This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.
War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it
must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves.
Leo Tolstoy, Diary
Eventually institutional violence will disappear,
not as a result of external action,
but thanks only to the calls of conscience of men
who have awakened to the truth.
Leo Tolstoy, the son of Count Nicholas Tolstoy, was born on August 28, 1828 (September 9 in our Gregorian calendar) at the family estate Yasnaya Polyana, where he spent most of his life about a hundred miles south of Moscow. His mother died before he was two years old; when he was about nine, his father and grandmother died. Leo was raised by aunts and tutors, and he followed his older brothers to the University of Kazan; wanting to become a diplomat, he studied in the Department of Oriental Languages and strove to become a sophisticated gentleman of the world. In 1847 he began to manage his estate at Yasnaya Polyana while also pursuing the social life in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In his diary he formulated rules for living which he had great difficulty following. At age 23 he followed his older brother Nicholas into the army life in the Caucasus, and he fought in the Crimean War until 1856. During this period he struggled with a penchant for gambling, "fits of lust" and "criminal sloth." He criticized the army for lacking loyalty, courage, and dignity, and complained about the corporal punishment inflicted on the soldiers and about the incompetence of the generals. He was only 24 when he wrote in his diary that because war is unjust those who are involved in it must stifle their consciences.
Tolstoy began writing sketches on Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, and short stories. He participated in the siege of Sebastopol in 1854 and criticized the false heroism of soldiers in his Sebastopol Sketches. Tolstoy described the suffering of a civilized man amid the spontaneous lives of the natives in The Cossacks, which he completed in 1862 just prior to beginning War and Peace. He studied educational methods and started an experimental school for the local peasants. He formulated his progressive educational theories under the influence of Rousseau's writings and his travels in western Europe. When Leo was 34, he married Sonya, who bore him thirteen children and assisted him in his literary career, which in the next fifteen years produced two of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
The epic War and Peace describes the lives of five aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars between Russia and France. His subtle psychological insights and realistic details create an entire world from various points of view. Tolstoy's own future views are foreshadowed by the esoteric philosophy of the Freemasons, who initiate Pierre into their mysteries. He is exhorted to an active life of virtue. Although they endeavor to reform society, they renounce the use of violence. "Every violent reform deserves censure, for it quite fails to remedy evil while men remain what they are, and also because wisdom needs no violence."1 The answer lies in personal transformation, which Pierre undergoes during the course of events. The moral evil of the war is summarized by Tolstoy in these words:
On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe
crossed the Russian frontier and war began,
that is, an event took place
opposed to human reason and to human nature.
Millions of men perpetrated against one another
such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries,
issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders
as in whole centuries are not recorded
in the annals of all the law courts of the world,
but which those who committed them
did not at the time regard as being crimes.2
Tolstoy did not lay the blame on the leaders and "great men" whom he believed were merely puppets of history, a history shaped by the millions of choices made by the countless individuals participating.
Each man lives for himself,
using his freedom to attain his personal aims,
and feels with his whole being that he can now do
or abstain from doing this or that action;
but as soon as he has done it,
that action performed at a certain moment in time
becomes irrevocable and belongs to history,
in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.3
Thus although a person lives consciously for oneself, the social unconscious of collective humanity exerts a greater influence depending on how high the person stands on the social ladder, which in turn determines one's power over others. This diagnosis was to lead to Tolstoy's twofold solution to the problem of a violent society-that is, the social solution of dismantling the political institutions which by their nature force their power on the people, and the individual solution of refusing to participate in institutions of violence from a sense of inner conscience. In Anna Karenina the Tolstoyan hero Levin declares, "The good of society is dependent upon scrupulous obedience of the moral law engraved in every human heart," and he also believes that "no one, therefore, should desire or advocate war, whatever generous aim it purports to serve."
In his Confession Tolstoy described the spiritual crisis he had in 1879 when he contemplated suicide. He explained how literary minds fall away from traditional religion only to get lost in an aesthetic nihilism. Neither science nor theology satisfied his quest for meaning in life, but living a simple and good life to benefit others awakened in him a feeling of faith in God that reasoning could not find. He returned to religion, but after a while he left the dogma and ritual of the church behind to explore for himself the original teachings of Christ especially as presented in the Sermon on the Mount. He made his own translation, harmony, and summary of the Gospels and expounded their precepts in his writings for the rest of his life. He was particularly moved by the command not to resist one that is evil but to love your enemies. With this foundation he criticized the hypocrisy of Christian societies which practiced violence in warfare and criminal executions. He felt that the three causes of war in his time were the unequal distribution of property, the military establishment, and false and deceptive religion.
In What I Believe Tolstoy contrasted the teachings of Jesus to the dogma and practices of the Orthodox Church. In What Shall We Do Then? Tolstoy presented his observations of the slums in Moscow and analyzed the causes of poverty. In deciding what to do he suggested three things: 1) not to lie to oneself or be afraid of the truth, 2) to renounce one's sense of righteousness, prerogatives, and privileges, and 3) to labor with one's whole being to support oneself and others. He criticized the use of intoxicants and tobacco in his essay "Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?" He protested the executions of revolutionaries in "I Cannot Be Silent!" Also he advocated the land tax reforms proposed by Henry George.
In 1891 a severe famine occurred in Russia. While visiting a friend in Ryazan Province, Tolstoy was moved to work in relief efforts, although his pleas for help were attacked by government officials. In 1897 he published What is Art?, propounding that in good art the soul of the artist infects his audience by means of sympathetic feelings, and he hailed religious art which flows from the love of God and man as the highest art. True art encourages peaceful co-existence of people, not by the external means of courts, police, and institutions, but through free and joyous activity. Art should remove violence. Tolstoy believed that art could help bring about a better life for all.
The present task of art is to make
the feeling of brotherhood and love of one's neighbor,
which is now shared only by the best members of society,
the customary feeling, even the instinct, of all human beings.
Art is destined to promulgate the truth that
the well-being of men consists in their being united together,
and to help set up, in place of the reign of force that now exists,
the kingdom of God (Who is Love)
that we all recognize as the highest goal of life.4
Near the close of the century about 12,000 Dukhobors were being persecuted in Russia; they refused to serve in the army since it is against Christian teachings. The persecutions had depleted their resources so that they did not have the funds to migrate to America. Tolstoy rapidly completed his novel Resurrection and turned the considerable sum of money he received from it over to the Dukhobors. Along with other donations, particularly from English and American Quakers, they were able to move to Canada.
Tolstoy had adopted a new life-style after his conversion, giving all his property to his wife and living almost like a peasant. He gave up smoking and drinking and became a vegetarian. He worked in the fields, cleaned his own room, and made his own boots. Because of his radical ideas he was excommunicated by the Church in 1901. Finally after conflicts between his wife and the leading Tolstoyan disciple Chertkov, the old man left his home at the age of 82 and died of pneumonia shortly after starting on this pilgrimage as a religious hermit.
Tolstoy's major book on nonviolence and the way to peace is The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which was completed in 1893. He began by surveying the nonresistants such as the Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison, Adin Ballou, and Chelcicky, who dedicated their lives to these principles. He recounted how some people in Russia refused to do military service because of religious convictions. Tolstoy explained how not resisting evil with evil is the way to eliminate evil altogether.
It alone makes it possible to tear the evil out by the root,
both out of one's own heart and out of the neighbor's heart.
This doctrine forbids doing that
by which evil is perpetuated and multiplied.
He who attacks another and insults him,
engenders in another the sentiment of hatred,
the root of all evil.
To offend another, because he offended us,
for the specious reason of removing an evil,
means to repeat an evil deed,
both against him and against ourselves.5
Tolstoy responded to five typical criticisms of nonresistance. First, some assert that violence does not contradict Christ's teachings, believing that government is not bound by the admonitions toward humility, forgiveness, and love of enemies; they simply quote Biblical passages to their liking and ignore the essence of the teachings. Second, people feel that turning the other cheek and giving up one's shirt are too high a moral demand for this world, and that if force were not used to stop evildoers, they would destroy all the good people. However, this argument destroys the Christian teachings, because true Christians do not wish to judge evil-doers, nor do they consider themselves capable of judging accurately, nor would they be willing to execute punishment. The third argument is that although one ought not to defend oneself, one ought to defend one's neighbors; this still contradicts Christ's teaching, because Jesus did not allow his disciples to defend him and because the violence used to defend against threatened violence may be even worse since we never know what will result beforehand. Fourth, theologians and defenders of the church and state consider violations of nonresistance as accidental and even justifiable under certain circumstances such as wars and executions; yet they do not try to justify the breaking of other commandments such as against fornication, and one reason why people ignore nonresistance is because church preachers do not recognize it. The fifth device is merely to ignore the question and criticize nonresistants for being one-sided or extremists; these people are the hardest to reach, because they are not willing to discuss the issue and assume they are right without any logical justification whatsoever, being under a kind of "hypnotic suggestion."
Tolstoy adopted the following five ideals and commandments of Christ expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: 1) have no ill-will against anyone, but love all; do not even offend with a word; 2) be completely chaste, even in thought; 3) live only in the present and do not worry about the future; do not swear and do not promise; 4) never use violence nor repay evil with evil but suffer insult and give up possessions; and 5) love our enemies and those who hate us by treating them as ourselves. For Tolstoy these commandments are to be practiced now, and they will be followed by higher ones on the path to perfection. These teachings transcend the social conception of life, which may be limited by exclusive love of one's family, tribe, nation, race, or even humanity. These and socialistic brotherhoods are based on the love of personality; but the Christian love ever expands because it is based on the love of God.
Tolstoy pointed out the contradiction of the military in a society which professes itself to be Christian-believing in the brotherhood of men and being prepared for hostility and murder-being a Christian and a gladiator at the same time. Tolstoy found three prevalent attitudes to war. Those who consider it accidental propose diplomatic and international solutions. Others deplore the horrors of war but believe that it is inevitable; these are the pessimistic writers who describe how terrible life is but offer no real solution. The third group has lost its conscience and justifies wars as part of natural evolution and the survival of the fittest. For Tolstoy even the first group, which organizes societies and diplomatic methods to resolve conflicts, is rather like trying to catch a bird by putting salt on its tail; the salt can only be used if the bird is as good as caught anyway. Thus international agreements will only be effective when men have decided to renounce the use of weapons. Therefore the critical step is to refuse to participate in or support military forces. Tolstoy compared the advantages and disadvantages for a person to submit or not to submit to military service and summarized the advantages in these words:
For him who has not refused,
the advantages will consist in this,
that, having submitted to all the humiliations
and having executed all the cruelties demanded of him,
he may, if he is not killed,
receive red, golden, tin-foil decorations over his fool's garments,
and he may at best command hundreds of thousands
of just such bestialized men as himself,
and be called a field-marshal, and receive a lot of money.
But the advantages of him who refuses will consist in this,
that he will retain his human dignity,
will earn the respect of good men,
and, above all else, will know without fail
that he is doing God's work,
and so an incontestable good to men.6
How, then, does society make soldiers of its men? by intimidation, bribery, hypnosis, and segregation from civilian society. Observing the stirrings of revolutionary movements, Tolstoy correctly predicted that the communists and socialists would put even the economic sphere under the control of the government. The Christian solution of nonviolence must be used if people are ever to free themselves from enslavement to violent institutions. Those who follow a merely social concept of life do not refuse to submit, and many fight and kill in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, the true Christian is liberated from social powers by living "the divine law of love, which is implanted in the soul of every man and is brought into consciousness by Christ."7 Although one may suffer external violence or physical imprisonment, the Christian is free (not a slave of sin) and therefore is not compelled by external threats. Freedom is not found in external things but in the inward liberation of choosing what is loving.
Tolstoy cited cases where conscientious Christians refused to submit to military service and to swear such an oath or refused to pay taxes. He observed that they are more effective with peaceful disobedience than are the socialists, communists, and anarchists with their bombs, riots, and revolutions, for governments know how to handle external threats. Force can fight force, but love and peace have a subtle power all their own. He concluded, "The governments feel their indefensibleness and weakness, and the men of the Christian consciousness are awakening from their lethargy and are beginning to feel their strength."8
Those who try to rule with violence are obviously breaking the golden rule and are morally inferior to those who prefer suffering violence to doing violence. The state tries to justify its violence with the assumption that it prevents violence; but Tolstoy held that if the government stopped all its violence, then the total amount of violence would decrease. Since it is the bad or morally inferior who do violence, the government has placed itself among the bad. Violence will never cease due to the threat of violence but only when people become good and refrain from it altogether. Thus society improves as more and more people renounce the cruelty of violence. Violence distorts public opinion as to what is right and obscures people's recognition of the true spiritual forces of humanity. When public opinion condemns violence, then using violence in government becomes less desirable, and those holding positions tend to use less violence. Inevitably people will eventually see the uselessness, silliness, and indecency of violence, and weapons will no longer be employed. The sovereignty of God will come as we live by the light within us.
In the last fifteen years of his life Tolstoy wrote numerous articles and letters promoting the philosophy of nonviolence and the method of civil disobedience. He expressed his gratitude to several American writers who especially influenced him, namely, Garrison, Parker, Emerson, Ballou, and Thoreau. He repeated the basic principle that murder is wrong and that killing one's fellow human beings in any circumstances is murder. Thus the simple truth is that war and executions are murder, even though people try to justify them. The essential solution to war is for people to realize what it really is and call it by its right name.
It should be understood
that an army is an instrument of murder,
that the recruiting and drilling of armies
which Kings, Emperors, and Presidents carry on
with so much self-assurance are preparations for murder.9
Therefore a Christian cannot be a soldier, that is, a murderer, and a man with any sense will not enslave himself to a master whose business is killing. The way to end war, then, is for those who recognize that it is wrong, to refrain from fighting and even to cease supporting warlike governments by refusing to pay their taxes. Those who are not hypnotized into the wrongdoing must refuse; those who do follow reason, conscience, and God will always attain the best results for themselves and for the world. They say something like this: we realize that the danger they are so anxious to guard against is a fraud. All nations claim they want peace, but at the same time they are all arming themselves against others. We recognize the law that all people are of the same family, and it does not matter if one belongs to this country or that. Thus we are not frightened by the danger that other nations will attack. The law of God is more important than the requirement to participate in killing because our duty is not only not to kill but not to violate at all. Therefore we will not prepare for murder nor give money for that purpose. We will not attend your meetings designed to pervert people's minds and consciences in order to transform them into instruments of violence to obey any bad man choosing to use them.
Now the real struggle is between those who use violence and those who refuse to be violent. Thus Tolstoy urged both officers and soldiers to resign. He exposed the cruel punishments the army uses to turn men into less than animals, into machines, which perform deeds most repulsive to human nature. He exhorted men to obey God rather than the shameful commands of men.
We must learn to see through the perverted rationalizations that governments use to justify war. In 1894 Tolstoy wrote Christianity and Patriotism, warning against the dangerous sentiment of patriotism, which he defined as "the preference for one's own country or nation above the country or nation of any one else." He found it aptly illustrated in the German patriotic song, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles. This sentiment he regarded as immoral because it violates the golden rule by trying to benefit oneself at the expense of others. For Tolstoy patriotism "is nothing but an instrument for the attainment of the government's ambitious and mercenary aims, and a renunciation of human dignity, common sense, and conscience by the governed, and a slavish submission to those who hold power."10 Patriotism must inevitably yield to universal brotherhood.
Tolstoy proposed that the most important changes in the life of humanity are not brought about by armies nor machines nor exhibitions nor labor unions nor revolutions nor inventions but by a change in public opinion. We need only to stop lying to ourselves and realize that strength is not in force but in truth. Oppressive governments fear the clear expression of thought more than anything else; spiritual force is free and always accessible in the depths of human consciousness. We must learn to use the consciousness of truth by expressing what we know is right. By expressing the truth the new public opinion will become enlightened. This truth is found in our consciences and is given to us by God. Christ gave us his peace, but it is up to us to bring it into realization.
The heroes in this struggle for peace are the martyrs who have died for refusing to do violence or who have been locked up in prisons. Many were little known; yet the spiritual power of their actions can influence consciences of countless people. Tolstoy prophesied that war must disappear, and he saw many signs of its demise, such as the helplessness of governments, which keep increasing their arms and multiplying their taxes to the discontent of the people, the extreme efficiency in constructing deadly weapons, the activities of peace societies and congresses, and most important, the refusal of individuals to serve in the military. All of these indicators are much more pronounced now than they were a century ago.
Just as slavery was recognized as wrong in the nineteenth century and was eventually eradicated, so too war is now being considered a useless, wicked, harmful madness which must also be eliminated. Those who are persecuted for the sake of peace and justice gradually awaken the consciences of their persecutors, not by coercive force but by love and persuasion. By renouncing violence the nonresistance principle recognizes the freedom of every individual to make one's own decisions. By love and rational persuasion humanity can truly progress toward a better way of life. Tolstoy elucidated three ways we can know how to act. First, the collective wisdom of humanity advises us to act toward others as we would have them act toward us. Second, we can use our reason to see that if people acted in this way, it would be best for everyone. Third, by listening to our hearts we know by intuition that the loving action leads to happiness.
Tolstoy's last book was The Law of Love and the Law of Violence. He began the preface,
The only reason why I am writing this is because,
knowing the one means of salvation for Christian humanity,
from its physical suffering
as well as from the moral corruption in which it is sunk,
I, who am on the edge of the grave, cannot be silent.11
He could see the increasing conflicts between revolutionaries and governments, between oppressed nations and their oppressors, state against state and West against East; but few are aware of the remedies to these problems. Tolstoy observed that animalistic man is unhappy and that evil weakens the soul and usually rebounds. Force does not keep people social, and cruelty and lies must eventually be replaced by Christ's law of love.
It is this law of love and its recognition
as a rule of conduct in all our relations
with friends, enemies and offenders
which must inevitably bring about
the complete transformation
of the existing order of things,
not only among Christian nations,
but among all the peoples of the globe.12
This obviously rules out violence. Although reason is often used to justify sin, the horrors of wars are much worse than the motives and justifications for them ever consider. Governments really use violence so that a minority may continue to exploit a majority by maintaining the established "order." The majority allows themselves to be exploited because they are deceived and because they have no faith in God but are manipulated by considerations of self-interest. Tolstoy reiterated the need to refuse military service and described the joy experienced by some of those he saw in prison.
Although conditions in the world seem to be reaching a point where there seems to be no solution, the supreme law of love is still the way to salvation. Conscience has been the moving impulse behind the gradual evolution and recognition of human rights. The type of political or social system, whether to preserve a monarchy or a republic or replace it with a socialist or communist regime, if the method is violent, they cannot but fail until the supreme law of love is universally practiced; for love transcends all the social systems. We are free and happy according to how closely we follow the supreme law of life, which is love. When everyone observes the law of love, union will be realized without effort. These ideas Tolstoy wanted to convey before he died, that by perfecting our love toward our fellow humans we free ourselves from illusions.
A year before he died, Tolstoy wrote a pamphlet called The Slavery of Our Times. Although he considered the socialist ideal bankrupt, he referred to the "iron" law of wages that German socialists used to describe the current slavery of workers; but Tolstoy did not believe this law was immutable. He complained that in Russia one-third of a peasant's income was taken in taxes; yet only two percent of state revenue was spent on education, which is the greatest need of the people. He argued that the laws on land, taxes, and property caused slavery, and to improve the lives of workers these laws must be changed. Tolstoy felt that legislation had been used as organized violence to allow some people to oppress others. Thus he took the radical position of suggesting that violent governments must be abolished, and the way to do that was for the majority of people to refuse to supply such governments soldiers and money. Thus each person should refuse to serve in the military or in any part of a violent government, should not voluntarily pay taxes used for violence, and should not appeal to government violence in order to protect property, possessions, or oneself and others. Tolstoy was aware that such refusals could lead to imprisonment, but he believed this was the most effective way to bring about the changes needed to liberate people from slavery to violent institutions.
When he was eighty years old, Tolstoy spoke to the Swedish Peace Congress of 1909. To the millions of money and millions of soldiers in the power of the governments making war he posed the dilemma of the truth that killing people is murder and that therefore war is contrary to Christian teaching. Thus he suggested that they draw up an appeal to all people for peace. He could not predict what society would be like without armies and wholesale murders; but he believed that if people were guided by reason and conscience instead of by threats of murder, they would be no worse off than they were under the current conditions. Thus he hoped that the truth might expose the hypocrisy of the government leaders.
At the end of his life Tolstoy corresponded with Mohandas Gandhi concerning the way of love and nonresistance. Two months before his death he wrote to Gandhi,
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
recognizing 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.
I think you will be pleased to know
that this work is also rapidly developing in Russia
in the form of refusals to do military service,
of which there are more and more every year.
However insignificant may be the number
of your people who practice nonresistance
and of our people in Russia who refuse military service,
both can boldly say that God is with them.
And God is more powerful than men.13
Tolstoy praised Gandhi's work in South Africa, reported about refusals to do military service in Russia, and then predicted that governments must either admit they do not follow the Christian religion or stop their violence.
In recognizing Christianity, even in the distorted form
in which it is professed among Christian peoples,
and in recognizing at the same time the necessity
for armies and arms to kill in wars on the most enormous scale,
there is such an obvious and crying contradiction
that sooner or later, probably very soon,
it will be exposed and will put an end
either to the acceptance of the Christian religion
which is necessary to maintain power,
or to the existence of an army and any violence supported by it,
which is no less necessary to maintain power.
This contradiction is felt by all governments,
your British as well as our Russian,
and from a natural feeling of self-preservation
is prosecuted more vigorously
than any other anti-government activity.14
Thus in the race between education and catastrophe that Arnold Toynbee used to describe civilization, the baton of peace and nonviolence passed to a humble Indian thousands of miles away, whose use of the peace philosophy and nonviolent method on a mass scale was to astound the world.
1. War and Peace Book 6, Chapter 3 by Leo Tolstoy, tr.
Louise and Aylmer Maude, p. 476.
2. Ibid., Book 9, Chapter 1, p. 667.
3. Ibid., p. 669-670.
4. What Is Art?, XX by Leo Tolstoy.
5. The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Leo Wiener, p. 18.
6. Ibid., p. 189.
7. Ibid., p. 218.
8. Ibid., p. 240-241.
9. "'Thou Shalt Not Kill' On the Death of King Humbert" in Tolstoy's Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, p. 160.
10. Christianity and Patriotism XIV in The Kingdom of God and Peace Essays by by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Alymer Maude, p. 517.
11. The Law of Love and the Law of Violence by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Mary Koutouzow Tolstoy, p. ix.
12. Ibid., p. 29.
13. Tolstoy's Letters tr. R. F. Christian, Volume 2, p. 707-708.
14. Ibid., p. 708.
This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.