Patriotism and Christianity/A Reply to Criticisms

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1624181A Reply to CriticismsLeo Tolstoy
[The following letter was addressed by Count Tolstoy to a Polish journalist, in September of 1895. It is here reproduced, by permission of the Brotherhood Publishing Company, from The New Age of 27th February 1896.]


I received your letter, and hastened to read your article in The Northern Messenger. I am much obliged to you for drawing my attention to this. The article is excellent, and I have learned from it much that was new and joyful to me. I knew about Mitskevitch and Tovianski. But I ascribed their religious direction to the exceptional dispositions of these two individuals. From your article I learn that they are only the forerunners of a Christian movement, so deeply touching in its nobility and sincerity, which has been called forth by patriotism, and which still endures.

My article, "Christianity and Patriotism," evoked very many objections. I received these from philosophers and journalists, Russian, French, German, and Austrian; and now from you. All the objections, yours among them, amount to this: That my condemnation of patriotism is justly applied to bad patriotism, but has no foundation as regards good and useful patriotism. But, as to what constitutes this latter, and how it is distinguishable from bad patriotism, no one has yet troubled to explain.

You say in your letter, that "as well as the militant, inhumane patriotism of strong nations, there is also the opposite patriotism of enslaved nations, who seek only to defend their native faith and language against the enemy." You thus identify good patriotism as the patriotism of the oppressed. But the oppression or the dominance of nations makes no essential difference in what is called patriotism. Fire is always the same burning and dangerous fire, whether it blaze up in a bonfire or flicker in a match.

By "patriotism" is really meant a love for one's own nation above other nations; just as by "egoism" is meant a love for oneself more than for others. It is hard to imagine how such preference for one nation above others can be deemed a good, and therefore a desirable, disposition. If you say that patriotism is more pardonable in the oppressed than in the oppressor, just as a manifestation of egoism is more pardonable in a man who is being strangled than in one who is left in peace, then it is impossible to disagree with you; nevertheless, patriotism cannot change its nature, whether it is displayed in oppressor or oppressed. This disposition of preference for one nation over all others, like egoism, can in nowise be good.

But not only is patriotism a bad disposition, it is unreasonable in principle.

By patriotism is meant, not only spontaneous, instinctive love for one's own nation, and preference for it above all other nations, but also the belief that such love and preference are good and useful. This belief is especially unreasonable in Christian nations.

It is unreasonable, not only because it runs counter to the first principles of Christ's teachings, but also because Christianity gains, by its own method, everything for which patriotism seeks; thus making patriotism superfluous, unnecessary, and a hindrance, like a lamp by daylight.

A man who, like Krasinski, believes that "the Church of God is not in this or that place, this or that rite, but in the whole planet, and in all the relations which can exist between individuals and nations"—such a man can no longer be a patriot; but he will, in the name of Christianity, do all that patriotism can demand of him. For example, patriotism demands of its votary the devotion of his life for the sake of his fellow-countrymen. But Christianity, demanding the same devotion for the good of all men, demands it all the more forcibly and naturally for those of one's own nation.

You write of the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by the savage, stupid, and cruel Russian authorities, directed against the belief and language of the Poles; and you exhibit these as providing a motive for patriotic action. But I do not see this. To feel indignation at these deeds, and to oppose them with all one's might, it is not necessary to be either a Pole or a patriot; to be a Christian is enough.

Upon this point I, for instance, who am not a Pole, will yet vie with any Pole in the degree of my abhorrence of, my indignation at, those savage and stupid measures which Russian government officials direct against the Poles. I will vie, also, in the desire to oppose those measures; and this, not because I care for Catholicism above other religions, or for the Polish language above other tongues, but because I strive to be a Christian. In like manner, for the abolition of such evils, whether in Poland, or Alsace, or Bohemia, we need the spread, not of patriotism, but of true Christianity.

Some may say, "We do not wish to accept Christianity, and we are therefore free to exalt patriotism." But once men have acknowledged Christianity, or at least the perception of human equality and respect for human dignity which flow from Christianity, there is then no longer room for patriotism. What, again, most astonishes me in all this is, that the upholders of the patriotism of the oppressed do not see how harmful patriotism, however perfect and refined they may represent it to be, is to their own particular cause.

Those attacks upon language and religion in Poland, the Baltic provinces, Alsace, Bohemia, upon the Jews in Russia, in every place that such acts of violence occur—in what name have they been, and are they, perpetrated? In none other than the name of that patriotism which you defend.

Ask our savage Russifiers of Poland and the Baltic provinces, ask the persecutors of the Jews, why they act thus. They will tell you it is in defence of their native religion and language; they will tell you that if they do not act thus, their religion and language will suffer—the Russians will be Polonised, Teutonised, Judaised.

Were there no doctrine that patriotism is beneficial, men of the end of the nineteenth century would never be found sunken so low as to determine upon the abominations they at present enact.

Now, learned men (our most savage religious persecutor is an ex-professor) find standing-ground upon patriotism. They know history, they know of all the fruitless horrors of persecution for the sake of language and religion; but, thanks to the doctrine of patriotism, they have a justification.

Patriotism gives them a standing-ground, which Christianity takes from under their feet. Therefore it behoves conquered nations, sufferers from oppression, to destroy patriotism, to destroy its doctrinal foundations, to ridicule it, and not to exalt it.

Defending patriotism, people go on to talk of the individuality of nations, of patriotism aiming to save the individuality of a nation; while the individuality of nations is assumed to be a necessary condition of progress. But, to begin with, who says that such individuality is necessary to progress? This is in no way proved, and we have no right to take such an arbitrary assumption as an axiom. In the next place, even if it be accepted, even then, the way for a nation to assert its individuality is, not to struggle to do so, but, on the contrary, to forget about its individuality, and then to accomplish with all its power that which its people feel themselves most able, and therefore most called upon, to do. Just as an individual will most assert his individuality, not when he pays heed to it, but when, having forgotten about it, he, to the limit of his strength and capacity, does that to which his nature attracts him. So matters would be arranged among a people who, working for their support as a community, must choose different kinds of work and different places. Only let each one follow his strength and capacity in doing what is most necessary to the community, and do this as well as he can, and all will inevitably work differently, with different tools and in different places.

One of the commonest sophisms used in defending immorality consists in wilfully confusing what is with what should be, and, having begun to speak of one thing, substituting another. This very sophism is employed above all in relation to patriotism. It is fact, that to every Pole, the Pole is nearest and dearest; to the German, the German; to the Jew, the Jew; to the Russian, the Russian. It is even true that, through historical causes and bad education, the people of one nation instinctively feel aversion and ill-will to those of another. All this is so; but to admit it, like admitting the fact that each man loves himself more than he loves others, can in no way prove that it ought so to be. On the contrary, the whole concern of all humanity, and of every individual, lies in suppressing these preferences and aversions, in battling with them, and in deliberately behaving towards other nations and towards individual foreigners, exactly as towards one's own nation and fellow-countrymen. To care for patriotism as an emotion worthy to be cultivated in every man, is wholly superfluous. God, or Nature, has already, without our care, so provided for this feeling that every man has it; leaving us no cause to trouble about cultivating it in ourselves and others. We must concern ourselves, not about patriotism, but to bring into life that light which is within us; to change the character of life, and approach it to the ideal which stands before us. That ideal, presented in our time before every man, and illumined with the true light from Christ, has not to do with the resuscitation of Poland, Bohemia, Ireland, Armenia; has not to do with the preservation of the unity and greatness of Russia, England, Germany, Austria; but on the contrary, is concerned to destroy this unity and greatness of Russia, England, Germany, Austria, by the destruction of those force-maintained anti-Christian combinations called States, which stand in the way of all true progress, and occasion the sufferings of oppressed and conquered nations; occasion all those evils from which contemporary humanity suffers. Such destruction is only possible through true enlightenment, resulting in the avowal that we, before being Russians, Poles, Germans, are men, the followers of one teacher, the children of one Father, brothers; and this, the best representatives of the Polish nation understand, as you have so excellently shown in your article. Day by day this is understood by a greater and greater number of people throughout the whole world. So that the days of State violence are already numbered, and the liberation, not only of conquered nations, but of the crushed working-people, is by this time near, if only we ourselves will not delay the time of liberation, by sharing with deed and word in the violent measures of governments. The approval of patriotism of any kind as a good quality, and the incitement of the people to patriotism, is a chief hindrance to the attainment of those ideals which rise before us.

Once more, I thank you very much for your letter, for the excellent article, and for the opportunity you have given me of again reconsidering, verifying, and expressing my ideas on patriotism.