Other authors born between 1800 and 1900 CE
Click Up for short biographies
Abandonment of Orthodox Religion
Poetry as a Faith
Progress and Family as a Faith
The Question of Life’s Meaning
Answers From the Past
Beyond Rational Knowledge
The Search for a True Religion
Principles of the Great Religions
Practical Rules Come from One Law—Reciprocity
A Summing Up—Implications for Non-Violence
Work Continues Under Conditions of Slavery
Our Indifference to Suffering
Religion’s Rationalization for Indifference
Scientific Rationalizations for Indifference
The Psychology of Indifference
Technology May Prevent the Destruction of Lives
Organized Violence Maintains Things as They Are
The Dangers of Organized Violence
Change is Thwarted by Self-Interest
What we Should Do
Approach the Goal by Degrees
A Summing Up
Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born at his family’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, central Russia. When he was nine, his father died; Tolstoy was then cared for by tutors and female relatives. At Kazan University he studied law and oriental languages for three years, but left in 1847 before graduating. His recognition as an accomplished author came with short novels about his youth and war stories from his service with artillery in the Caucasus (1851-52) and in the Crimean War (1853-55). A few years later he traveled to Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and England. In 1962 he married Sophia Andreyevna Bers, who bore him13 children. His novels, War and Peace (1863-69) and Anna Karenina (1875-77) were recognized as masterpieces.
Shortly after publication of these novels, Tolstoy experienced a mental crises, described in A Confession (1879-82). After experiencing despair amounting almost to suicide, Tolstoy found a meaning to life in the simple words of Jesus when uncontaminated with church doctrine. Although he initially coalesced his religious ideas on the teachings of Jesus, Tolstoy subsequently found the same ideas in other great religions or philosophies—Confucius, Lao Tzu and Mo Tzu, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and the Muslim faith. His expression of his faith then became of greater generality, suggesting at one point that man became immortal by merging his personality with humanity at large. Tolstoy’s publications carrying his various views were all condemned by the Orthodox Church and he was excommunicated in 1901.
Tolstoy was intensely aware of problems in the population at large, and at the same time had a unique gift for observing and understanding individuals and portraying their character in words. In this respect, War and Peace, a novel about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812 with a huge cast of characters, can be viewed as Tolstoy’s theory of history. Portraying as it does a multiplicity of interactions between many different people, it illustrates how the tide of history can be carried along by many small unpredictable actions rather than solely by the efforts of dominant individuals. Another aspect of Tolstoy’s gifts appears in A Landowner’s Morning. There, a landlord tries to bring enlightened theories of management (as Tolstoy did himself) to his serfs, who (as Tolstoy came to recognize) responded with suspicion, resentment and stubborn refusal. This conflict between the ideal and the practical can be seen in much of Tolstoy’s writing.
Tolstoy’s social theories arose out of his religious thinking. He came to regard property ownership and its defense by the state as contrary to primitive Christianity and therefore immoral. He gave up his own estate to his son and attempted to pass ownership of the copyright of his works to the general public. He also saw the conditions of slavery under which many of the emancipated serfs continued to work as depending on immoral behavior by the Church, government administrators, the property-owning classes, and the serfs themselves. His solution to achieving a change in this situation was the use of non-violent resistance, a policy that he traced in the American writings of the Quakers Fox, Penn and Dymond, and of William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. Tolstoy subsequently found further support for non violence in a Czech writer, Helchitsky, who published The Net of Faith in the Fifteenth Century, attributing the degeneration of Christianity to Constantine the Great’s adoption of Christianity as the preferred Roman religion. Tolstoy catalogued preachers of non-violent Christianity up to this time in The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Tolstoy also developed a theory of art based on the unity of man. He defined art in the following way: "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced . . .then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art." Tolstoy considered that artistic appreciation came from "that sense of infection with another’s feeling—compelling us to rejoice in another’s gladness, to sorrow at another’s grief, and to mingle souls with another—which is the very essence of art." These ideas combined with his love for humanity at large meant that Tolstoy believed enjoyment of art was not to be confined to a privileged few but should reach as wide an audience as possible.
The following short extracts from Tolstoy’s immense range of writings focus on his search of the meaning of life and his advocacy of achieving better conditions for humanity through non-violent action.
1 I was baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Christian faith that I was taught it in childhood and throughout my boyhood and youth. But when I abandoned the second course of the university at the age of eighteen I no longer believed any of the things I had been taught.
2 My lapse from faith occurred as is usual among people on our level of education. In most cases, I think, it happens thus: a man lives like everybody else, on the basis of principles not merely having nothing in common with religious doctrine, but generally opposed to it; religious doctrine does not play a part in life; in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and in a man's own life he never has to reckon with it. Religious doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it.
3 Looking back on that time, I now see clearly that my faith—my only real faith—that which apart from my animal instincts gave impulse to my life—was a belief in perfecting myself. But in what this perfecting consisted and what its object was, I could not have said. I tried to perfect myself mentally—I studied everything I could, anything life threw in my way; I tried to perfect my will, I drew up rules I tried to follow; I perfected myself physically, cultivating my strength and agility by all sorts of exercises, and accustoming myself to endurance and patience by all kinds of privations. And all this I considered to be the pursuit of perfection.
4 With all my soul I wished to be good, but I was young, passionate and alone, completely alone when I sought goodness. Every time I tried to express my most sincere desire, which was to be morally good, I met with contempt and ridicule, but as soon as I yielded to low passions I was praised and encouraged.
5 I cannot think of those years without horror, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man.
6 At twenty-six years of age I returned to Petersburg after the war, and met the writers. They received me as one of themselves and flattered me. And before I had time to look round I had adopted the views on life of the set of authors I had come among, and these views completely obliterated all my former strivings to improve—they furnished a theory which justified the dissoluteness of my life.
7 . . . this faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion, and I was one of its priests. To be its priest was very pleasant and profitable. And I lived a considerable time in this faith without doubting its validity. But in the second and still more in the third year of this life I began to doubt the infallibility of this religion and to examine it. My first cause of doubt was that I began to notice that the priests of this religion were not all in accord among themselves. . .
Moreover, having begun to doubt the truth of the authors' creed itself, I also began to observe its priests more attentively, and I became convinced that almost all the priests of that religion, the writers, were immoral, and for the most part men of bad, worthless character, much inferior to those whom I had met in my former dissipated and military life; but they were self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is. These people revolted me, I became revolting to myself, and I realized that that faith was a fraud.
8 During that time I went abroad. Life in Europe and my acquaintance with leading and learned Europeans confirmed me yet more in the faith of striving after perfection in which I believed, for I found the same faith among them. That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word "progress". It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, "Live in conformity with progress", I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question. "whither to steer", by saying, "We are being carried somewhere".
9 Returning from there I married. The new conditions of happy family life completely diverted me from all search for the general meaning of life. My whole life was centered at that time in my family, wife and children, and therefore in care to increase our means of livelihood. My striving after self-perfection, for which I had already substituted a striving for perfection in general, i.e. progress, was now again replaced by the effort simply to secure the best possible conditions for myself and my family.
10 So I lived; but five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know what to do or how to live; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity began to recur oftener and oftener, and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to?
11 That is what happened to me. I understood that it was no casual indisposition but something very important, and that if these questions constantly repeated themselves they would have to be answered. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that they are not childish and stupid but the most important and profound of life's questions; and secondly that, occupying myself with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know why I was doing it. As long as I did not know why, I could do nothing and could not live.
Amid the thoughts of estate management which greatly occupied me at that time, the question would suddenly occur: "Well, you will have 16,500 acres of land in Samara Government and 300 horses, and what then?" ... And I was quite disconcerted and did not know what to think.
Or when considering plans for the education of my children, I would say to myself: "What for?" Or when considering how the peasants might become prosperous, I would suddenly say to myself: "But what does it matter to me?" Or when thinking of the fame my works would bring me, I would say to myself, "Very well; you will be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere, or than all the writers in the world—and what of it?" And I could find no reply at all. The questions would not wait, they had to be answered at once, and if I did not answer them it was impossible to live. But there was no answer.
12 My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder. Without an answer to this question one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: "What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?"
Differently expressed, the question is: "Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?" It can also be expressed as "Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?"
13 To this one question, variously expressed, I sought an answer in science. And I found that in relation to that question all human knowledge is divided as it were into two opposite hemispheres at the ends of which are two poles: the one a negative and the other a positive; but that neither at the one nor the other pole is there an answer to life's questions.
The one series of sciences seems not to recognize the question, but replies clearly and exactly to its own independent questions: that is the series of experimental sciences, and at the extreme end of it stands mathematics. The other series of sciences recognizes the question, but does not answer it; that is the series of abstract sciences, and at the extreme end of it stands metaphysics.
14 From the time when life began among men they had that meaning of life, and they led that life which has descended to me. All that is in me and around me, all corporeal and incorporeal, is the fruit of their knowledge of life. Those very instruments of thought with which I consider this life and condemn it were all devised not be me but by them. I myself was born, taught, and brought up thanks to them. They dug out the iron, taught us to cut down the forests, tamed the cows and horses, taught us to sow corn and to live together, organized our life, and taught me to think and speak. And I, their product, fed, supplied with drink, taught by them, thinking with their thoughts and words, have argued that they are an absurdity! "There is something wrong," I said to myself. "I have blundered somewhere." But it was a long time before I could find out where the mistake was.
15 Verifying the line of argument of rational knowledge I found it quite correct. The conclusion that life is nothing was inevitable; but I noticed a mistake. The mistake lay in this, that my reasoning was not in accord with the question I had put. The question was: "Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life—what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?" And to reply to that question I had studied life.
The solution of all the possible questions of life could evidently not satisfy me, for my question, simple as it at first appeared, included a demand for an explanation of the finite in terms of the infinite, and vice versa.
I asked: "What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?" And I replied to quite another question: "What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?" With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: "None."
In my thinking I constantly compared (nor could I do otherwise) the finite with the finite, and the infinite with the infinite; but for that reason I reached the inevitable result: force is force, matter is matter, will is will, the infinite is the infinite, nothing is nothing—and that was all that could result.
16 So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible. Reasonable knowledge had brought me to acknowledge that life is senseless — my life had come to a halt and I wished to destroy myself. Looking around on the whole of mankind I saw that people live and declare that they know the meaning of life. I looked at myself—I had lived as long as I knew a meaning of life and had made life possible.
17 And I turned to the examination of that same theology which I had once rejected with such contempt as unnecessary. Formerly it seemed to me a series of unnecessary absurdities, when on all sides I was surrounded by manifestations of life which seemed to me clear and full of sense; now I should have been glad to throw away what would not enter a healthy head, but I had nowhere to turn to. . .
18 I shall not seek the explanation of everything. I know that the explanation of everything, like the commencement of everything, must be concealed in infinity. But I wish to understand in a way which will bring me to what is inevitably inexplicable. I wish to recognize anything that is inexplicable as being so not because the demands of my reason are wrong (they are right, and apart from them I can understand nothing), but because I recognize the limits of my intellect. I wish to understand in such a way that everything that is inexplicable shall present itself to me as being necessarily inexplicable, and not as being something I am under an arbitrary obligation to believe.
That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other.
19 "But is there really a true religion? Religions are endlessly varied and we do not have the right to call any one of them true simply because it comes closest to our taste." This is what men say as they examine the external forms of religion as if it were some kind of disease from which they feel themselves free, but from which others still suffer. But this is not true: religions differ in their external forms but are all the same in their basic principles. In all religions these basic principles form that true religion which alone is suited to all today's people, and the adoption of which is the only thing that can save men from their misfortunes.
20 The only reason why people have not become irreparably brutalized is because the finest men of all nations have, albeit unconsciously, clung to this religion and practiced it. Only the deceitful assurances imposed on people, with the help of the clergy and scientists, prevents them from consciously accepting it. The principles of this true religion are so appropriate to man that as soon as people discover them they accept them as something they have known for a long time and which stand to reason. For us, the true religion is Christianity in those of its principles which conform, not in their external form, but in their basic principles, to Brahmanism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hebraism, Buddhism and even Mohammedanism. In just the same way, for those who practice Brahmanism, Confucianism, etc., true religion is that where the basic principles conform to those of all the other great religions. The principles are very simple, comprehensible and uncomplicated.
21 They are as follows: that there is a God who is the origin of everything; that there is an element of this divine origin in every person, which he can diminish or increase through his way of living; that in order for someone to increase this source he must suppress his passions and increase the love within himself; that the practical means of achieving this consist in doing to others as you would wish them to do to you. All these principles are common to Brahmanism, Hebraism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Mohammedanism. (If Buddhism does not provide a definition of God, it nevertheless recognizes that with which man unites and merges as he reaches Nirvana. And that something is the same origin which the other religions recognize as God.)
"But that is not a religion," say the men of today, accustomed as they are to regarding the supernatural, i.e. the absurd, as the main sign of religion. "It is anything else you like, philosophy, ethics, rationalization, but not religion." According to their way of seeing things, religion must be ridiculous and incomprehensible (credo quia absurdum). Yet it was from just these very religious principles, or rather as a consequence of their being propagated as religious doctrines, that through a long process of distortion, all the religious miracles and supernatural events were drawn up, which are now considered basic characteristics of any faith. To claim that the supernatural and irrational form the basic characteristics of religion is much the same as noticing only the rotten apples and then claiming that the basic features of the fruit named apple are a flaccid bitterness and a harmful effect' produced in the stomach.
22 Religion is the definition of man's relationship to the origin of everything, and of the purpose acquired as a result of this relationship, and of the rules of conduct that follow from this purpose. And the religion common to all, the basic principles of which are alike in all practices, fully satisfies these demands. It defines man's relationship to God as of a part to a whole. From this relationship follows man's purpose, which lies in increasing his spiritual qualities, and man's purpose leads to the practical rules that come from the law: do to others as you would have them do to you.
23 Why should demands derived from the rule of doing to others as you would have them do to you—for instance: do not kill your fellow men, do not curse, do not commit adultery, do not take vengeance, do not make use of your brother's needs for the satisfaction of your own whims, and many others—why should they not be taught with as much force, and become as obligatory and incontestable as the belief in the sanctity of the eucharist and images, etc., is for people whose faith is based more on trust than on clear inner consciousness?
24 [From letter to Mohandas Gandhi, 1910.] The longer I live, and especially now when I feel keenly the nearness of death, I want to tell others what I feel so particularly keenly about, and what in my opinion is of enormous importance, namely what is called non-resistance, but what is essentially nothing other than the teaching of love undistorted by false interpretations. The fact that love, i.e. the striving of human souls towards unity and the activity resulting from such striving, is the highest and only law of human life is felt and known by every person in the depth of his soul (as we see most clearly of all with children)—known by him until he is ensnared by the false teachings of the world. This law has been proclaimed by all the world's sages, Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Greek and Roman. I think it has been expressed most clearly of all by Christ who even said frankly that all the Law and the prophets hang on this alone. . . He knows, as every reasonable person is bound to know, that the use of violence is incompatible with love as the basic law of life, that once violence is tolerated in any cases whatsoever, the inadequacy of the law of love is recognized and therefore the law itself is repudiated. The whole of Christian civilization, so brilliant on the surface, grew up on this obvious, strange, sometimes conscious but for the most part unconscious misunderstanding and contradiction.
. . .This contradiction kept growing with the advancement of the peoples of the Christian world and has recently reached the ultimate degree. The question now obviously amounts to one of two things—either we recognize that we don't recognize any religious and moral teaching and are guided in the organization of our lives only by the power of the strong, or that all our taxes collected by force, our judicial and police institutions and above all our armies must be abolished.
. . . Socialism, communism, anarchism, the Salvation Army, the growth of crime, unemployment among the population, the growth of the insane luxury of the rich and the destitution of the poor, the terrible growth in the number of suicides—all these things are signs of this internal contradiction which ought to and must be solved—and, of course, solved in the sense of recognising the law of love and renouncing all violence. And so your work in the Transvaal, at the other end of the world as it seems to us, is the most central and most important of all tasks now being done in the world, and not only Christian peoples, but peoples of the whole world will inevitably take part in it.
25 An acquaintance of mine who works on the Moscow-Kursk Railway as a weigher, in the course of conversation mentioned to me that the men who load the goods on to his scales work for thirty-seven hours on end. . .
[Nikita and the] four other workmen of his gang came up to us. They all wore torn coats and were without overcoats, though there were about 20 degree Reaumur of cold (13 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit). . .They lived in Moscow in lodgings, some of them with their families, but most of them without. Those who have come here alone send their earnings home to the village. They board with contractors. Their food costs them ten roubles per month. . .
Paying for their own food, they earn, by such thirty-seven-hour-on-end work, about twenty-five roubles a month.
To my question, why they did such convict work, they replied:
"Where is one to go?"
"But why work thirty-six hours on end? Cannot the work be arranged in shifts ?"
"We do what we're told to."
"Yes; but why do you agree to it ?"
"We agree because we have to feed ourselves. 'If you don't like it—be off!' If one is even an hour late one has one's time card thrown at one and is told to march; and there are ten men ready to take his place."
26 Seeing my interest in their position, they surrounded me and, probably taking me for an inspector, several of them speaking at once informed me of what was evidently their chief subject of complaint—that the room in which they could sometimes warm themselves and snatch an hour's sleep between the day-work and the night-work was crowded. . .
"Even under the shelves there is nowhere to lie down," they said. These men, who in twenty degrees (Reaumer) of frost, carry on their backs loads of 250-lb or more during thirty-six hour shifts, who eat and drink not when they need food, but when their overseer allows them to eat, live altogether in conditions far worse than those of dray-horses. It seemed strange that these people only complained of insufficient accommodation in the room where they warm themselves. But though this seemed to me strange at first, yet, entering further into their position, I understood what a feeling of torture these men, who never get enough sleep, and who are half-frozen, must experience when, instead of resting and being warmed, they have to creep on the dirty floor under the shelves, and there, in the stuffy and vitiated air, become yet weaker and more broken down. . .
It was true, then, that for money, only enough to subsist on, people considering themselves free men thought it necessary to give themselves up to work such as, in the days of serfdom, not one slave owner, however cruel, would have sent his slaves to. Let alone slave owners, not one cab proprietor would send his horses to such work, for horses cost money, and it would be wasteful, by excessive thirty-seven-hour work, to shorten the life of an animal of value.
27 There are English statistics showing that the average length of life among people of the upper classes is fifty-five years, and the average of life among working people in unhealthy occupations is twenty-nine years.
Knowing this (and we cannot help knowing it), we who take advantage of labor that costs human lives should, one would think (unless we are beasts), not be able to enjoy a moment's peace. But the fact is that we well-to-do people, liberals and humanitarians, very sensitive to the sufferings not of people only, but also of animals, unceasingly make use of such labor, and try to become more and more rich—that is, to take more and more advantage of such work. And we remain perfectly tranquil.
28 Having learned that the women and girls at the silk factory, living far from their families, ruin their own lives and those of their children, and that a large half of the washerwomen who iron our starched shirts, and of the typesetters who print the books and papers that wile away our time, get consumption, we only shrug our shoulders and say that we are very sorry things should be so, but that we can do nothing to alter it, and we continue with tranquil consciences to buy silk stuffs, to wear starched shirts and to read our morning paper.
We are much concerned about the hours of the shop assistants, and still more about the long hours of our own children at school; we strictly forbid carters to make their horses drag heavy loads, and we even organize the killing of cattle in slaughter-houses so that the animals may feel it as little as possible. But how wonderfully blind we become as soon as the question concerns those millions of workers who perish slowly, and often painfully, all around us, at labors the fruits of which we use for our convenience and pleasure!
29 This wonderful blindness which befalls people of our circle can only be explained by the fact that when people behave badly they always invent a philosophy of life which represents their bad actions to be not bad actions at all, but merely results of unalterable laws beyond their control. In former times such a view of life was found in the theory that an inscrutable and unalterable will of God existed which foreordained to some men a humble position and hard work, and to others an exalted position and the enjoyment of the good things of life.
On this theme an enormous quantity of books were written, and an innumerable quantity of sermons preached. The theme was worked up from every possible side. It was demonstrated that God created different sorts of people—slaves and masters; and that both should be satisfied with their position. It was further demonstrated that it would be better for the slaves in the next world; and afterwards it was shown that although the slaves were slaves and ought to remain such, yet their condition would not be bad if the masters would be kind to them. Then the very last explanation, after the emancipation of the slaves, was that wealth is entrusted by God to some people in order that they may use part of it in good works, and so there is no harm in some people being rich and others poor.
30 These explanations satisfied the rich and the poor (especially the rich) for a long time. But the day came when these explanations became unsatisfactory, especially to the poor, who began to understand their position. Then fresh explanations were needed. And just at the proper time they were produced [when slaves in the United States and serfs in Russia were emancipated]. These new explanations came in the form of science—political economy, which declared that it had discovered the laws which regulate division of labor and of the distribution of the products of labor among men. These laws, according to that science, are that the division of labor and the enjoyment of its products depend on supply and demand, on capital, rent, wages of labor, values, profits, etc.; in general, on unalterable laws governing man's economic activities.
Soon, on this theme as many books and pamphlets were written and lectures delivered as there had been treatises written and religious sermons preached on the former theme. And still unceasingly mountains of pamphlets and books are being written and lectures are being delivered. And all these books and lectures are as cloudy and unintelligible as the theological treatises and the sermons. And they, too, like the theological treatises, fully achieve their appointed purpose—that is, they give such an explanation of the existing order of things as justifies some people in tranquilly refraining from labor and in utilizing the labor of others.
31 Even the most advanced economists—the Socialists, who demand the complete control of the means of production for the workers—expect production of the same or almost of the same articles as are produced now to continue in the present or in similar factories with the present division of labor.
The difference, as they imagine it, will only be that in the future not they alone, but all men, will make use of such conveniences as they alone now enjoy. They dimly picture to themselves that, with the communalization of the means of production, they, too—men of science, and in general the ruling classes—will do some work, but chiefly as managers, designers, scientists or artists. To the questions, Who will have to wear a mask and make white lead? Who will be stokers, miners, and cesspool cleaners? they are either silent, or foretell that all these things will be so improved that even work at cesspools and in the mines will afford pleasant occupation..
32 According to their theories, the workers will all join unions and associations, and cultivate solidarity among themselves by unions, strikes, and participation in Parliament till they obtain possession of all the means of production, as well as the land, and then they will be so well fed, so well dressed, and enjoy such amusements on holidays that they will prefer life in town, amid brick buildings and smoking chimneys, to free village life amid plants and domestic animals; and monotonous, bell-regulated machine work to the varied, healthy, and free agricultural labor.
Though this anticipation is as improbable as the anticipation of the theologians about a heaven to be enjoyed hereafter by workmen in compensation for their hard labor here, yet learned and educated people of our society believe this strange teaching, just as formerly wise and learned people believed in a heaven for workmen in the next world.
33 And learned men and their disciples, people of the well-to-do classes, believe this because they must believe it. This dilemma stands before them: either they must see that all that they make use of in their lives, from railways to lucifer matches and cigarettes, represents labor which costs the lives of their brother men, and that they, not sharing in that toil, but making use of it, are very dishonorable men; or they must believe that all that takes place takes place for the general advantage in accord with unalterable laws of economic science. Therein lies the inner psychological cause compelling men of science, men wise and educated, but not enlightened, to affirm positively and tenaciously such an obvious untruth as that the laborers, for their own well-being, should leave their happy and healthy life in touch with nature, and go to ruin their bodies and souls in factories and workshops.
34 If, in order that London or Petersburg may be lighted by electricity, or in order to construct exhibition buildings, or in order that there may be beautiful paints, or in order to weave beautiful stuffs quickly and abundantly, it is necessary that even a very few lives should be destroyed, or ruined, or shortened—and statistics show us how many are destroyed—let London or Petersburg rather be lit by gas or oil; let there rather be no exhibition, no paints, or materials, only let there be no slavery, and no destruction of human lives resulting from it.
But culture, useful culture, will not be destroyed. It will certainly not be necessary for people to revert to tillage of the land with sticks or to lighting up with torches. It is not for nothing that mankind, in their slavery, have achieved such great progress in technical matters. If only it is understood that we must not sacrifice the lives of our fellow-men for our pleasure, it will be possible to apply technical improvements without destroying men's lives, and to arrange life so as to profit by all such methods giving us control of nature as have been devised and can be applied without keeping our brother men in slavery.
35 Formerly it was profitable for people to have chattel slaves, and they made laws about chattel slavery. Afterwards it became profitable to own land, to take taxes, and to keep things one had acquired, and they made laws correspondingly. Now it is profitable for people to maintain the existing direction and division of labor; and they are devising such laws as will compel people to work under the present apportionment and division of labor. Thus the fundamental cause of slavery is legislation, the fact that there are people who have the power to make laws.
What is legislation? and what gives people the power to make laws?
36 Many constitutions have been devised, beginning with the English and the American, and ending with the Japanese and the Turkish: according to which people are to believe that all laws established in their country are established at their desire. But every one knows that not in despotic countries only, but also in the countries nominally most free—England, America, France—the laws are made not by the will of all, but by the will of those who have power and, therefore, always and everywhere are only such as are profitable to those who have power, whether they are many, a few, or only one man. Everywhere and always the laws are enforced by the only means that has compelled, and still compels, some people to obey the will of others—that is, by blows, by deprivation of liberty, and by murder. There can be no other way. . .
So that the exact and irrefutable definition of legislation, intelligible to all, is that Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organized violence, for non-compliance with which the non-complier is subjected to blows, to loss of liberty, or even to being murdered. This definition furnishes the reply to the question, What is it that renders it possible for people to make laws? The same thing makes it possible to establish laws as enforces obedience to them—organized violence.
37 [From letter in1901 to A. Ramasehan, Editor of The Aryan, Madras, India.] A society or community kept together by force is not only in a provisory state, but in a very dangerous one. The bonds that keep together such a society are always in danger of being broken and the society itself—liable to experience the greatest evils. In such a position are all the European states. The only solution of the social problem for reasonable beings endowed with the capacity of love is the abolition of violence and the organization of society based on mutual love and reasonable principles, voluntarily accepted by all. Such a state can be attained only by the development of true religion. By the words 'true religion' I mean the fundamental principles of all religions which are 1) the consciousness of the divine essence of human soul and 2) respect for its manifestation—human life.
Your [Hindu] religion is very old and very profound in its metaphysical definition of the relation of man to the spiritual All—the Atman; but I think it was maimed in its moral, i.e. practical application to life by the existence of caste. This practical application to life, so far as I know, has been made only by Jainism, Buddhism and some of your sects, such as Kabir Panchis in which the fundamental principle is the sacredness of life and consequently the prohibition to take the life of any living being, especially of man.
All the evils that you experience—the famine and what is still more important, the depravement of your people by factory life—will last as long as your people consent to kill their fellowmen and to be soldiers (Sepoys).
38 People of the well-to-do classes are so accustomed to their role as slave-owners that when there is talk of improving the workers conditions, they at once begin, like our serf owners before the emancipation, to devise all sort of plans for their slaves; but it never occurs to them that they have no right to dispose of other people, and that if they really wish to do good to people, the one thing they can and should do is to cease to do the evil they are now doing. And the evil they do is very definite and clear. It is not merely that they employ compulsory slave labor, and do not wish to cease from employing it, but that they also take part in establishing and maintaining this compulsion of labor. That is what they should cease to do.
39 The working people are also so perverted by their compulsory slavery that it seems to most of them that if their position is a bad one, it is the fault of their masters, who pay them too little and who own the means of production. It does not enter their heads that their bad position depends entirely on themselves, and that if only they wish to improve their own and their brothers' positions, and not merely each to do the best he can for himself, the great thing for them to do is themselves to cease to do evil. And the evil that they do is that, desiring to improve their material position by the same means which have brought them into bondage, the workers (for the sake of satisfying the habits they have adopted), sacrificing their human dignity and freedom, accept humiliating and immoral employment or produce unnecessary and harmful articles, and, above all, they maintain governments, taking part in them by paying taxes and by direct service, and thus they enslave themselves.
40 In order that the state of things may be improved, both the well-to-do classes and the workers must understand that improvement cannot be effected by safeguarding one's own interests. Service involves sacrifice, and, therefore, if people really wish to improve the position of their brother men, and not merely their own, they must be ready not only to alter the way of life to which they are accustomed, and to lose those advantages which they have held, but they must be ready for an intense struggle, not against governments, but against themselves and their families, and must be ready to suffer persecution for non-fulfillment of the demands of government.
41 And, therefore, the reply to the question, What is it we must do? is very simple, and not merely definite, but always in the highest degree applicable and practicable for each man, though it is not what is expected by those who, like people of the well-to-do classes, are fully convinced that they are appointed to correct, not themselves (they are already good), but to teach and correct other people; and by those who, like the workmen, are sure that not they (but only the capitalists) are in fault for their present bad position, and think that things can only be put right by taking from the capitalists the things they use, and arranging so that all might make use of those conveniences of life which are now only used by the rich. The answer is very definite, applicable, and practicable, for it demands the activity of that one person over whom each of us has real, rightful, and unquestionable power—namely, one's self—and it consists in this, that if a man, whether slave or slave owner, really wishes to better not his position alone, but the position of people in general, he must not himself do those wrong things which enslave him and his brothers.
42 And in order not to do the evil which produces misery for himself and for his brothers, he should, first of all, neither willingly nor under compulsion take any part in governmental activity, and should, therefore, be neither a soldier, nor a field-marshal, nor a minister of state, nor a tax collector, nor a witness, nor an alderman, nor a juryman, nor a governor, nor a member of Parliament, nor, in fact, hold any office connected with violence. That is one thing.
Secondly, such a man should not voluntarily pay taxes to governments, either directly or indirectly; nor should he accept money collected by taxes, either as salary, or as pension, or as a reward; nor should he make use of governmental institutions, supported by taxes collected by violence from the people. That is the second thing.
Thirdly, a man who desires not to promote his own well-being alone, but to better the position of people in general, should not appeal to governmental violence for the protection of his own possessions in land or in other things, nor to defend him and his near ones; but should only possess land and all products of his own or other people's toil in so far as others do not claim them from him.
43 But such an activity is impossible; to refuse all participation in governmental affairs means to refuse to live, is what people will say. A man who refuses military service will be imprisoned; a man who does not pay taxes will be punished and the tax will be collected from his property; a man who, having no other means of livelihood, refuses government service, will perish of hunger with his family; the same will befall a man who rejects governmental protection for his property and his person; not to make use of things that are taxed or of government institutions, is quite impossible, as the most necessary articles are often taxed; and just in the same way it is impossible to do without government institutions, such as the post, the roads, etc.
44 It is quite true that it is difficult for a man of our times to stand aside from all participation in governmental violence. But the fact that not every one can so arrange his life as not to participate in some degree in governmental violence does not at all show that it is not possible to free one's self from it more and more. Not every man will have the strength to refuse conscription (though there are and will be such men), but each man can abstain from voluntarily entering the army, the police force, and the judicial or revenue service; and not every man will have the strength to renounce his landed estates (though there are people who do that), but every man can, understanding the wrongfulness of such property, diminish its extent. Not every man can renounce the possession of capital (there are some who do) or the use of articles defended by violence, but each man can, by diminishing his own requirements, be less and less in need of articles which provoke other people to envy. Not every official can renounce his government salary (though there are men who prefer hunger to dishonest governmental employment), but every one can prefer a smaller salary to a larger one for the sake of having duties less bound up with violence; not every one can refuse to make use of government schools (though there are some who do), but every one can give the preference to private schools, and each can make less and less use of articles that are taxed, and of government institutions. [At this time Russia did not have compulsory education, hindered the establishment of private schools, and universities had the position of government institutions watched by spies.]
45 Between the existing order, based on brute force, and the ideal of a society based on reasonable agreement confirmed by custom, there are an infinite number of steps, which mankind is ascending, and the approach to the ideal is only accomplished to the extent to which people free themselves from participation in violence, from taking advantage of it, and from being accustomed to it.
46 [From a letter to A. M. Kalmykova, 1896.] So two methods of opposing the government have been tried, and both have been unsuccessful, and it now only remains to try a third which has not yet been tried and which, in my opinion, cannot fail to be successful. This method, briefly expressed, consists in all educated and honest people trying to be as good as possible, and not even good in all respects but only in one, namely in observing one of the elementary virtues—to be honest, not to lie, to act and speak so that your motives for action are understandable to your loving seven-year-old son; to act so that your son doesn't say: "Papa, why did you say that then, but now say and do something quite different?" This method seems very feeble, but nevertheless I am convinced that this method alone has moved mankind for as long as it has. I am convinced of this because what is required by conscience—the highest presentiment of the truth which is accessible to man—is always and in all respects the most necessary and most fruitful activity. Only a man living in accordance with his conscience can have a good influence on people. And activity in accordance with the conscience of the best people in society is always the very activity which is required for the good of mankind at any given moment.
My Confession, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., London, 1899.
The Slavery of Our Times, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude. Edwin C. Walker, New York, N.Y., 1900.
Tolstoy’s Letters, Volumes I & II, 1880-1910, selected, edited, and translated by R. F. Christian. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1978.
The Kingdom of God is Within You, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnet .William Heinemann, London, 1894.
What is Art?, by Leo Tolstoy, translated with an introduction by Aylmer Maude. Walter Scott, London,1898.
A Landowner’s Morning; Family happiness ; and The devil three novellas by Leo Tolstoy , translated and introduced by Kyril and April FitzLyon. Quartet Books, London, 1984.
A list of Tolstoy’s books that are online is provided at the University of Pennsylvania Online Books page.
The text of Tolstoy’s Confession is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Other authors born between 1800 and 1900 CE
Introduction and selection of extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2005