Friday, March 23, 2007

Leo Tolstoy

Bio: A man caught in the turmoils and social upheavals of his time, Leo Tolstoy was one of the giants of his age. His philosophy was based on a radical understanding of the ethical demands of Christianity. He was an artist, a pioneer in new educational forms, and a theoretician of non-violence. He is a man whose influence is still being felt. In the first selection,* Tolstoy discusses the states of the Christian world. The second selection is the text of a letter addressed to The Daily Chronicle. The final selection *** is a letter Tolstoy wrote to Ernst Schramm, a young draftee of the Hessian army, in 1899. This was Tolstoy’s second letter to Schramm; however, before it reached him, Schramm had left his native land to avoid conscription.

States of the Christain World

"The states of the Christian world have not only reached, but in our day have passed, the limits toward which the states of ancient times were approaching before their dismemberment. We can see this from the fact that each step we make today toward material progress not only does not advance us toward the general well-being, but shows us, on the contrary, that all these technical improvements only increase our miseries. One can imagine other machines, submarine subterranean and aerial, for transporting men with the rapidity of lighting; one could multiply to infinity the means of propagating human speech and thought, but it would remain no less the case that these travelers, so comfortably and rapidly transported, are neither willing nor able to commit anything but evil, and the thoughts and words they pour forth would only incite men to further harm. As to the beautifully perfected armaments of destruction, which, while diminishing the risk of those who employ them, make carnage easier, they only give further proof of the impossibility of persevering in the direction we are going.

Thus, the horror of the situation of the Christian world has a double aspect: on the one hand the absence of a moral principle of union, and on the other a gradual lowering of man to a degree below that of the animals, in spite of his intellectual progress and the complexity of the lies that hide from us our misery and our cruelty.

The lies cover the cruelty, the cruelty causes the spreading of the lies, and both increase like insidious snowballs. But everything must come to an end. And I believe that a crisis in this horrible situation is approaching. The evils, resulting from the lack of a religious ideal corresponding to our epoch, are the inevitable conditions of progress; they should as inevitably disappear after the adoption of such an ideal."

Reply to Critics

"But the fact is that the Christian doctrine, in its true sense, never proposed to abolish anything, nor to change any human organization. The very thing which distinguishes Christian religion from all other religions and social doctrines is that it gives men the possibilities of a real and good life, not by means of general laws regulating the lives of all men, but by enlightening each individual man with regard to the sense of his own life, by showing him wherein consists the evil and the real good of his life. And the sense of life thus imparted to man by the Christian doctrine is so simple, so convincing, and leaves so little room for doubt, that if once man understands it, and, therefore, conceives wherein is the real good and the real evil of his life, he can never again consciously do what he considers to be the evil of his life, nor abstain from doing what he considers to be the real good of it, as surely as a plant cannot help turning toward light, and water cannot help running down­ward.

The sense of life, as shown by the Christian religion, consists in living so as to do the will of Him who sent us into life, from whom we are come, and to whom we shall return. The evil of our life con­sists in acting against this will, and the good in fulfilling it. And the rule given to us for the fulfillment of this will is so very plain and simple that it is impossible not to understand, or to misunder­stand it.

If you cannot do unto others what you would that they should do to you, at least do not unto them what you would not that they should do unto you.

If you would not be made to work ten hours at a stretch in factories or in mines, if you would not have your children hungry, cold, and ignorant, if you would not be robbed of the land that feeds you, if you would not be shut up in prisons and sent to the gallows or hanged for committing an unlawful deed through passion or ignorance, if you would not suffer wounds nor be killed in war—do not do this to others. All this is so simple and straight forward, and admits of so little doubt, that it is impossible for the simplest child not to understand, nor for the cleverest man to refute it. It is impossible to refute this law, especially because this law is given to us, not only by all the wisest men of the world, not only by the Man who is considered to be God by the majority of Christians, but because it is written in our minds and hearts.

Let us imagine a servant in his lord’s power, appointed by his master to a task he loves and understands. If this man were to be addressed by men whom he knows to be dependent on his master in the same way as he is, to whom smaller tasks are set at which they will not work, and who would entreat him for his own good and for the good of other men to do what is directly opposed to his lord’s plain commandments, what answer can any reasonable servant give to such entreaties? But this simile is far from fully expressing what a Christian must feel when he is called upon to take an active part in oppressing, robbing people of their land, in executing them, in waging war, and so on, all things which governments call upon us to do; for, however binding the comands of that master may have been to his servant, they can never be compared to that unquestionable knowledge which every man, as long as he is not corrupted by false doctrines, does possess, that he cannot and must not do unto others what he does not wish to be done unto him, and therefore cannot and must not take part in all things opposed to the rule of his Master, which are imosed upon him by governments.

Therefore the question for a Christian does not lie in this: whether or not a man has the right to destroy the existing order of things, and to establish another in its stead, or to decide which kind of government will be the best, as the question is sometimes purposely and very often unintentionally put by the enemies of Christianity (the Christian does not think about the general order of things, but leaves the guidance of them to God, for he firmly believes God has implanted His law in our minds and hearts, that there may be order, not disorder, and that nothing but good can arise from our following the unquestionable law of God, which has been so plainly manifested to us); but the question, the decision of which is not optional, but unavoidable, and which daily presents itself for a Christian to decide, is: How am I to act in the dilemma which is constantly before me? Shall I form part of a government which recognizes the right to own landed property by men who never work on it, which levies taxes on the poor in order to give them to the rich, which condemns erring men to gallows and death, which sends out soldiers to commit murder, which depraves whole races of men by means of opium and brandy, etc., or shall I refuse to take a share in a government, the doings of which are contrary to my conscience? But what will come of it, what sort of State will there be, if I act in this way, is a thing I do not know and which I shall not say I do not wish to know, but which I cannot know.

The main strength of Christ’s teaching consists especially in this: that he brought the question of conduct from a world of conjecture and eternal doubt, down to a firm and indisputable ground. Some people say, “But we also do not deny the evils of the existing order and the necessity of changing it, but we wish to change it, not suddenly, by means of refusing to take any part in the government, but, on the contrary, by participating in the government, by gaining more and more freedom, political rights, and obtaining the election of the true friends of the people and the enemies of all violence.”

This would be very well, if taking part in one’s government and trying to improve it could coincide with the aim of human life. But, unfortunately, it not only does not coincide, but is quite op posed to it." "

"“Wilt thou, a being of reason and goodness, who comes today and may vanish tomorrow, wilt thou, if thou believest in the existence of God, act against His law and His will, knowing that any moment thou canst return to Him; or, if thou dost not believe in Him, wilt thou, knowing that if thou errest thou shalt never be able to redeem thy error, wilt thou, nevertheless, act in opposition to the principles of reason and love, by which alone thou canst be guided in life? Wilt thou, at the request of thy government, take oaths, defend, by compulsion, the owner of land or capital, wilt thou pay taxes for keeping policemen, soldiers, warships, wilt thou take part in parliaments, law courts, condemnations and wars?”

And to all this—I will not say for a Christian, but for a reason able being—there can be but one answer: “No, I cannot, and will not.” But they say, “This will destroy the State and the existing order.” If the fulfillment of the will of God is destroying the existing order, is it not a proof that this existing order is contrary to the will of God, and ought to be destroyed?"

Advice to a Draftee

"In my last letter I answered your question as well as I could. It is not only Christians but all just people who must refuse to become soldiers—that is, to be ready on another’s command (for this is what a soldier’s duty actually consists of) to kill all those one is ordered to kill. The question as you state it—which is more useful, to become a good teacher or to suffer for rejecting conscription?—is falsely stated. The question is falsely stated because it is wrong for us to determine our actions according to their results, to view actions merely as useful or destructive. In the choice of our actions we can be led by their advantages or disadvantages only when the actions them­selves are not opposed to the demands of morality."

"The question should not be stated: which is more useful, to be a good teacher or go to jail for refusing conscription? but rather: what should a man do who has been called upon for military service—that is, called upon to kill or to prepare himself to kill?

And to this question, for a person who understands the true meaning of military service and who wants to be moral, there is only one clear and incontrovertible answer: such a person must refuse to take part in military service no matter what consequences this refusal may have. It may seem to us that this refusal could be futile or even harmful, and that it would be a far more useful thing, after serving one’s time, to become a good village teacher. But in the same way, Christ could have judged it more useful for himself to be a good carpenter and submit to all the principles of the Pharisees than to die in obscurity as he did, repudiated and forgotten by everyone.

Moral acts are distinguished from all other acts by the fact that they operate independently of any predictable advantage to our selves or to others. No matter how dangerous the situation may be of a man who finds himself in the power of robbers who demand that he take part in plundering, murder, and rape, a moral person cannot take part. Is not military service the same thing? Is one not required to agree to the deaths of all those one is commanded to kill?"

"If I, finding myself in a crowd of running people, run with the crowd without knowing where, it is obvious that I have given my self up to mass hysteria; but if by chance I should push my way to the front, or be gifted with sharper sight than the others, or receive information that this crowd was racing to attack human beings and toward its own corruption, would I really not stop and tell the people what might rescue them? Would I go on running and do these things which I knew to be bad or corrupt? This is the situation of every individual called up for military service, if he knows what military service means."

"In every person’s life there are moments in which he can know himself, tell himself who he is, whether he is a man who values his human dignity above his life or a weak creature who does not know his dignity and is concerned merely with being useful (chiefly to himself). This is the situation of a man who goes out to defend his honor in a duel or a soldier who goes into battle (although here the concepts of life are wrong). It is the situation of a doctor or a priest called to someone sick with plague, of a man in a burning house or a sinking ship who must decide whether to let the weaker go first or shove them aside and save himself. It is the situation of a man in poverty who accepts or rejects a bribe. And in our times, it is the situation of a man called to military service. For a man who knows its significance, the call to the army is perhaps the only opportunity for him to behave as a morally free creature and fulfill the highest requirement of his life—or else merely to keep his advantage in sight like an animal and thus re main slavishly submissive and servile until humanity becomes degraded and stupid."

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