Yesterday was Leo Tolstoy’s 185th birthday. Most well known for his infamously vast novel War and Peace, Tolstoy was a complex and fascinating writer—a devout Christian with anarchist leanings, whose views on private property may have annoyed today’s libertarian. But despite what one might think about his more controversial beliefs, Tolstoy must be admired for his dogged pursuit of truth. He did not shy away from its raw, demanding light.
Tolstoy’s works are now available online for free—all 90 of them. This new Russian website hosts all his work, along with extensive biographical resources. If you have heard tales of Tolstoy’s legendary verbosity, be not dismayed: he has also written some excellent short works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a notable example, along with Father Sergius and Hadji Murat).
Raised by rich nobility, Tolstoy spent his early years as a poor student and avid gambler. He was horrified by the violence of the Crimean War; perhaps this helped push him toward the Christianity and pacifism of his later years. He married in 1862, had 13 children, and achieved great literary acclaim. However, after writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis. He then devoted the rest of his writings to religious and moral subjects.
Considering the Syria debate that has enthralled the media lately, I found this selection from Tolstoy’s essay “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” particularly noteworthy. Though Tolstoy’s pacifism and anarchism may be extreme, he had some interesting arguments regarding the use of violence that should be considered in today’s debate:
But besides corrupting public opinion, the use of force leads men to the fatal conviction that they progress, not through the spiritual impulse which impels them to the attainment of truth and its realization in life, and which constitutes the only source of every progressive movement of humanity, but by means of violence, the very force which, far from leading men to truth, always carries them further away from it. This is a fatal error, because it leads men to neglect the chief force underlying their life—their spiritual activity—and to turn all their attention and energy to the use of violence, which is superficial, sluggish, and most generally pernicious in its action.
…The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion. The use of violence only weakens this force, hinders it and corrupts it, and tries to replace it by another which far from being conducive to the progress of humanity, is detrimental to it.
Could Tolstoy be right that force repels progress and corrupts the truer motives of men—that using force to suppress force will not, in fact, bring freedom, but will instead subjugate the deeper, truer power of public opinion and reasoned discourse? If the people of Syria perceive that their progress only comes through deplorable violence, when will they stop? When will they convert from bloody revolution to the peaceful pursuit of representative government?
There may be times and places in which violence is absolutely necessary. However, one must never view it as a good means to procure peace: violence is never excellent. Tolstoy recognized its cyclical nature, and rightly saw it should be avoided at all costs. In Tolstoy’s mind, the greatest good one could do was to live without greed or avarice: to tend one’s own land, family, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems in this time of great national decision, there are many ways in which our government should tend its own land and family before seeking to suppress or fight violence elsewhere.