Our guest blogger today is Lev Tolstoy. The passages below are from Tolstoy’s Letters, Vol. II, 1880-1910, translated by R.F. Christian. First is an excerpt from a letter sent in December 1899 to Prince Grigory Mikhailovich Volkonsky, who had sent Tolstoy some pamphlets criticizing the Boer War:
…When people tell me that one side is solely to blame in a war, I can’t agree. You may admit that one sides acts worse in any war that flares up, but an analysis of which one it is that acts worse doesn’t explain the immediate cause of thee origin of such a terrible, cruel and inhuman phenomenon as war. To any man who doesn’t shut his eyes to them, these causes are perfectly obvious, as they are now with the Boer War and with all wars that have happened recently.
These causes are three: first – the unequal distribution of property, i.e., the robbery of some people by others; second – the existence of a military class, i.e., people brought up for and intended for murder; and third – false, and for the most part deliberately deceitful religious teaching, on which young generations are forcibly brought up. And so I think that it’s not only useless but harmful to see the cause of wars in [this politician or that leader], and thereby conceal from ourselves the real causes which are far more immediate and to which we ourselves are a party.
We can only be angry with the leaders and politicians and abuse them; but our anger and abuse will only spoil our blood, not change the course of things: the leaders and politicians are blind instruments of forces which lie a long way behind them. They act as they have to act, and can’t act otherwise. All history is a series of just such acts by all politicians as the Boer War, and so it’s completely useless, even impossible, to be angry with them and condemn them, when you see the true causes of their activity and when you feel that you yourself are to blame for this or that activity of theirs according to your attitude to the three basic causes I mentioned.
As long as we go on enjoying exceptional wealth while the masses of people are ground down by hard work there will always be wars for markets, goldmines, etc., which we need to support our exceptional wealth. Wars will be all the more inevitable as long as we are party to a military class, tolerate its existence, and don’t fight against it with all our powers. We ourselves serve in the army, or regard it as not only necessary but commendable, and then when war breaks out we condemn some politician or other for it. But the thing is that there will be war as long as we not only preach but tolerate without anger and indignation that perversion of Christianity which is called ecclesiastical Christianity whereby it is possible to have a Christ-loving army, the blessing of guns and the acceptance of war as an act justified by Christianity. We teach our children this religion, we profess it ourselves, and then say that this or that politician is to blame for the fact that people kill one another.
That is why I disagree with you and cannot reproach blind instruments of ignorance and evil, but see the causes of war in those phenomena, the evil of which I myself can help to reduce or increase. To help to share out property equally in brotherly fashion, and to enjoy as little as possible the advantages which have fallen to one’s lot; not to be party to war in any aspect and to destroy the hypnosis by means of which people transform themselves into hired murderers and think they are doing a good deed by doing military service; and above all to profess a reasonable Christian doctrine, trying with all one’s powers to destroy the cruel deceit of false Christianity on which young generations are forcibly brought up – this threefold activity, I think, constitutes the duty of any man wishing to serve good and rightly disturbed by the terrible war which has disturbed you too.
Tolstoy’s idea of “reasonable Christian doctrine” was, of course, a highly subversive notion drained of all vestiges of divinity and the miraculous, and implacably hostile to organized religion. It was instead based on the radical love preached by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth in some parts of the Gospels, a love that stripped away all distinctions of class, nation, religion, race, culture or gender. In any case, it has nothing to do with “Christianity” as it is increasingly understood – and practiced – in the United States; that is, a nationalist, militarist, wilfully ignorant cult devoid of human compassion.
Tolstoy explains his idea of religion in another letter, two years later, to Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov:
The religious understanding of life, which, to may way of thinking, can and should become the foundation of life for people of our time, could be expressed very briefly as follows: the meaning of our lives consists in fulfilling the will of that infinite principle of which we recognise ourselves to be a part; and this will lies in the union of all living things, above all of people – in their brotherhood, in their service to each other. From a different angle, this religious understanding of life can be expressed like this: the business of life is union with all living things – above all the brotherhood of men, their service to each other.
And this is so because we are alive only to the extent to which we recognise ourselves to be a part of the infinite; and the law of the infinite is this union.
Of course, one often disagrees with this or that aspect of Tolstoy’s thought. (Indeed, even to use a phrase like “Tolstoy’s thought” is, in a real sense, improperly reductive of the restless, contradictory, constantly shifting intellectual and spiritual quest of this troubled, conflicted, hypocritical and altogether marvelous and inspiring creature.) For one thing, he was, like many people of his day – and ours – altogether too obsessed with ideas of sexual “purity” and so on. (Although, given his station in life, he often evinced an insightful awareness of the power dynamics that can obtain in sexual encounters – an insight often lost to us today, until cases like that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn bring it forcefully to mind.)
And to be sure, Tolstoy himself very often launched powerful and detailed condemnations of the specific actions of specific politicians and leaders engaged in fomenting or abetting or acquiescing in evil. The principles espoused in the letters quoted above were not meant to be calls to quietism – something of which Tolstoy could never have been accused, to the sorrow of the Orthodox Church that excommunicated him and the government that sought to muffle the immense moral authority he exercised in the national consciousness. (A moral authority derived, ironically enough, not directly from his political and ethical writings but from the power of his artistry, his fiction, which transcended politics and normative understandings of “morality” and spoke instead the indirect but deeper, broader, more diffuse and meaningful truths that only the highest art can convey.)
But given all these caveats and nuances, I think the quoted passages have much to say to us today. And so they are offered here not as gospel truths but simply as matter for further contemplation.