“Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity” by G. K. Chesterton

[Warning: The following review may be strongly biased. I read Chesterton’s Heretics and Orthodoxy a long time ago, but retained nothing from them, except that he had sharp wit and good sense of humour; On the other hand, I’m a fan of Tolstoy and read the majority of his works]

If Chesterton had reviewed his essay on Tolstoy in a more reflective mood, he would have retracted it. It’s a load of rubbish.

The main point of contention in this essay is pacifism, which Tolstoy believed was in accord with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy asked, “How can a Christian who is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, even love his enemies, kill other human beings?”

To this simple and direct question, Chesterton could have given a direct answer as a professing Christian. He didn’t; He could have pointed out the errors or logical inconsistencies in Tolstoy’s arguments. He didn’t; He could have given a thoughtful and well-reasoned response on the necessity, justice or usefulness, if any, of violence and war. He didn’t.

What he did instead is beneath him, both his dignity as a human being and his reputation as a thinker. Firstly, he employed ad hominem, portraying Tolstoy as a “small and noisy moralist” after grossly misrepresenting the latter’s beliefs; Secondly, he used evasive tactic, arguing that there are many ways to interpret the Gospels, and therefore no definite conclusions could be drawn; Thirdly, he resorted to authority, that is, his own authority. He tried to refute Tolstoy by giving his own interpretation of the Gospel, not realizing he was contradicting his previous position. The gist of his arguments is that Jesus is fully an individual human being, with special love for his friends and his country Israel. That may very well be true, but it still evades the crucial question. If anyone is entitled to self-defense, Jesus would be the one. but he refrained from violence. How then can those who claim to be his followers use violence against others?

In short, my impression after reading their respective essays on pacifism is this: Tolstoy appears to be someone who writes to live, Chesterton writes to make a living; Tolstoy writes with the force of conviction, Chesterton from force of habit.


Found this Chesterton quote: “The function of criticism [is]… that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author himself can express. …criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.”

I cannot presume to know the “subconscious part” of Chesterton’s mind, but it would be no small feat, not to mention a lot of fun, to make him jump, all 290lb of him, out of his boots.

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7 thoughts on ““Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity” by G. K. Chesterton

  1. Chesterton and Tolstoy were both giants of the Christian faith.

    I can only imagine all the lives spared from wars never fought had Chesterton sided with Tolstoy and made that message as clear as everything else he wrote. Instead, he got this badly wrong.

    With 20/20 hindsight, we can only lament that Tolstoy was completely ignored, and the church continued to sanction sending its sons into the wars of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in all history.

      1. I read Orthodoxy years ago, then just this past month I’ve read it again together with Heretics and What’s Wrong with the World. Orthodoxy is brilliant, and Chesterton’s wit is second to none. I am looking forward to reading The Everlasting Man, which I’m told is even better than Orthodoxy. I know of no one who can compare to him in defending the Faith against the trends of the modern age.

        But Chesterton does indeed fall flat when attacking another Christian. Suddenly the words of Jesus become, “two or three remote Oriental anecdotes written in corrupt Greek”, and he sounds like just another atheist with a slightly above average IQ.

        I came across Tolstoy’s book “The Kingdom of God is within you” just this past week, and was intrigued by the title. I knew he was a famous writer, but had no idea of the depth of his Christian convictions. I was only two chapters into the book when I saw that he was applying a seriousness and logic worthy of Chesterton to a very significant issue that is simply ignored by most Christians. Next I noted his complaint that none of his critics would actually engage the issue.

        Knowing that Chesterton was his contemporary, I wondered what Chesterton had to say, and I found your article.

        I was already aware of Chesterton’s patriotism, so the fact that he disagreed with Tolstoy was no surprise. But the fact that he too simply avoided engaging the substance of the argument was a big disappointment.

        Most of Chesterton’s writing is so pertinent that it reads like it was written yesterday. He shredded all the arguments against Christianity a hundred years ago that atheists still think make them sound smart today. The problem for most Christians is that they debate atheists without first reading Chesterton.

        But in reviewing the history of the Twentieth century, it is clear that Tolstoy was the prophet crying in the wilderness, and we can only add Chesterton to the list of people who, in their ignorance, contributed to justifying the bloodiest century in human history.

      2. I didn’t learn much from Orthodoxy and wasn’t terribly impressed when I read the book many years ago, but it might be because I couldn’t appreciate Chesterton’s profundity. I have yet to read The Everlasting Man.

      3. Debate a few atheists and you will appreciate Chesterton. He usually tells you who first came up with each argument that they mindlessly repeat today. But if you haven’t confronted these arguments, then you won’t appreciate how profound his answer are.

        I came back to Chesterton after finding myself embroiled in one silly argument after another, simply for trying to clarify the theistic viewpoint in the comments on an atheist blog.

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