Tolstoy wrote “Bethink Yourselves” in protest of the Russo-Japanese war, the first of a series of global wars in the 20th century. It happened six years before Tolstoy’s death and ten years before World War I. The title is a reference to verses in the Gospels (Mark 1:5, Luke 13:5, etc), which are alternatively translated as “Repent”. This article and his treatise “The Kingdom of God is Within You” are two of Tolstoy’s important works on pacifism.
A common argument against pacifism is that a pacifist, though he opposes violence, will nevertheless suffer violence from others, and that if a country practices pacifism in times of war, it will be destroyed by another country. Tolstoy’s reply (quoted below) is reminiscent of the Stoics and Kant.
For man there is only one way of being free–by uniting his will with the will of God.
The work of my life consists in fulfilling the will of Him who sent me into this life. This will is known to me. This will is that I should love my neighbor and serve him. Then why should I, following temporary, casual, irrational, and cruel demands, deviate from the known eternal and changeless law of all my life? If there be a God, He will not ask me when I die (which may happen at any moment) whether I retained …that conglomeration which is called the Russian Empire, which He did not confide to my care; but He will ask me what I have done with that life which He put at my disposal;–did I use it for the purpose for which it was predestined, and under the conditions for fulfilling which it was intrusted to me? Have I fulfilled His law?
For me, a man who understands his destiny, whatever position I may occupy, …whatever be my circumstances, whether the war be commenced or not, whether thousands of Russians or Japanese be killed, …I cannot act otherwise than as God demands of me, and that therefore I as a man can neither directly nor indirectly, neither by directing, nor by helping, nor by inciting to it, participate in war; I cannot, I do not wish to, and I will not. What will happen immediately or soon, from my ceasing to do that which is contrary to the will of God, I do not and cannot know; but I believe that from the fulfilment of the will of God there can follow nothing but that which is good for me and for all men.
A [religious] man is guided in his activity not by the presumed consequences of his action, but by the consciousness of the destination of his life. …He acts in fulfilling the work prescribed to him by God, without arguing as to what precisely will come of that work. Therefore for a religious man there is no question as to whether many or few men act as he does, or of what may happen to him if he does that which he should do. He knows that besides life and death nothing can happen, and that life and death are in the hands of God whom he obeys.
A religious man acts thus and not otherwise, not because he desires to act thus, nor because it is advantageous to himself or to other men, but because, believing that his life is in the hands of God, he cannot act otherwise.