The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoï/The Demands of Love

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THE DEMANDS OF LOVE

 

AN EXTRACT FROM TOLSTOÏ'S DIARY

 

YESTERDAY, 24th June, 1893, I thought:—

Let us imagine people of the affluent class (for clearness' sake say a man and a woman: husband and wife, brother and sister, father and daughter, or mother and son) who have vividly realized the sin of a luxurious and idle life, lived amidst people crushed by work and want. They have left the town; have handed over to others (or in some way rid themselves of) their superfluities; have left themselves stocks and shares yielding, say, £15 a year for the two of them (or have even left themselves nothing), and are earning their living by some craft, say, e.g., by painting on china or translating first-rate books, and are living in the country, in a Russian village.

Having hired or bought themselves a hut, they cultivate their plot of ground or garden, look after their bees, and at the same time give medical assistance (as far as their knowledge allows) to the villagers, teach the children, and write letters and petitions for their neighbors, etc.

One would think no kind of life could be better. But this life will be hell, or will become hell, if these people are not hypocrites and do not lie, i.e. if they are really sincere.

If these people have renounced the advantages and pleasures of life which town and money gave them, they have done so only because they acknowledge men to be brothers—equals before their Father. Not equals in ability, or, if you please, in worth; but equals in their right to life, and to all that life can give.

It may be possible to doubt the equality of people when we look at adults, each with a different past, but doubt becomes impossible when we see children. Why should this boy have watchful care and all the assistance knowledge can give to assist his physical and mental development, while that other charming child, of equal or better promise, is to become rickety, crippled, or dwarfed from lack of milk, and to grow up illiterate, wild, hampered by superstitions, a man representing merely so much brute labor-power?

Surely, if people have left town life, and have settled, as these have, to live in the village, it is only because they, not in words only, but in very truth, believe in the brotherhood of man, and intend, if not to realize it, at least to begin realizing it in their lives. And just this attempt to realize it must, if they are sincere, inevitably bring them to a terrible position.

With their habits (formed from childhood upwards) of order, comfort, and especially of cleanliness, they, on moving to the village, after buying or hiring a hut, cleared it of insects, perhaps even papered it themselves, and installed some remains, not luxurious but necessary, of their furniture, say an iron bedstead, a cupboard, and a writing-table. And so they begin living. At first the folk shun them, expecting them (like other rich people) to defend their advantages by force, and therefore do not approach them with requests and demands. But presently, bit by bit, the disposition of the newcomers gets known; they themselves offer disinterested services, and the boldest and most impudent of the villagers find out practically that these newcomers do not refuse to give, and that one can get something out of them.

Thereupon, all kinds of demands on them begin to spring up, and constantly increase.

A process begins comparable to the subsidence and running down to a level of the grains in a heap. They settle down till there is no longer any heap rising above the average level.

Besides the begging, natural demands to divide up what they have more than others possess make themselves heard, and, apart from these demands, the new settlers themselves, being always in close touch with the village folk, feel the inevitable necessity of giving from their superfluity to those who are in extreme poverty. And not only do they feel the need of giving away their superfluity until they have only as much left as each one (say as the average man) ought to have; there is no possible definition of this "average"— no way of measuring the amount which each one should have; there is no stopping, for crying want is always around them, and they have a surplus compared to this destitution.

It seems necessary to keep a glass of milk; but Matrena has two unweaned babies, who can find no milk in their mother's breast, and a two-year-old child which is on the verge of starving. They might keep a pillow and a blanket, so as to sleep as usual after a busy day; but a sick man is lying on a coat full of lice, and freezes at night, being covered only with bark-matting. They would have kept tea and food, but had to give it to some old pilgrims who were exhausted. At least it seemed right to keep the house clean, but beggar-boys came and were allowed to spend the night, and again lice bred, after one had just got rid of those picked up during a visit to the sick man.

Where and how can one stop? Only those will find a point to stop at who are either strangers to that feeling of the reality of the brotherhood of men which has brought these people to the village, or who are so accustomed to lie that they no longer notice the difference between truth and falsehood. The fact is, no point of stoppage exists; and if such a limit be found, it only proves that the feeling which prompted these people's act was imaginary or feigned.

I continue to imagine these people's life.

Having worked all day, they return home; having no longer a bed or a pillow, they sleep on some straw they have collected, and after a supper of bread they lie down to sleep. It is autumn. Rain is falling, mixed with snow. Some one knocks at the door. Should they open it? A man enters wet and feverish. What must they do? Let him have the dry straw? There is no more dry, so either they must drive away the sick man, or let him, wet as he is, lie on the floor, or give him the straw, and themselves (since one must sleep) share it with him.

But this is still not all: a man comes who is a drunkard and a debauchee, whom you have helped several times, and who has always drunk whatever you gave him.

He comes now, his jaw trembling, and asks for six shillings to replace money he has stolen and drunk, for which he will be imprisoned, if he does not replace it. You say you only have eight shillings, which you want for a payment due to-morrow. Then the man says: "Yes, I see, you talk, but when it comes to acts, you're like the rest; you let the man you call a 'brother' perish, rather than suffer yourselves!"

How is one to act in such cases? Let the fever-stricken man have the damp floor and lie in the dry place oneself,—and you will be farther from sleep than the other way. If you put him on your straw and lie near him, you will get lice and typhus. If you give the beggar six of your last shillings, you will be left without bread to-morrow; but to refuse means, as he said, to turn from that for the sake of which one lives.

If you can stop here, why could you not stop sooner? Why need you help people? Why give up your property and leave the town? Where can one draw the line? If there is a limit to the work you are doing, then it all has no meaning, or it has only the horrible meaning of hypocrisy.

How is one to act? What is one to do? Not to draw back means to lose one's life, to be eaten by lice, to starve, to die, and—apparently—uselessly. To stop is to repudiate that for the sake of which one has acted, for which one has done whatever of good one has accomplished. And one cannot repudiate it, for it is no invention of mine, or of Christ's, that we are brothers and must serve one another; it is real fact, and when it has once entered, you cannot tear that consciousness out of the heart of man. How is one to act? Is there no escape?

Let us imagine that these people, not dismayed by the necessity of sacrifice which brought them to a position inevitably leading to death, decided that the position arose from their having come to help the villagers with means too scanty for the work, and that the result would have been different, and they would have done great good, had they possessed more money. Let us imagine that they find resources, collect immense sums of money, and begin to help. Within a few weeks the same thing will repeat itself. Very soon all their means, however great they may be, will have flowed into the pits formed by poverty, and the position will be the same as before.

But perhaps there is a third way? Some people say there is, and that it consists in assisting the enlightenment of the masses, and that this will destroy inequality.

But this path is too evidently hypocritical; you cannot enlighten a population which is constantly on the verge of perishing from want. And, moreover, the insincerity of people who preach this is evident from the fact that a man eager for the realization of equality (even through science) could not live a life the whole structure of which supported inequality.

But there is yet a fourth way: that of aiding the destruction of the causes which produce inequality—aiding in the destruction of force which produces it.

And that way of escape must occur to all sincere people who try in their lives to carry into effect their consciousness of the brotherhood of man.

The people I have pictured to myself would say: "If we cannot live here among these people in the village; if we are placed in the terrible position that we must necessarily starve, be eaten by lice, and die a slow death, or repudiate the sole moral basis of our lives, this is because some people store up accumulations of wealth while others are destitute; this inequality is based on force; and therefore, since the root of the matter is force, we must contend against force!"

Only by the destruction of force, and of the slavery which results from force, can a service of man become possible which will not necessarily lead to the sacrifice of life itself.

But how is force to be destroyed? Where is it? It is in the soldiers, in the police, in magistrates, and in the lock which fastens my door. How can I strive against it? Where, and in what?'

We even find people, revolutionists, who strive against force, while they depend altogether on force to maintain their own lives—fighting force by force.

But for a sincere man this is not possible. To fight force by force means merely to replace the old violence by a new one. To help by "culture," founded on force, is to do the same. To collect money, obtained by violence, and to use it in aid of people impoverished by force, means to heal by violence wounds inflicted by violence.

Even in the case I imagined: not to admit a sick man to my hut and to my bed, and not to give six shillings because I can, by force, retain them, is also to use force. Therefore, in our society, the struggle against force does not, for him who would live in brotherhood, eliminate the necessity of yielding up his life, of being eaten by lice and dying, while at the same time always striving against violence; preaching non-resistance, exposing violence, and above all giving an example of non-resistance and of self-sacrifice.

Dreadful and difficult as is the position of a man living the Christian life, amidst lives of violence, he has no path but that of struggle and sacrifice and sacrifice till the end.

One must realize the gulf that separates the lousy, famished millions from the overfed people who trim their dresses with lace; and to fill it up we need sacrifices, and not the hypocrisy with which we now try to hide from ourselves the depth of the gulf.

A man may lack the strength to throw himself into the gulf, but it cannot be escaped by any man who seeks after life. We may be unwilling to go into it, but let us be honest about it, and say so, and not deceive ourselves with hypocritical pretences.

And, after all, the gulf is not so terrible. Or, if it is terrible, yet the horrors which await us in a worldly way of life are more terrible still.

News reached us lately, correct or not (for in such cases people are apt to exaggerate), that Admiral Tryon for honor's sake (the "honor" of a fleet designed for murder) declined to save himself and persisted like a hero (like a fool rather) with his ship.

There is less danger of death from lice, infection, or want after giving away one's last crust to help others, than there is of being killed at the manceuvers or in war.

Lice, black bread, and want seem so terrible. But the bottom of the pit of want is not so deep after all, and we are often like the boy who clung by his hands in terror all night to the edge of the well into which he had stumbled, fearing the depth and the water he supposed to be there, while a foot below him was the dry bottom. Yet we must not trust to that bottom, we must go forward prepared to die. Only that is real love, which knows no limit to sacrifices—even unto death.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE

Tolstoï keeps a diary in which he notes down what he has been thinking. Much of this diary is hastily written and unsatisfactory to Tolstoï himself, so that he frequently inserts such remarks as: "these thoughts are confused and need restating," or "this is nonsense," etc. But the diary contains much that is valuable, and Tolstoï has yielded to a friend's request to be allowed to make extracts for publication. "The Demands of Love" is a good example of one of the longest and most finished passages.

On a first perusal this extract has a depressing effect on most readers. But is it not true that, looking at the matter objectively—as a problem outside ourselves—we can imagine no position in which one would be justified in stopping and refusing to go farther along the path of self-abnegation? Judged by the demands of love we are all sinners, even the best must say: "Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, even God."

Considering the matter subjectively, as a question of personal conduct, surely we may, however, walk the path of progress, humbly confessing our sins and shortcomings. It is right to continue to move toward a perfection we shall not reach here.

Viewing other aspects of life, Tolstoï would be one of the last to denounce as "hypocritical" the feeble efforts of imperfect men to live better than before. "The bruised reed he would not break, the smoking flax he would not quench." But here he is showing how the evils of our social state rest on the use of violence between man and man, and that the struggle to right this wrong calls for absolute self-sacrifice, even unto death. To be contented with what we have attained to and to stagnate is never right.