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

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

It was in 1884 that Count Leo
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
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
“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
Leo Tolstoy's My Religion- What I Believe: An Overview

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
“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
2. 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.
3. 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
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)
4. 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
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
“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.
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)
5. 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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