Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is perhaps best known for his long and complicated novels. He is less known for his social activism and his writing on moral issues. He had a profound effect upon Mahatma Gandhi and upon Martin Luther King, Jr. See his Letter to a Hindu. He is less known for his interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, and some have labeled him a Christian anarchist. He did not claim that label for himself, however. He introduced his conversion to the Christian faith in his book, What I Believe. As we will see, however, his conversion has little if any similarity to the later evangelistic calls to be born again or, “to believe in the lord, Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” I have been particularly influenced by and two of his books, The Kingdom of God is Within You : Christianity, Not as a Mystic Religion, but as an Ethic of Life (which also had a great influence upon Mahatma Gandhi).
Tolstoy’s parents died early in his youth; he and his siblings were raised by relatives. He attended the university at Kazon, but his instructors saw no talent or scholarship in him, and who was not long before he abandoned that formal education. He joined the army, with which he traveled throughout Europe. While in Paris, he witnessed a public execution which had a dramatic effect on him, giving rise to a great distrust of governmental authority. He resolved never to serve the state again.
He was early influenced by Hugo Wolf’s Les Miserable, and by the teaching of, and his friendship with, the anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon’s writing on war and peace greatly influenced Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. Later in life, Tolstoy became converted to Christianity, but not as the church taught it. He was struck by the revolutionary nature of Jesus and the concrete expectations of the doctrine of Jesus.
Later in life he was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. He was ecstatic with Schopenhauer’s guided tour of spirituality, as expressed in Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Influenced by Schopenhauer, he became a Christian. However, he was not a Christian by way of formal religious institutions of the time. He has become known as a Christian anarchist: he became convinced that the Apostle Paul diverted the development of Christianity from the teachings of Jesus, but that particularly, Constantine corrupted the churches doctrine irrevocably. In his book, My Religion – What I Believe, Tolstoy eight rights,
What I found most repulsive and the doctrine of the church was the strangeness of its dogmas and the approval, and nay, the support which it gave to persecutions, to the death penalty, to war stirred up by the intolerance common to all sects; but my faith was chiefly shattered by the indifference of the Church to what seemed to me essential in the teachings of Jesus, and by its avidity for what seemed to me of secondary importance.
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I was troubled most that the miseries of humanity, the habit of judging one another, of passing judgment upon nations and religions, and the wars and massacres which resulted in consequence, all went on with the approbation of the church.
My spiritual instructors taught me that the law of Jesus was divine, but, because of human weakness, impossible of practice, and that the grace of Jesus Christ alone could aid us to follow its precepts. . . .
. . . When we regard it as a command impossible of performance, the value of the entire doctrine is lost.. . .
. . . It was only another way of saying that the presence in the Christian doctrine of the commandment which no one observed, and which Christians themselves regarded as impracticable, is simply an avowal of the foolishness and nullity of that law. . . .
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Tolstoy and noted that he had been taught that Jesus did not dismiss the laws of Moses, but had merely fulfilled them. However, he noted that certain passages of the Old Testament in which it appeared that cruel actions were sanctioned by God, each was preceded by the words, “and the Lord said on to Moses,” . . . He had supposed that the law of cruelty on the law of love could be justified. However, when he read the fifth chapter of Matthew, vs. 17-20, he read the words, “but I say unto you. . . .” it was then that he understood that Jesus rejected the Mosaic law; that the Mosaic law of vengeance could never be harmonized with Jesus’law of love; but rather than supplementing one another, Jesus was telling us that “we must inevitably choose between the two . . .”
Acknowledging that the Gospel has instances in which it is stated that Jesus referred to himself as the second person of the Trinity, or that he had come to atone for sins, but that they are not only trivially small, but are obscure.
Tolstoy considers that Jesus, whether God or man, was speaking to a people guided by rules, which they claimed to be ordained by God. To the extent that such a law opposed his own law of love, Tolstoy asks, “How could Jesus avoid denouncing that law?.” He concludes, “and Christendom, like all the rest of the Church, accepted the commandment of Moses and denied that of Christ, whose doctrine he nevertheless claims to believe.”
This Jesus did, and was accused of destroying the divine law; for this La idea was condemned and put to death. But his doctrine was cherished by his disciples, traverse the centuries, and is transmitted to other peoples. . . . Pitiable human sophisms replace the divine revelation. For the formulas, “And the lord said on to Moses,” we substitute “Thus saith the Holy Spirit.” And again formalism hides the truth.
In The Kingdom of God is Within You : Christianity, Not as a Mystic Religion, But as an Ethic of Life he explores the practical meaning of Jesus’command to love God and to love of others:
The true, the rational life is only possible for man according to the nature in which he can participate, not in the family or the state, but in the source of life – – the Father; according to the measure in which he can merge his life in the life of the Father. Such is undoubtedly the Christian conception of life, visible in every utterance of the gospel.
Tolstoy speaks specifically against Christian notions that “God is in control” and approves of governmental action and other acts of authority:
The dogma that all the governments of the world are approvingly ordained by God, and the powers that be in the United States, in Russia, in Turkey, are in accordance with His will, is no less a absurd than impius. It makes the impartial Author of our existence unequal and tyrannical.
In The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, we see the Gospels justification for his doctrine of nonviolence:
The history of mankind is crowded with the evidence is proving that physical coercion is not adapted to a moral regeneration, and that the sinful dispositions of men can be subdued only by love; that evil can be exterminated only by good; that it is not safe to rely upon the strength of an arm to preserve us from harm; that there is great security in being gentle, longsuffering, and abundant in mercy; that it is only the meek who shall inherit the earth; for those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.
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. . . If we abide evil by our fundamental principle of not opposing evil by evil we cannot participate in sedition, treason, or violence. We shall submit to every ordinance and every requirement of government, except such as are 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.
Tolstoy came to have a great influence upon both Mahatma Gandhi and upon Martin Luther King, Jr. He established the principles of civil disobedience as obedience to a higher law yet subject to the consequences of that disobedience under civil and criminal law. There are also other models of civil disobedience, whether directly inspired by a Tolstoy or not. Abraham Lincoln came to a similar view and was guided by a similar ethic and faith.