast conspiracy against man, designed to exploit his labor, corrupt his soul, and murder him in the violence of war. He fully realized that the end he sought belonged to a distant millennium, but this did not prevent him from devoting all his extraordinary intellectual and artistic powers to denouncing nearly every aspect of modern society which he considered a violation of the natural rights of man.
Tolstoy's writings on these matters were extensive, including at least five full-length books, numerous brochures and articles, and scores of long letters which in effect were formal essays on special problems raised by correspondents. All this writing, and much more of a purely creative kind, went on while he was very busy with many civic and family concerns, with endless visitors from all over the world, and hardly ever free from governmental harassment and persecution. Few of these works were permitted publication in Russia, though most of them were widely circulated in clandestine hectographed and mimeographed copies. The bulk of them were sent out of the country and published abroad, which often resulted in printing errors and mutilated texts. Not infrequently numerous copies of printed foreign versions of such works were smuggled back into Russia.
Though at times contemporary critics lamented Tolstoy's forsaking belles-lettres for these purely religious, moral, and didactic works, in them he never ceased to be the literary craftsman, often the artist, and always the supreme writer. That is, it would be a mistake to imagine that they lack elements of the rich art and vision of life of the master novelist. For the remarkable persuasiveness of the best of these writings depends in large measure on Tolstoy's matter-of-fact imagination and that quality of his fiction which reveals a natural concern for the universal activities of humanity. The ruthless realism and brilliant descriptive powers of his novels are frequently carried over into this non-fiction, and his agonizing search in it for the moral laws that will determine the course of his own life is really a continuation of the intense artistic preoccupation with the moral laws that guide the lives of the great characters of his novels.
So large is this body of writing that only the most significant and representative books and articles can be considered here. The first in point of time is 'An Examination of Dogmatic Theology' which he wrote in 1880. It is perhaps the least read of all these works, and undeservedly so, for it is an unusually fervent and compellingly logical attack on revealed religion and especially on the Russian Orthodox Church. He combined with a profoundly religious spirit an unsparing truthfulness. Heedless of personal risk in condemning an all-powerful Church, he sought the truth wherever he might find it.
In one sense, the anarchistic temper of his mind admirably fitted him for an examination of dogmatic theology: he was not disposed to accept anything that would not stand the test of reason. If mediaeval churchmen had sought to believe in order to understand, Tolstoy sought to understand in order to believe. On the other hand, he had the defect of this virtue, for he was inclined to place too much faith in his own reasoning. After a thorough study of the dogmas of the Church, he concluded that they were false and an insult to human intelligence. The Church itself, he charged, supported its tenets by deceitful verbal tricks, and sought merely power instead of trying to fulfil its obligation to spread a right understanding of religion on the basis of Christ's teaching.
Tolstoy next turned to an investigation of the Gospels, for he was mystified by what he considered the Church's distortion of the spirit of Christ's teaching. By accepting literally Christ's injunction in Matthew, " Resist not him that is evil ," much that had been obscure in the Gospels became plain to him. For by not resisting him that is evil one will never do violence, never do an act contrary to love, which he decided was the real substance of Christianity. And by a literal reading of Christ's words in the Gospels and the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, he cut through much of the mystical and allegorical interpretation which he was firmly convinced had distorted the plain meaning of these precepts over the ages. On the basis of this lengthy study, in which he used extensive scholarly literature and the earliest Greek texts, Tolstoy elucidated the five commandments of Christ already mentioned. They represented the core of Christ's teaching, he insisted, and if faithfully practiced would link religion to the daily life of man. So brief a summary of 'An Examination of Dogmatic Theology' fails to suggest striking features that characterize this and similar writings of Tolstoy — his lucidity of style, the compact argumentation which is never lacking in effective homely illustrations, and his skill in the use of irony and ridicule.
What Tolstoy had set forth as a personal religious experience in 'A Confession' and polemically defended in 'An Examination of Dogmatic Theology' is crystallized into the most comprehensive exposition of his faith in 'What I Believe', a book that he finished in 1884. The distilled essence of virtually everything he had written or thought on the subject of religion and his relation to it up to this time is clearly and artistically treated. He approached Christ's teaching as a philosophical, moral, and social doctrine, firmly indicated his disbelief in personal resurrection and immortality which, he insisted, had never been asserted by Christ, and for the first time offered a succinct explanation of the position of non-resistance to evil and his reasons for accepting it. The conclusion he reaches is that life is a misfortune for him who seeks only personal welfare which death in the end destroys, but a blessing for him who identified himself with the teaching of Christ and the task of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, here and now. He goes straight to what matters most for him — the rules of behaviour in people. The Ten Commandments of Moses he regards as instructions for doing or not doing, whereas he seeks commandments that will determine being. Despite the didactic nature of the work, it has a profound human quality because of his ability to share with readers the tremendous inner struggle and intense experience that led him to his convictions.
Convinced by his previous experience with 'A Confession' that such a religious work would never pass the censor, Tolstoy attempted a rather familiar dodge in such circumstances. He arranged for an expensive edition of only fifty copies of 'What I Believe' in the hope that the volume, apparently not intended for popular circulation, would be certified. The ruse failed. The head of the Moscow Civil Censorship Committee reported that 'What I Believe'
"must be considered an extremely harmful book which undermines the foundations of social and governmental institutions and wholly destroys the teaching of the Church."
Tolstoy's new faith aroused in him an intense interest in poverty and social evil, and he felt keenly that he must do something to remedy the situation in his own environment. For the human misery he observed in the slums of Moscow, where he and his large growing family regularly lived in the winters in order to participate in the social season, struck deeply at the roots of his new beliefs and called into question his way of life. But he first felt the need to inform himself fully of the extent and causes of all this suffering, and in 1881 he spent some time in the Khitrov market district among beggars, human derelicts, and prostitutes. The next year, at the time of the decennial census, he proposed a campaign of organized charity in a stirring newspaper article. His plan was to persuade the numerous census takers to conduct a canvass of the city's poor in the course of their official duties. On the basis of detailed information thus obtained, a complete list of the most worthy cases would be compiled along with relevant data necessary to provide the most effective kind of aid. He even secured a position as an organizer in the census and asked to be assigned one of the worst sections of the city, and the conditions of life he saw there appalled him.
The more Tolstoy worked among the poor and thought of the ultimate causes of all this poverty, the more he lost heart in the practicality of his grandiose philanthropic scheme. He soon began to wonder whether dispensing money was a remedy. Was not money an evil in itself, he asked?
Out of these crushing experiences came his well-known book 'What Then Must We Do?' which he worked on for several years and did not finish until 1886. He wrestled with the intricate problems connected with the work, for he felt that upon their solution would depend the justification of his new faith. With overwhelming evidence and irrefutable logic, he stated the case of the poor against the rich. Not content with this, he insisted that such economic disparity inevitably resulted in the moral impoverishment of both classes. Nor did he except himself from the general condemnation of the well-to-do; if anything, he was most severe on what he considered his own guilt.
Tolstoy concluded from his experiences that private or organized charity was not an answer to the conditions of the poor. His investigation convinced him that money does not usually represent work done by its owner, but rather the power to make others work. In the course of theorizing in the book he examined his practices and decided that he ought to consume as little as possible of the work of others in order not to cause suffering and vice. No one possesses any rights or privileges, he asserts, but only endless duties and obligations, and that man's first duty is to participate in the struggle with nature in order to support his own life and that of others. And in general he attempted to abide by this conclusion — in answer to the question of 'What Then Must We Do?' — in the future ordering of his affairs.
The vicious economic contradictions of society, Tolstoy explained in his book, resulted from the exploitation by the few of the labours of the many, and at the bottom of it all was poverty. The position was an old one with him, but now he saw it in a new light. Formerly men seized upon the labours of others by violence — slavery; now, it was done by means of property. The division and safeguarding of property, he declared, occupy the whole world. Property is the root of all evil, for it brings about the sufferings of those who possess it or are deprived of it, the reproaches of conscience of those who misuse it, and it causes deadly quarrels between those who have a superfluity of property and those who are in need.
'What Then Must We Do?' is a unique work which, without benefit of the arguments of Marxian economic determinism, did more than any other book up to that time to expose the tremendous contradiction of poverty in modern society. Tolstoy felt the problem acutely, described its unhappy effects with the skill of a great literary artist, and condemned the causes of poverty with all the moral indignation of an eloquent preacher. The solution he offered, however, is by no means as convincing as his diagnosis of the causes. His outlook was circumscribed by the backward condition of Russian society at that time, and still more limited by his instinctive devotion to his own class. He was ignorant of the changes that developing science, industry, and commerce were bringing about in the economics of capitalism, and this unawareness was rendered virtually incurable by an ethical arrogance that made him all too ready to condemn achievements remote from his own experience. An enemy of progress in terms of modern technical advancement, he oversimplified the complex phenomena of industrial and economic life. That government in its systematic organization of society might logically strive to achieve righteousness, he emphatically denied. Yet in 'What Then Must We Do?' Tolstoy performed a signal service in his frank and fresh treatment of one of the most acute problems of modern times, and his prediction that if the problems were not solved in Russia, "a worker's revolution with horrors of destruction and murder" would ensue, was fulfilled not many years later.
In 1886 Tolstoy wrote one of his long letters in the form of an essay on the subject of life and death. The theme gripped his attention and he decided to elaborate it in a book. Throughout most of 1887 he could think of little else. He attended meetings of the Moscow Psychological Society, perhaps with the hope that his ideas on life and death would obtain some support from such learned men. At one of the meetings he read a paper on " Life's Meaning ," but his effort was not well received by these disciples of the new materialism.
He finished 'On Life' in 1887 — Tolstoy used this short title because in the final version of the work he devoted little space to the theme of death. Though it is an important philosophical treatment of his views on the subject, the book is comparatively little known. All the mature wisdom of some ten years of meditation on religion and on man and his relation to the world is to be found in this treatise, and the beliefs expressed were not significantly altered during the remainder of his life. There is reflected in the work his careful study of church creeds, and he states his conclusion that they consist of incredible statements which afford no real guidance for life. The understanding of life which he elaborates and defends with vigour is that of Christ as revealed in the Gospels, but he avoids the confusion of divergent interpretations of the texts by putting his case independently of the Gospels, simply quoting a sentence occasionally by way of illustration. One perceives in 'On Life' that he regards all the great religions of the world, which he had studied, as fundamentally one, separated only by the discord among them that man had introduced. The work, like so much of Tolstoy's religious and philosophical writing, admirably exemplifies his absolute faith in reason as the keen knife necessary to cut away all the falseness that has accumulated in religious, moral, and ethical doctrine. It never occurs to him that man may require something more exalted than reason to subdue his inherently iniquitous tendencies.
Perhaps the most celebrated and influential of all Tolstoy's books on religious and moral problems is 'The Kingdom of God Is Within You', which he began in 1890 and finished in 1893. It absorbed most of the time he allotted to writing during these years when he was intensely busy organizing widespread relief undertakings to counter the terrible famine that beset Russia. He wrote of his progress on the manuscript to a close disciple:
"Never has any work cost me so much effort, or so it has seemed. I want to finish it and yet I shall be sorry to part with it."
Of course there was no hope of its being published in his own country, but a Russian edition appeared in Berlin in 1894. When a French translation was submitted to the censor of foreign books in Russia, he is reported to have declared that 'The Kingdom of God Is Within You' was the most harmful of all books that he had ever had an occasion to ban. In fact, the government's intensification of its persecution of Tolstoy's followers at that time may be attributed in part to this work.
'In The Kingdom of God Is Within You' Tolstoy carries his Christian anarchism to its ultimate development. The core of the work deals with his theory of non-resistance to evil, which he now applies to governments. He asserts that they are all essentially immoral and exist for the advantage of the rich and powerful, persecuting the masses of mankind through their use of force in wars, in maintaining prisons, and in collecting taxes.
Much of the first part of the book is given over to a consideration of various criticisms of the doctrine of non-resistance to evil while at the same time paying tribute to those who had preceded him in publicly professing this position. A good deal of the criticism had come from foreign countries, but some belonged to native clerical and lay writers, although 'What I Believe', in which he had first advocated non-resistance to evil, had been officially banned in Russia. With a touch of humour he points out that even the government encouraged refutation of a book supposed to be unknown, and that arguments against it were set as themes for theological essays in the academies. Tolstoy also makes the important point in this first part that critics had accused him of preaching moral perfection, whereas he had made it clear that every condition, according to Christ's teaching, is merely a stage on the path toward unattainable inner and outward perfection and is therefore of no significance itself; blessedness lies only in progress toward perfection. He condemns Christian churches of all denominations for perverting the true teaching of Christ in order to maintain their power over the masses upon whom their economic existence depends. Nor does he accept the conviction of many intellectuals that the real import of Christ's teaching rests in its supposed advocacy of service to all humanity. Christian teaching, Tolstoy insists in his book, has nothing in common with socialism or communism or any doctrine advocating universal brotherhood of man based on the advantageousness of such brotherhood. For true Christian teaching, he declares, has a firm and clear basis in the individual human soul, while love of humanity is only a theoretical deduction from analogy.
The contradictions between man's life and his Christian consciousness are dwelt upon at some length. The principal reason for misunderstandings is the acceptance of Christ's teaching without making an effort to change one's life. But recognition of this error, says Tolstoy, is becoming more and more general.
"Humanity has outgrown its social and governmental stages," he writes, "and has entered upon a new one. It knows the doctrine that should be made the basis of life, but through inertia continues to keep to the old forms of life. From this discord between the new understanding of life and its practise, a series of contradictions and sufferings results, which poison our life and demands its alteration."
The rest of the book is concerned with an examination of the powers and activities of governments that enable them to prevent the masses of mankind from resolving, in favour of Christ's teaching, the contradictions between their present life and their Christian consciousness. Force or violence he singles out as the chief instruments that governments employ to maintain themselves in power and the people in subjection to the un-Christian life thrust upon them. Every manifestation of governmental force is analyzed by Tolstoy, especially military conscription and war. The result is one of the most scathing denunciations of war ever written.
Nor does Tolstoy accept revolution as a way out of the tyranny of governments. He was unalterably opposed to its violence, and besides, history had taught him that in such forcible changes the masses are the sufferers and that under the new government oppression in no way lessens but sometimes even increases. Only people who have something which they will under no circumstances yield, he argues, can resist a government and curb it. The way out, he urges, is passive, civil disobedience to all those demands of government which violate the conscience of men. For only thus will public opinion, the sole power that can subdue governments, be aroused. And only men who live according to their conscience can exert influence on people, and only activity that accords with one's conscience can be useful.
In short, the escape from the violence and oppression of governments, Tolstoy concludes in this book, is for all man-kind to live according to the true precepts of Christ. Man must understand, he declares, that
"his life does not belong to himself or his family or the State but to Him who sent him into the world, and that he must therefore fulfil not the law of his personality or family or State, but the infinite law of Him from Whom he has come — and he will feel himself absolutely free from all human authorities and will even cease to regard them as able to trammel anyone."
Nor did Tolstoy hesitate to blueprint in his book the way of salvation for the man who is aroused to an understanding of true Christianity. His first precept is to remember that the only guide for a Christian's actions is to be found in the divine principle that dwells within him, which in no sense can be checked or governed by anything else. Man must not suppose, Tolstoy insists, that the amelioration of life will come about, as the socialists preach, by some spontaneous, violent reconstruction of society. The freedom of all men can be achieved only by the liberation of individuals separately. Every man, hearkening to the dictates of his conscience and abiding by the teaching of Christ, must quietly refuse to serve the government in any way: he must refuse to take an oath, to pay taxes, or to serve in the army. If he is persecuted for thus violating the law, he must not oppose violence by force.
Without explicitly stating it in his book, Tolstoy quite clearly anticipated a growing movement of civil disobedience based on the principle of non-resistance to evil, which he was convinced would eventually undermine the whole structure of government. He believed that such a forward movement of humanity toward a more conscious assimilation of the Christian conception of life already existed. This moral progress, he felt, would ultimately influence public opinion, and once such informed public opinion gained ascendancy, it would transform all the activity of men and bring it into accord with Christian consciousness. Then truly would the Kingdom of God on earth be achieved by every man first realizing that the kingdom was within himself.
It is impossible to convey in a necessarily short analysis the persuasiveness of Tolstoy's closely reasoned arguments, running over almost five hundred pages of this work, and there is also the danger of minimizing its effectiveness, for he rarely fails to anticipate objections to his solutions of the many controversial issues he raised. But the fault he committed in all his didactic works, that of generalizing on the basis of special conditions existing in Russia, is everywhere in evidence in the book. There was a manifest unfairness in his failure to give credit to democratic progress in governments of Western Europe and America, although he bluntly declared that the only difference between a despotic government and the republics of France and America was that, in the former, power was concentrated in the hands of a small number of oppressors and the violence was cruder, whereas in the latter, power was divided among a larger number of oppressors and was expressed less crudely.
There is bound to be a certain arbitrariness in attempting to select for brief comment what appear to be the most significant of the shorter pieces belonging to this chapter. For the purpose of convenient thematic reference, as well as for observing the scope and development of Tolstoy's views on the subject matter indicated, it seems best to arrange these articles under three broad headings. In the first, on religion, the separate " Preface " to his unfinished 'The Christian Teaching' (1898), an attempt to state his religious perception in systematic form, recapitulates in a concise manner the doubts and difficulties Tolstoy experienced in arriving at his beliefs. In essence it is a kind of later summary of the detailed account in 'A Confession' and hence provides an effective brief introduction to his whole treatment of religion.
In "Religion and Morality" (1893) Tolstoy examines several religions in an effort to answer the frequent query of what religion is and whether morality can exist independently of it.
He concludes that the relation which man establishes between his individual personality and the infinite universe or its source is religion, and that it cannot exist apart from morality, which is an outgrowth of this relation and the ever-present guide to life.
Tolstoy's rationalism, his emphasis on the primacy of reason in any concern with faith, is stressed in the succinct treatment of "Reason and Religion." The purpose of this epistolary essay is to demonstrate that man has received direct from God only one instrument wherewith to know himself and his relation to the universe — reason. Therefore — the argument runs — it is entirely proper for man to exert the whole strength of his mind to elucidate for himself the religious foundation on which his faith must rest. Here we have Tolstoy, the rationalist, protesting against mysticism or revelation of any sort, a protest that worried certain disciples who were mystically minded.
The " Reply to the Synod's Edict of Excommunication " (1901) is a dignified and impressive rejoinder to the Russian Orthodox Church's exclusion of Tolstoy from its membership. His fundamental differences with the Church had been a matter of public knowledge for a long time before this official separation, but he avails himself of the opportunity to restate his views on the Church and to point out in forceful language why he believes that it is the chief obstacle to those who seek a reasonable understanding of religion.
Though Tolstoy's writings on religion and his denunciations of the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church provided sufficient reason for his excommunication, the action provoked a surprising amount of public sympathy on his behalf. In his reply to the edict he explained in forthright terms what he considered to be true and what untrue in the Holy Synod's statement. He admitted that he did not believe in what the Church said it believed in, and yet he insisted that he believed in much that the Church had attempted to persuade people that he did not believe.
"I believe in this," he wrote. "I believe in God, whom I understand as Spirit, as love, as the Source of all. I believe that He is in me and I in Him. I believe that the will of God is most clearly and intelligibly expressed in the teaching of the man Jesus, whom to consider as God and pray to, I esteem the greatest blasphemy. I believe that man's true welfare lies in fulfilling God's will and His will is that men should love one another and should consequently do to others as they wish others to do to them — of which it is said in the Gospels that in this is the law and the prophets. I believe therefore that the meaning of the life of every man is to be found only in increasing the love that is in him; that this increase of love leads man, even in this life, to ever greater and greater blessedness, and after death gives him the more blessedness the more love he has, and helps more than anything else toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth: that is, to the establishment of an order of life in which the discord, deception, and violence that now rule will be replaced by free accord, by truth, and by the brotherly love of one for another."
After this confession of faith, Tolstoy rose to heights of noble sincerity in concluding his answer to the Synod:
"Whether or not these beliefs of mine offend, grieve, or prove a stumbling block to anyone, or hinder anything, or give displeasure to anybody, I can as little change them as I can change my body. I must live my own life, and I must myself alone meet death (and that very soon), and therefore I cannot believe otherwise than as I — preparing to go to that God from whom I came — do believe. I do not believe my faith to be the one indubitable truth for all time, but I see no other that is plainer, clearer, or answers better to all the demands of my reason and my heart; should I find such a one I shall at once accept it; for God requires nothing but the truth. But I can no more return to that from which with such suffering I have escaped, than a flying bird can re-enter the eggshell from which it has emerged."
Not long after his reply to the Holy Synod, Tolstoy completed a long essay, " What Is Religion, and Wherein Lies Its Essence " (1902). Within its scope, this work is perhaps his most conclusive, best-tempered, and persuasive treatment of the subject. He approaches it historically and reaches a definition of true religion as the relation which man, in terms of reason and knowledge, establishes with the infinite life surrounding him, and it binds him to that infinity and determines his conduct. The real essence of Christianity, he declares, is allied with the essence of all other major religions, whereas faith is neither hope nor credulity, but a special state of the soul that obliges man to do certain things.
The second grouping is on peace, a subject that commanded a great deal of Tolstoy's attention during the last years of his life. Here not only his central doctrine of non-violence is involved, but also his conviction that the amazing advances of science will be used more and more to develop frightful instruments of war to kill millions of people more expeditiously. His vigorous efforts to unmask the social, political, and economic forces that cause war and prevent peace are often most effective, but the remedies he offers appear to defy the logic of civilization's progress, although it must be realized that Tolstoy seriously questioned the validity of what is generally accepted as " modern progress ."
The extensive essay " Christianity and Patriotism " (1894) is one of the finest of these efforts and at the same time an excellent example of his polemical powers. He begins with a shrewd and often amusing account, based on newspaper reports, of the outpouring of fraternal admiration and patriotism that gripped Russia and France on the occasion of the exchange of visits, in l893, of their respective fleets to Kronstadt and Toulon. Then Tolstoy debunks all this manufactured enthusiasm as something contrived by the two governments to enlist public support in case war breaks out between France and Germany. He indicts patriotism as a false sentiment and demonstrates that it and war have nothing in common with the true interests of the masses or with the precepts of Christianity.
" Patriotism and Government " (1900) is a shorter and more angry article, prompted by the cynicism of the peaceful professions of the great powers at the very time they are planning further strife. To deliver mankind from the ever-increasing evils of growing armaments and war, Tolstoy argues, neither congresses nor conferences nor courts of arbitration will do; simply destroy those instruments of violence called governments from which humanity's greatest evils flow. To eliminate the violence of governments only one thing is needed: people should be made to realize that the feeling of patriotism, which supports violence, is a bad feeling, and, above all, is immoral. It can be eradicated, he points out, only when men are educated through Christ's teaching that it is wrong to kill. And he prophetically anticipates more terrible wars — World War I began fourteen years later — unless universal disarmament can be achieved.
Tolstoy accepted an invitation to participate in the Eighteenth International Congress for Peace at Stockholm in August, 1909, although earlier he had repeatedly refused to attend such gatherings. He now felt it his duty to use this opportunity to present his views at a world forum, and he eagerly set to work on his speech. It appears that the organizers of the Congress were more surprised than pleased by his acceptance. They had not expected this feeble old man of eighty to attend and had merely wished to use his name and receive his moral support. Their surprise turned into embarrassment when the news leaked out to the world press that Tolstoy would challenge the Congress to be honest for once and demand the abolition of all armies as the only sincere and effective way to obtain world peace. Because of health and family complications, it was unlikely that he would have attended anyway, but the Congress leaders suddenly announced that the meeting would be postponed until the next year owing to a worker's strike — some newspapers flatly declared that the real reason was the fear that Tolstoy would actually appear and deliver his speech. They had cause to fear, for his " Address to the Swedish Peace Congress " (1909) is one of Tolstoy's strongest denunciations of war and of the governments that perpetuate it. He sees the problem as an acute contradiction between the moral demands of mankind and the existing social order. The moral truth in its full meaning, he declares, lies in what was said thousands of years ago, the law of God: 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'.
"The military profession, he asserts, "notwithstanding all the efforts to hide its real meaning, is as shameful a business as an executioner's and even more so. For the executioner only holds himself in readiness to kill those who have been adjudged harmful and criminal, while a soldier promises to kill all whom he is told to kill, even though they be those dearest to him or the best of men."
At the end of his address Tolstoy called upon all individual members of the Congress to use the utmost public moral pressure on their various governments to convince them that war is not patriotism or service to one's country but "the naked, criminal business of murder!"
The five commandments that Tolstoy had distilled from the Gospels guided his daily conduct, and his devotion to the Christian ideal as he understood it — a renunciation of one's self in order to serve God and one's neighbour — made of his conscience a watchdog to detect the slightest intrusion of heretical thoughts or actions. In these terms he not only tried honestly to reform his own behaviour, but also, through his writings, the moral, social, and political abuses of society. A selection of such articles makes up this final grouping.
At the age of sixty, for example, Tolstoy renounced meat, alcohol, and tobacco. That year he wrote his article, " Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? " (1888), in which he roundly condemns drinking and smoking as habits employed by mankind to still the voice of conscience. The peasants of Yasnaya Polyana were among his first converts; they reluctantly surrendered their tobacco pouches and took the pledge not to drink and then broke it by stealth. Though Tolstoy's absolutism in these matters is discouraging, it is interesting to observe, because of his views on non-resistance to evil, that he does rule out the use of force or laws to obtain his ends, compulsions that are advanced and sometimes unsuccessfully employed to eradicate these habits in our own day.
" The First Step " (1891) is really a moral essay on right living and points out the wisdom of moving toward virtue by taking the first step up the ladder on which all other steps depend. The simple way of life which Tolstoy had begun to lead after his spiritual revelation he now advocates as the rational and Christian way for people — taking care of all one's needs oneself and not depending on the labor of others. The last part of the essay is a powerful argument for vegetarianism. Here the novelist's art is employed in a nightmarishly realistic description of the slaughterhouse and its dumb victims, the material for which he gathered at first hand.
Both moral and political questions are dealt with in " Thou Shalt Not Kill " (1900), inspired by an anarchist's assassination of King Humbert of Italy. Here Tolstoy's tone becomes some-what shrill, and his customary moral earnestness gives way to harsh criticism of the mighty rulers of the earth who cause the death of countless people without arousing the indignation that swept Europe over the murder of a single king. But in the end Tolstoy draws the moral that it is just as evil for private individuals to kill kings as it is for kings to send thousands of their subjects to death in wars.
In " What's to Be Done? " ( 1906) Tolstoy attempts to answer the question put by young radicals caught up in the turmoil of the 1900s Revolution. Since the government and the revolutionists who opposed it were both committed to violence, Tolstoy's answer is that all should accept God's law to love one another, but that in any case they should not kill or attack each other's liberty.
None of Tolstoy's many articles and pamphlets on contemporary issues won for him such international 'reclame' as " I Cannot Be Silent " (1908), written when he was eighty. The emotional intensity and high seriousness of the piece were no doubt influenced by a long series of police prosecutions of his followers for publishing, possessing, lending, or distributing his anti-government writings. If these acts were crimes, he felt equally guilty, and the fact that he was not punished tormented his conscience. Then, too, the rising incidence of executions of revolutionists and terrorists caused him much anguish. He wrote a friend:
"My God, my God, these executions, prisons, jails, these exiles! And they imagine that they will improve something or other."
Then came the newspaper report of the hanging of twenty peasants (actually twelve) for attacking a landowner. This was more than Tolstoy could bear and he wrote his famous article, an effort that gave him a feeling of great moral relief. Tolstoy's superb literary talent and his knowledge of human psychology and sense of drama contribute to this impressive and anguished outcry against man's inhumanity. He struck a note that won response from all thinking people. The crimes of the revolutionists, he points out, are terrible, but they do not compare with the criminality and stupidity of organized legalized violence of the government. The delusion is the same in both, he added, and the excuse is that an evil deed committed for the benefit of many ceases to be immoral. Since the government claims these executions are done for the general welfare, Tolstoy declares, then he as one of the people cannot escape the feeling that he is a participator in these horrible deeds. In the end he defies the government, promising to circulate his article by every means in his power, in the hope that either these inhuman punishments may cease or that he may be sent to prison and thus be relieved of the burden of conscience that the executions are committed on his behalf. Better still, he writes, let them
"put on me, as on those twelve or twenty peasants, a shroud and a cap and push me also off a bench, so that by my own weight I may tighten the well-soaped noose round my old throat."