[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.
- “Bethink Yourselves” by Leo Tolstoy
- “The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy
- “What I Believe” by Leo Tolstoy