What Tolstoi Taught

Bolton Hall

[Reprinted from Twentieth Century Magazine, April 1911]

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 afterwards changed.

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 His teachings.

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.[1]

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,[2] 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 and sincerity.


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."

2. Tolstoi as Man and Artist.