Leo Tolstoy’s My Religion- What I Believe Analysis

Leo Tolstoy's My Religion- What I Believe: An Overview

It was in 1884 that Count Leo Tolstoy continued his personal confession in “My Religion” – he found in the principle of nonviolent resistance (which he called “non-resistance”) the key to understand the Gospels, a new understanding of his life and of modern society in his age. Nonviolence became the ethical basis for his doctrine of Truth Force which has later been developed by Mahatma Gandhi in his “Satyagraha” philosophy and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. in his concept of Soul-Force.

Leo Tolstoy, 1851.

  1. My Religion

“My personal life is interwoven with the social, political life, and the political life demands of me a non-Christian activity, which is directly opposed to Christ’s commandment. Now, with the universal military service and the participation of all in the court in the capacity of jurymen, this dilemma is with striking distinctness placed before all people. Every man has to take up the weapon of murder, the gun, the knife, and, though he does not kill, he must load his gun and whet his knife, that is, be prepared to commit murder. Every citizen must come to court and be a participant in the court and in the punishments, that is, every man has to renounce Christ’s commandment of non-resistance to evil, not only in words, but in action as well.”(1)

And by the examples of the superior court and district court, criminal court and the court of arbitration Tolstoy illustrated the Christian doctrine condemning the State’s principle of violent retaliation:

“Christ says, Do not resist evil. The purpose of the courts is to resist evil. Christ prescribes doing good in return for evil. The courts retaliate evil with evil. Christ says, Make no distinction between the good and the bad. All the courts do is to make this distinction. Christ says, Forgive all men; forgive, not once, not seven times, but without end; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. The courts do not forgive, but punish; they do not do good, but evil, to those whom they call enemies of society. Thus it turns out, according to the meaning, that Christ must have rejected the courts.”(2)

Whereafter Tolstoy pointed out how often Jesus had come into conflict with the political law, because he returned back to the origin of Divine Law. Jesus broke the law of the privileged castes which tortured and finally killed him. The lasting impression of a public execution in France during his trip through Europe was reflected in Tolstoy’s words of ethical disgust with the human criminal law in “My Religion”:

“No man with a heart has escaped that impression of terror and of doubt in the good, even at the recital, not to speak of the sight, of the executions of men by just such men, by means of rods, the guillotine, the gallows”.(3)

“Christ says, You have been impressed with the idea, and you have become accustomed to it, that it is good and rational by force to repel the evil and to pluck an eye out for an eye, to establish criminal courts, the police, the army, to resist the enemy: but I say, Use no violence, do not take part in violence, do no evil to any one, even to those whom you call your enemies”.(4)

Tolstoy realized that he would face stern resistance from two groups of people belonging to quite different ideological camps:

“These men belong to the two extreme poles: they are the patriotic and conservative Christians, who acknowledge that their church is the true one, and the atheistic Revolutionists. Neither the one nor the other will renounce the right of forcibly resisting what they regard as an evil. Not even the wisest and most learned among them want to see the simple, obvious truth that, if we concede to one man the right forcibly to resist what he considers an evil, a second person may with the same right resist what he regards as an evil”.(5)

Not the annihilation of evil but the increase of injustice has been the result of the law of violence in the social, political and economical field of human life:

“Not only Christ, but all Jewish prophets, John the Baptist, all the true sages of the world, speak of precisely this church, this state, this culture, this civilization, calling them evil and destruction of men”.(6)

Tolstoy condemned the law of violence. He revealed the law of love, benevolence and conscience. And he appealed to the morality of his readers, to realize the ethical commandments: no more and no longer tortures or executions of more and more victims :

“Who will deny that it is repulsive and painful to human nature, not only to torture or kill a man, but even to torture a dog, or to kill a chicken or a calf? (I know men living by agricultural labour, who have stopped eating meat only because they had themselves to kill their animals.)”(7)

“Not one judge would have the courage to strangle the man whom he has sentenced according to his law. Not one chief would have the courage to take a peasant away from a weeping family and lock him up in prison. Not one general or soldier would, without discipline, oath, or war, kill a hundred Turks or Germans, and lay waste their villages; he would not even have the courage to wound a single man. All this is done only thanks to that complicated political and social machine, whose problem it is so to scatter the responsibility of the atrocities which are perpetrated so that no man may feel the unnaturalness of these acts. Some write laws; others apply them; others again muster men, educating in them the habit of discipline, that is, of senseless and irresponsible obedience; others again — these same mustered men — commit every kind of violence, even killing men, without knowing why and for what purpose”.(8)

Leo Tolstoy, 1854

No analysis could be given more precisely of the fatal system of command-and-obey which characterises the military system. Tolstoy objected to the despotisms of the Russian Tzar and the German Kaiser as harshly as to the dilution of the same principle of power by British parliamentarism. In his writings of confession he testified against the pseudo-security of a complacent bourgeoisie and feudal caste:

“ whether to know that my peace and security and that of my family, all my joys and pleasures, are bought by the poverty, debauch, and suffering of millions, — by annual gallows, hundreds of thousands of suffering prisoners and millions of soldiers, policemen, and guards, torn away from their families and dulled by discipline, who with loaded pistols, to be aimed at hungry men, secure the amusements for me; whether to buy every dainty piece which I put into my mouth, or into the mouths of my children, at the cost of all that suffering of humanity, which is inevitable for the acquisition of these pieces; or to know that any piece is only then my piece when nobody needs it, and nobody suffers for it”.(9)

Tolstoy was right to condemn the reproaches of Christ’s doctrine being a chimera by reflecting upon the reality of the real social and political disorder:

“Christ’s teaching about non-resistance to evil is a dream! And this, that the life of men, into whose souls pity and love for one another is put, has passed, for some, in providing stakes, knouts, racks, cat-o’-nine-tails, tearing of nostrils, inquisitions, fetters, hard labour, gallows, executions by shooting, solitary confinements, prisons for women and children, in providing slaughter of tens of thousands in war, in providing revolutions and seditions; and for others, in executing all these horrors; and for others again, in avoiding all these sufferings and retaliating for them, – such a life is not a dream!”.(10)

Tolstoy illustrated the lucidity of the Christian doctrine of Non-Resistance, the key to understand the Gospels, with the ancient prophet Elijah to whom God manifested himself not with thunder and lightning but in a smooth breeze blowing from the refreshed leas after the storm:

“The movement of humanity toward the good takes place, not thanks to the tormentors, but to the tormented. As fire does not put out fire, so evil does not put out evil. Only the good meeting the evil, and not becoming contaminated by it, vanquishes the evil. Every step in advance has been made only in the name of non-resistance to evil. And if this progress is slow, it is so because the clearness, simplicity, rationality, inevitableness, and obligatoriness of Christ’s teaching have been concealed from the majority of men in a most cunning and dangerous manner; they have been concealed under a false teaching which falsely calls itself his teaching”.(11)

Tolstoy learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read and translate the Holy Scripts of Judaism and Christianity in their ancient translations. Before he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church, he had written “A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology” and “The Gospel in Brief”, and, in addition, Tolstoy later gave an account of Christian doctrines in a version dedicated to children, which actually explained the originary meaning of Christ’s teachings to all people who could read and listen.

Leo Tolstoy, 1909

  1. The Kingdom of God is Within You

In his famous work “The Kingdom of God is Within You” (1893), Leo Tolstoy laid down his political philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He ostracized in particular the modern slavery of military conscription or compulsory military service which had been introduced in Russia after the army reform of 1874:

“The establishment of general military service is like the activity of a man who wants to prop up a rotten house. The walls are crumbling – he puts rafters to them; the roof slopes inwards, he build up a framework; boards give way between the rafters, he supports them with other beams. At last it turns out that although the scaffolding keeps the house together, it renders it quite uninhabitable”.

It is the same with universal military service, which destroys all the advantages of that social life which it is supposed to guarantee.

The benefits of social life consist in the security given to property and labour, and in the mutual co-operation towards general welfare. Military service destroys all this.

“The taxes levied on the people for armaments and war absorb the greater part of the products of that labour which the army is called upon to protect. Taking away the whole male population from the ordinary occupations of their life destroys the very possibility of labour. The menace of war, ever ready to break out from one moment to the next, renders vain and profitless all improvements of social life”.(12)

“For Governments, general military service is the utmost limit of violence required for the support of the whole system; for subjects, it is the utmost limit of possible subjection. It is the key-stone in the arch which supports the walls, whose removal would demolish the whole building”.

“The time has come when the ever-increasing abuses of Governments and their mutual feuds require from their subjects such material and moral sacrifices, that every man must necessarily hesitate and ask himself: Can I make these sacrifices? And for what am I to make them? they are required in the name of the State. In the name of the State I am required to give up everything that is dear to man: family, safety, a peaceful life and personal self-respect”.(13)

It was quite significant that in the nineteenth century North American preachers gave up their offices within their denominations to found Socialist communities influenced by the ideas of the French Utopian thinker Charles Fourier in order to restore the pioneering spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers in post-revolutionary USA against the expansionist economism of early capitalism. Among those who wanted to revive the revolutionary spirit of the independence struggle against the British colonial power, we find the first secular theorists of Non-Resistance with arguments even for non-believers, atheists or agnostics. In his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You” Tolstoy quoted the voices of Adin Ballou and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who opposed the system of slavery. “The Kingdom of God is Within You” captured young Gandhi’s interest as an Indian lawyer in South Africa and won him over to follow Tolstoy’s influence.

  1. William Lloyd Garrison

The participants of the Peace Convention in Boston 1838 drafted a Declaration of Sentiments in order to abolish war. These American precursors of Tolstoy’s teachings of Non-Resistance were quoted by Leo Tolstoy:

“We register our testimony, not only against all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; against every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification; against the militia system and a standing army; against all military chieftains and soldiers; against all monuments commemorative of victory over a foreign foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military or naval exploits; against all appropriations for the defence of a nation by force and arms on the part of any legislative body; against every edict of government, requiring of its subjects military service. Hence we deem it unlawful to bear arms, or to hold a military office”.

“As every human government is upheld by physical strength, and its laws are enforced virtually at the point of the bayonet, we cannot hold any office which imposes upon its incumbent the obligation to compel men to do right, on pain of imprisonment or death. We therefore voluntarily exclude ourselves from every legislative and judicial body, and repudiate all human politics, worldly honors, and stations of authority. If we cannot occupy a seat in the legislature or on the bench, neither can we elect others to act as our substitutes in any such capacity”.(14)

These words indicate the principal refusal to cooperate with a system of injustice. The Roman law ‘ius talionis’, the law of retaliatory violence, had been laid down in the Law of Twelve Tables. The Non-Resisters criticised revenge as an endemical principle of contagious violence. The Non-Resisters were inspired by the ancient prophetic tradition and by their Christian political concept of nonviolent redemption.

“If we abide by our principles, it is impossible for us to be disorderly, or plot treason, or participate in any evil work; we shall submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake; obey all the requirements of government, except such as we deem contrary to the commands of the gospel; and in no case resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience.

But while we shall adhere to the doctrine of non-resistance and passive submission, we purpose, in a moral and spiritual sense, to speak and act boldly in the cause of God; to assail iniquity in high places and in low places; to apply our principles to all existing civil, political, legal, and ecclesiastical institutions; and to hasten the time when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever”.(15)

The individual boycott of war and poll taxes, of which Henry David Thoreau had given an example before writing his inspiring essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” against the Government, the massive individual conscientious objection against all military services, against war preparation or participation in war, according to Leo Tolstoy’s recommendation, the historical example of Indian “Satyagraha in South Africa” guided by Mahatma Gandhi, and the boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement claiming equal rights for all citizens guided by Dr. Martin Luther King jr. – all these realised the principle of non-cooperation with any political system which is based on injustice.

“It appears to us a self-evident truth, that, whatever the gospel is designed to destroy at any period of the world, being contrary to it, ought now to be abandoned. If, then, the time is predicted when swords shall be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning-hooks, and men shall not learn the art of war any more, it follows that all who manufacture, sell, or wield those deadly weapons do thus array themselves against the peaceful dominion of the Son of God on earth.

Hence, we shall employ lecturers, circulate tracts and publications, form societies, and petition our state and national governments, in relation to the subject of Universal Peace. It will be our leading object to devise ways and means for effecting a radical change in the views, feelings, and practices of society, respecting the sinfulness of war and the treatment of enemies.

In entering upon the great work before us, we are not unmindful that, in its prosecution, we may be called to test our sincerity even as in a fiery ordeal. It may subject us to insult, outrage, suffering, yea, even death itself. We anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, calumny. Tumults may rise against us. The ungodly and violent, the proud and pharisaical, the ambitious and tyrannical, principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places, may contrive to crush us. So they treated the Messiah, whose example we are humbly striving to imitate. If we suffer with Him we know that we shall reign with Him. We shall not be afraid of their terror, neither be troubled”.(16)

  1. Adin Ballou

Leo Tolstoy corresponded with Adin Ballou, author of a dialogue on the teaching of Non-Resistance, and he discussed with him the ethical problem of self-defence which Tolstoy rejected by principle. In a pamphlet entitled “How many people are necessary to transform evil into justice”, Adin Ballou rejected pseudo-legitimations for murder politically sanctioned. In his “Catechism of Non-Resistance”, Adin Ballou consistently rejected human ways of behavior such as insults, killing and hurting because of self-defense, the judicial procedures of claiming in order to punish people for an insult, the participation in armies against interior or exterior enemies, the participation in wars or armaments for war, the participation in drafting or equipping soldiers, voting at the poll elections, the participation in the courts or in the administration as participation in the power of governments, the paying of taxes for a government “that is kept up by war power, by capital punishment, generally by violence”, which means that one should not resist taxation by means of violence. Adin Ballou’s comprehensive rejection of any kind of violence also referred to the political monopoly of violence and calls it evil that can only be destroyed by the doctrine of Non-Resistance. Ballou wrote about the principle of voluntary suffering to overcome the régime of violence:

“Good deeds cannot be performed under all circumstances without self-sacrifice, privations, suffering, and, in extreme cases, without the loss of life itself. But he who prizes life more than the fulfilment of God’s will is already dead to the only true life. Such a man, in trying to save his life, will lose it. Furthermore, wherever non-resistance costs the sacrifice of one’s life, or of some essential advantage of life, resistance costs thousands of such sacrifices.

Non-resistance preserves; resistance destroys

It is much safer to act justly than unjustly; to endure an offense rather than resist it by violence; safer even in regard to the present life. If all men refused to resist evil, the world would be a happy one.

Even if but one man were to act thus, and the others should agree to crucify him, would it not be more glorious for him to die in the glory of non-resisting love, praying for his enemies, than live wearing the crown of Caesar, besprinkled with the blood of the murdered? But whether it be one man or thousands of men who are firmly determined not to resist evil by evil, still, whether in the midst of civilized or uncivilized neighbors, men who do not rely on violence are safer than those who do. A robber, a murderer, a villain, will be less likely to harm them if he finds them offering no armed resistance. “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” and he who seeks peace, who acts like a friend, who is inoffensive, who forgives and forgets injuries, generally enjoys peace, or if he dies, he dies a blessed death”.(17)

And Adin Ballou resumed in his “Catechism of Non-Resistance”:

“Hence, if all were to follow the commandment of non-resistance, there would manifestly be neither offense nor evil-doing. If even the majority were composed of such men they would establish the rule of love and good-will even toward the offenders, by not resisting evil by evil nor using violence. Even if such men formed a numerous minority, they would have such an improving moral influence over society that every severe punishment would be revoked, and violence and enmity would be replaced by peace and good-will. If they formed but a small minority, they would rarely experience anything worse than the contempt of the world, while the world, without preserving it or feeling grateful therefore, would become better and wiser from its latent influence. And if, in the most extreme cases, certain members of the minority might be persecuted unto death, these men, thus dying for the truth, would have left their doctrine already sanctified by the blood of martyrdom.

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Peace be with all ye who seek peace; and may the all-conquering love be the imperishable inheritance of every soul who submits of its own accord to the law of Christ.

Resist not evil by violence”.(18)

  1. Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig

As a young student, Romain Rolland (1866-1944) surprisingly received a long letter written in French language by Leo Tolstoy. This was in 1887. Romain Rolland wrote altogether seven letters to Tolstoy between 1887 and 1906. Most of these letters were reflections about the role of art and the artist in society. Tolstoy replied only once, to the first letter of Rolland. Rolland was inspired by Tolstoy’s political writings. Tolstoy’s writings about the Doukhobors inspired Rolland to write his drama “Le Temps viendra” (The Time will come) against the Boer War in 1903. In 1911, Rolland published “Vie de Tolstoi” (The Life of Tolstoy). In 1924, Rolland published his famous Gandhi biography. Rolland wanted to create an International of Intellectuals to stop the war machinery.

Romain Rolland was one of the very few European intellectuals who spoke out against the First World War right from the beginning. Actually he followed Tolstoy’s example thinking responsible for his generation when he took a Pacifist stand against the military system. Among his intellectual friends was Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Inspired by Tolstoy, Stefan Zweig wrote his novel “Der Zwang” (Der Refractair) about a conscientious objector in 1918, translated Rolland’s drama “The time will come” into German language in 1919. He was invited to the official celebrations of Tolstoy’s 100th birthday in 1928. In 1928, he wrote a magnificent portrait of Tolstoy which was later published in “Master Builders: A Typology of the Spirit” (New York 1939).

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