What I Believe (Tolstoy)/Chapter 4

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What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Constantine Popoff
Chapter 4

Now I understood what Christ meant when He said, ‘You have heard that it has been said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” And I say to you, do not resist evil.’ Christ means, ‘You have been taught to consider it right and rational to protect yourselves against evil by violence, to pluck out an eye for an eye, to institute courts of law for the punishment of criminals, and to have a police and an army to defend you against the attacks of an enemy; but I say to you, do no violence to any man, take no part in violence, never do evil to any man, not even to those whom you call your enemies.’

I now understood that, in this doctrine of non-resistance, Christ not only tells us what the natural result of following His doctrine will be, but by placing this same doctrine in opposition to the Mosaic Law, the Roman law, and the various codes of the present time, He clearly shows that it ought to be the basis of our social existence and should deliver us from the evil we have brought on ourselves. He says, ‘You think to amend evil by your laws, but they only aggravate it. There is one way by which you can put a stop to evil; it is by indiscriminatingly returning good for evil. You have tried the other law for thousands of years; now try Mine, which is the very reverse.’ Strange to say, I have had frequent opportunities lately of conversing with men of diverse opinions on this doctrine of non-resistance. I have met with some who agreed with me, though these have been few. But there are two orders of men who always refuse to admit, even in principle, a direct understanding of this doctrine, and warmly uphold the justice of resisting evil. They are men belonging to two extreme poles: our Christian conservative patriots, who consider their Church as the true orthodox one, and our revolutionary atheists. Neither the former nor the latter will give up their right to resist by violence what they consider as evil. Even their cleverest, most learned men close their eyes to the simple, self-evident truth, that if we admit the right of one man to resist what he considers as evil by violence, we cannot refuse another the right to resist by violence what he in his turn may consider as evil. A short time ago I met with a correspondence particularly instructive as bearing on this very point. It was carried on between an orthodox Slavophil and a Christian revolutionist. The former excused the violence of war in the name of his oppressed Slavonian brethren, and the latter vindicated the violence of the revolution in the name of his oppressed brethren, the Russian peasants. Both admit the necessity for violence, and both ground their reasoning on the doctrine of Christ.

Each of us gives the doctrine of Christ an interpretation of his own, but it is never the direct and simple one that flows out of His words.

We have grounded the conduct of our lives on a principle that He rejects; we do not choose to understand His teaching in its simple and direct sense. Those who call themselves ‘believers’ believe that Christ-God, the second Person of the Trinity, made Himself man in order to set us an example how to live, and they strictly fulfill the most complicated duties, such as preparing for the sacraments, building churches, sending out missionaries, naming pastors for parochial administration, etc.; they forget only one trifling circumstance – to do as He tells them. Unbelievers, on the other hand, try to regulate their lives somehow or other, but not in accordance with the law of Christ, feeling convinced beforehand that it is worthless. Nobody ever tries to fulfill His teaching. Nor is that all. Instead of making any effort to follow His commandments, both believers and unbelievers decide beforehand that to do so is impossible.

Christ says that the law of resistance by violence, which you have made the basis of your lives, is unnatural and wrong; and He gives us instead the law of non-resistance, which, He tells us, can alone deliver us from evil. He says, ‘You think to eradicate evil by your human laws of violence; they only increase it. During thousands and thousands of years you have tried to annihilate evil by evil, and you have not annihilated it; you have but increased it. Follow the teaching I give you by word and deed, and you will prove its practical power.’

Not only does He speak thus, but He also remains true to His own doctrine not to resist evil in His life and in His death.

Believers take all this in with their ears and hear it read in churches, calling it the Word of God. They call Him God, and then they say, ‘His doctrine is sublime, but the organization of our lives renders its observance impossible; it would change the whole course of our lives, to which we are so used and with which we are so satisfied. Therefore, we believe in this doctrine only as an ideal that mankind must strive after – an ideal that is to be attained by prayer, by believing in the sacraments, in redemption, and in the resurrection of the dead.’ Others, unbelievers, the free interpreters of Christ’s doctrine, the historians of religion – Strauss, Renan, and others – adopting the interpretation of the Church, that this doctrine has no direct application to life and is only an ideal teaching that can only serve to console the weak-minded, say, very seriously, that the doctrine of Christ was all very well for the savage population of the deserts of Galilee, but that we, with our civilization, can only consider it as a lovely reverie ‘du charmant Docteur,’ as Renan calls Him. According to their opinion, Christ could not attain the height of understanding all the wisdom of our civilization and refinement. If He had stood on the same scale of civilization as these learned men, He would not have uttered those pretty trifles about the birds of the air, about letting one’s cheek be struck, and about taking no care for tomorrow. Learned historians judge Christianity according to what they see in our Christian society. Now the Christian society of our times considers our life as a good and holy one, with its institutions of solitary imprisonment, of fortresses, sweatshops, journals[4], brothels, and parliaments, while it only borrows from the doctrine of Christ what is not against these habits of life. And, as Christ’s teaching is in direct opposition to all this, nothing is taken from that teaching but its mere words. The learned historians see this, and not having the same interest in concealing the fact as the so-called believers have, they subject this, for them, meaningless doctrine of Christ to a profound analysis, argue against it, and prove on good grounds that Christianity never was anything but the dream of an idealist. And yet it seems to me that before pronouncing an opinion upon the doctrine of Christ, we ought clearly to understand what it is, and in order to decide whether His teaching is rational or not, it is necessary first of all to believe that He meant exactly what He said. This is just what neither the interpreters of the Church nor free-thinkers do, and the reason why is not hard to see.

We know very well that the teaching of Christ, as we have received it, embraces all the errors into which humanity has fallen, all the ‘toga,’ empty idols, the existence of which we try to justify by calling them church, government, culture, science, arts, and civilization, thinking thus to exclude them from the rank of errors. But Christ warns us against them all, without excluding any ‘toga.’

Not only Christ’s words, but those of all Hebrew prophets, of John the Baptist, and of all the truly wise men who have ever lived, have referred to this same church, this same government, culture, civilization, etc., calling them evils and the causes of man’s perdition.

For instance, suppose an architect were to say to the owner of a house, ‘Your house is in a bad state; it must be wholly rebuilt,’ and were then to go on giving all the necessary details about the kinds of beams that would be required, how they were to be cut, and where placed. If the owner were to turn a deaf ear to the architect’s words about the ruinous condition of the house and the necessity for its being rebuilt, and were only to listen with a feigned interest to the secondary details concerning the proposed repairs, the architect’s counsels would evidently appear but so much useless talk; and if the owner happened to feel no great respect for the builder, he would call his advice foolish. This is exactly what occurs with the teaching of Christ.

I used this simile for want of a better one, and I remember that Christ, while preaching His doctrine, used one very like it. He said, ‘I will destroy your temple, and within three days I will build up another.’ He was crucified for these words. His doctrine is crucified for the same reason up to the present time.

The least that can be required of those who judge another man’s teaching is that they should take the teacher’s words in the exact sense in which he uses them. Christ does not consider His teaching as some high ideal of what mankind should be but cannot attain to, nor does He consider it as a chimerical, poetical fancy, fit only to captivate the simple-minded inhabitants of Galilee; He considers His teaching as work – a work that is to save mankind. His suffering on the cross was no dream; He groaned in agony and died for His teaching. And how many people have died, and will still die, in the same cause? Such teaching cannot be called a dream.

Every doctrine of truth is a dream for those who are in error. We have come to such a state of error that there are many among us who say, as I did myself formerly, that this doctrine of Christ is chimerical because it is incompatible with the nature of man. It is incompatible with the nature of man, they say, to turn the other cheek when he has been struck; it is incompatible with the nature of man to give up his property to another – to work, not for himself, but for others. It is natural to man, they say, to protect himself, his own safety, that of his family, and his property – in other words, it is the nature of man to struggle for life. Learned lawyers prove scientifically that the most sacred duty of a man is to protect his rights – i.e., to struggle.

We need only for one moment to cast aside the idea that the present organization of our lives, as established by man, is the best and most sacred, and then the argument that the teaching of Christ is incompatible with human nature immediately turns against the arguer. Who will deny that it is repugnant and harrowing to a man’s feelings to torture or kill, not only a man, but also even a dog, a hen, or a calf? I have known men, living by agricultural labor, who have ceased entirely to eat meat only because they had to kill their own cattle. And yet our lives are so organized that for one individual to obtain any advantage in life another must suffer, which is against human nature. The whole organization of our lives, the complicated mechanism of our institutions, whose sole object is violence, are but proofs of the degree to which violence is repugnant to human nature. No judge will ever undertake to strangle with his own hands the man whom he has condemned to death. No magistrate will himself drag a peasant from his weeping family in order to shut him up in prison. Not a single general, not a single soldier, would kill hundreds of Turks or Germans, and devastate their villages – no, not one of them would consent to wound a single man, were it not in war, and in obedience to discipline and the oath of allegiance. Cruelty is only exercised (thanks to our complicated social machinery) when it can be so divided among a number that none shall bear the sole responsibility, or recognize how unnatural all cruelty is. Some make laws, others apply them; others, again, drill their fellow-creatures into habits of discipline – i.e., of senseless passive obedience; and these same disciplined men, in their turn, do violence to others – killing without knowing why or wherefore. But let a man even for a moment shake off in thought the net of worldly institutions that so ensnares him, and he will see what is really incompatible with his nature.

If once we cease to affirm that the evil we are so used to, and profit by, is an immutable divine truth, we may see clearly which is the more natural to man – violence, or the law of Christ. Which is better – to know that the comfort and safety of my family and myself, all my joys and pleasures, are obtained at the price of the misery, depravity, and suffering of millions, by yearly executions, by hundreds of thousands of suffering prisoners, and by millions of soldiers, policemen and sergeants (урядниковъ) torn from their homes and half stupefied by military discipline, who protect my idle pleasures by keeping starving men at a distance with their loaded pistols[5]; to know that every dainty morsel I put into my mouth, or give my children, is obtained at the price of all this suffering, which is inevitable, in order to obtain these dainties; or to know that my fare is my own, that nobody suffers for the want of it, and that nobody has suffered in procuring it for me?

It is sufficient to comprehend, once and for all, that, in our present organization of life, every joy and every moment of peace is bought at the cost of the privations and sufferings of thousands, who are only restrained by violence, in order to see clearly what is natural to man; i.e., not only to the animal nature of man, but to his rational nature as well. It is sufficient to understand the doctrine of Christ in all its high significance and with all the consequences it entails, to see that it is not inconsistent with human nature, but that, on the contrary, His whole doctrine throws aside what is inconsistent with human nature – the delusive human teaching of resistance of evil, which is the chief cause of all human misery.

The doctrine of Christ, which teaches us not to resist evil is – a dream! But the sight of men in whose breasts love and pity are innate, spending their lives in burning their brethren at the stake, scourging them, breaking them on the wheel, lashing, slitting their nostrils, putting them to the rack, keeping them fettered, sending them to the galleys or the gallows, shooting them, condemning to solitary confinement, imprisoning women and children, organizing the slaughter of tens of thousands by war, bringing about periodical revolutions and rebellions, the sight of others passively fulfilling these atrocities, the sight of others again writhing under these tortures or avenging them – this is no dream!

When once we clearly understand the teaching of Christ, we see that it is not the world given by God to man for his happiness that is a dream, but the world such as men have made it for their own destruction that is a wild terrifying dream – the delirium of a madman – a dream from which it is enough to awake once, never to return to it.

God came down from heaven – the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – and became man to redeem us from the punishment entailed by the sin of Adam. We think that this God must speak in some mysterious, mystical way, difficult to be understood; indeed, that His Word can only be understood through faith and God’s grace; and yet God’s words are so simple and so clear. He says, ‘Do no evil to each other, and there will be no evil.’ Is it possible that the revelation of God is so simple? Can this be all? All this is so familiar to us.

The prophet Elijah, having fled from the hunts of men and concealed himself in a rock, had it revealed to him that he should see God at the entrance of the cavern. A tempest arose – the trees were rent asunder. Elijah thought God was there and looked, but God was not there. The earth quaked, fire issued out of it, the rock was split in two, and the mountains fell. Elijah looked, but God was not there. Then all grew still and calm, and a light breeze wafted the fragrance of the freshened fields toward him. Elijah looked, and God was there! It is thus with the simple words of God, ‘Do not resist evil.’

They are very simple, but they contain in themselves the sole and eternal law of God and man. This law is eternal, and if in history we find any progress made toward the annihilation of evil, it is due to those who truly understood the doctrine of Christ, who suffered evil without resisting by violence. The progression of mankind toward good is brought about by martyrdom, not by tyranny. Fire cannot extinguish fire, no more than evil can extirpate evil. Good, meeting with evil and remaining untainted by it, can alone conquer evil. There is a law in the heart of each man that is as immutable as the law of Galileo – still more immutable. Men may turn aside from it or conceal it from others; nevertheless it is the only path that leads to true happiness. Each step that has brought us nearer to this great end was taken in the name of the doctrine of Christ: ‘Do not resist evil.’ It is with greater confidence even than Galileo that the follower of Christ can say, in defiance of all the temptations around him and the threats held out to him, ‘It is not by violence but by doing good that you will eradicate evil.’ And if the progress is made slowly, it is only because the clarity, simplicity, and rationality of the teaching of Christ and its inevitable absolute necessity are concealed from the eyes of men in the most crafty and dangerous manner; concealed under a spurious teaching, falsely called His.