[AKA: My Religion]
When I first read War and Peace five years ago, Tolstoy was nothing but a famous name to me. War and Peace was the first epic novel I’ve ever read, and, to me, it was perfect. Now that I’ve read most of Tolstoy’s works, I’d like to think that I have a decent understanding of the artist through his works, which make up a jigsaw portrait of himself. He is one of the writers whom I can relate to the most, for I often find my own thoughts and feelings reflected in his writings.
In “What I Believe”, Tolstoy articulates his moral and religious beliefs and convictions, and criticizes the doctrines and practices of the Church, which he believes obscures and deviates man from “the doctrine of Christ”. Unfortunately, his views have been marginalized by atheists and Christians alike, the former dismissed him for being religious and didactic, and the latter for being heretical and subversive. It seems to me Tolstoy is a man with whom it is possible to have an open and civil dialogue about religion. I wish I could converse with him in person, as one rational being with another, as individuals and equals. On the one hand, I don’t have the conviction that my beliefs are the Truth and will benefit those who read them, OTOH, I’m always inclined to give a defense to everyone who criticizes beliefs that seem rational and logical to me.
The Gospel According to Tolstoy
If I understand Tolstoy correctly, he doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus nor the Resurrection, but he believes the Sermon on the Mount are God’s commandments. Jesus is one of the prophets, who make clear God’s commandments to Man. In this sense, Tolstoy himself is also a prophet, though perhaps to a lesser degree.
He derives five commandments of God from the Sermon on the Mount: do not be angry (do not judge); do not lust (nor divorce); do not take oaths (nor participate in any government); do not resist evil; love your enemies. The central point is non-judgment and non-violence.
He believes that God’s commandments are illuminated by the light of reason, not divine revelation. The commandments are profoundly simple and logically consistent, and man, as a rational being, is capable of obeying them, without any need of divine grace. It is inconceivable to Tolstoy that God would give commandments to Man which he is incapable of keeping.
He rejects the notion of immortality of the soul and individuality. He seems to think that individuality is bound up with self-interest, which is the cause of evils, and the cure is to immerse individuality into humanity. The individual is mortal, but humanity is immortal. The only way a human being can attain to a type of immortality is to keep God’s eternal law for humanity, even at the cost of his mortal life as an individual.
Tolstoy could have derived the same rules of life from the Sermon on the Mount without acknowledging the existence of God, or His sovereignty. Unlike the Mosaic Laws and the teachings of Jesus, there is nothing at all in the Tolstoyan rules that concern God. Why then does he believe and claim that those commandments are from God?
By his doctrine of non-resistance, Tolstoy precludes self-defense, and consequently, the life of an individual human being is rendered of no significance. The human race is made up of individuals, if each individual is insignificant, how can the human race as a whole be of any significance? If the individual is mortal, the human race is mortal as well, though the whole may last longer than the parts. There seems to be nothing eternal or infinitely noble in Tolstoyan ethics.
- “Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity” by G. K. Chesterton
- “Bethink Yourselves” by Leo Tolstoy
- “The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy
Related External Articles:
- Tolstoy’s Remarkable Manifesto on Christian Anarchy and Pacifism (independent.org)
- Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy (patricktreardon.com)