What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.


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