What Tolstoi Taught
[Reprinted from Twentieth Century Magazine,
THERE are abundant lives of Tolstoi, among the best of which are
Birukof's, a very extensive work, and Aylmer Maude's Life in
two thick volumes. Maude's account of Tolstoi's doctrine is excellent
but voluminous. The book is rather costly and is somewhat marred by
Maude's own very intelligent, but conventional and equally voluminous
criticisms, of Tolstoi's thought.
Most persons want to get a clear impression of the matured views of
the prophet, not of how they developed, changed and were often
recanted. Many of the apparent contradictions that critics dwell upon
are simply questions of time, and are due to expression of opinions
Some of these "Lives" contain a short review of his
doctrine; but most persons, however well educated, have but the
vaguest notions of what he did say and of why he lived as he did.
Consequently he is regarded by many, just as Jesus is, as an amiable
idealist, wholly illogical and impracticable, who preaches a gospel
that no one can follow. They think that he was an original but
eccentric and inconsistent teacher. As Tolstoi points out, the learned
Jews, who were the contemporaries of Jesus, had a very similar idea of
Tolstoi and Jesus are regarded as impractical for the same reason;
that each states the same doctrine, which men do not wish to practice
and have therefore misinterpreted and perverted.
This doctrine is, in short, that for a man always to substitute love
for violence would solve for him all the harassing perplexities and
abolish all the horrors and the unreasonable complexities of life.
The late Ernest Crosby said that much as he admired Tolstoi's book
On Life, he had ceased to call general attention to it,
because he found that people would not and could not read it; and even
the French version wearied those who might be expected to read the
elegant French for its own sake.
It is not wonderful that there is so little clear understanding of
Tolstoi, because, unlike his novels, his religious books are, I regret
to say, wholly unreadable. The style is involved, the matter is
lacking in order and filled with tedious, repetition, but when the
ideas are combed out of his tangle of words, they prove to be
sharp-cut and to fit one another.
His works of fiction are all of the nature of parables, and from a
parable each person learns only what he is ready to receive. Tolstoi's
fiction but popularizes or illustrates the doctrine of what he
regarded as his only important works, but which, in comparison to his
wonderful fiction, are hardly read at all.
One of the most significant and revolutionary of Tolstoi's reforms
consisted in the school he conducted for the children on his estate.
In it he worked out many of the problems of his own relation to life
that had not been clear to him before.
What To Do, written in 1882, is the practical summing up of
his teaching, the summing up that set him to make shoes and to produce
with his hands at least as much of what people need as would support
him, because he felt that it is not enough to feel love or to teach
love by lip words.
As he himself expressed it: "It is not enough to tend a man, to
feed and teach him Greek; we must teach the man how to live -- that
is, to take as little as possible from others, and to give as much as
possible; and we cannot help teaching him to do the contrary if we
take him into our houses, or into an institution founded for this
purpose. We must express genuine love by 'getting off the backs of the
poor,' by becoming producers instead of parasites."
In reading Tolstoi's sweeping assertions we must remember that he
believed as Garrison did, that in order to make an impression it is
necessary for a preacher of a new doctrine to state it broadly and
without qualification. This was the method of Jesus also. For example,
it cannot be that all those Scribes and Pharisees were nothing but "hypocrites,"
yet He so described them. To straighten a steel bar, we must bend it
in the opposite direction.
Had Garrison said merely that slavery was an out-grown institution
that ought to be thrown off; or had the early temperance reformers
said only that liquor drinking was a needless and injurious habit,
people would have said, "Yes, that is probably true; we must
modify these things and eventually get rid of them," and would
have gone on to talk with the reformers about the weather. But when
Garrison said that the Constitution that sanctioned slavery was "a
covenant with death and an agreement with hell," and the
Prohibitionists told us about "the Demon Rum," they got
attention and consideration -- perhaps too much.
A great truth, if it is to be heard at all, must be stated in large
and emphatic terms. This Tolstoi did, whether he spoke of Religion,
Teaching, Art, Government or Land-owning.
Tolstoi, like Henry George and many another master, did not realize
the far-reaching conclusions to be deduced from his own premises. He
teaches the Oneness of Men, but seems to overlook the fact that this
Oneness makes it impossible for any man to do right by himself. Each
must, however unwillingly, take some part in the "sins" of
all the rest.
For example, D. Merejowsky, a Russian biographer, finds much fault
with Tolstoi because he appears inconsistent in that he "ceased
to make use of his property" except for the fact that he remained
under the roof of Yasnaia.
Why should he do otherwise? To live in a hut next door to his family,
and to prepare his separate food, would have been but to add an
additional expense to the family budget. To separate himself entirely
from his family would have been merely to sacrifice more of his own
time and of theirs in getting the necessary living and to establish a
still less normal life at the cost of much pain to them and to him. He
did all that he could by insisting on actually producing, by such
means as seemed most natural, as much as he consumed.
Nor was it possible for him, any more than for the rest of us, to
make a right disposition of his land or of the revenues from it.
To give it to the State under present conditions would be merely to
add to the wealth and power of an institution of which he did not
approve, and to induce new State extravagance or to lighten the burden
of those who support it.
To present it to the tenants would be merely to create numerous small
landlords who would be more effective in sanctioning landlordism than
one big landlord. This is what the English Tories have striven to do
for Ireland by Government Land Purchase and in the Allotment Acts.
Under present conditions every one must be either a nomad, a tenant
or a land-owner. There is no escape. The tenant is just as much a
sustainer of the land system as the land-owner; for if no one would
pay rent, if men could find a way to live without paying rent directly
or indirectly to private persons, it would be just as fatal to the
land system as if no one would collect rent.
Tolstoi, like Thoreau, made the best attempt he could to live
according to his ideals, and no one can read What To Do
without seeing how sadly unsatisfactory the result was to him and even
to those who most sympathized with him and admired him and his ardor
1. Count Tolstoi says that the precepts of Jesus have been
misconstrued by us because we do not wish to understand them. (See "My
Religion," page 93). He says: "If, however, we take the
words of Jesus as we would take the words of anyone who speaks to us,
and admit that he says exactly what he does say, all these profound
circumlocutions vanish away."
Tolstoi as Man and Artist.