The Wisdom Of Tolstoy


Nearly all the products we use in modern life contain within them the hardwork of other people. Not just the hardwork of factory hands or managers or technicians or number-crunchers, but– in many cases, if you go back far enough along the materials-chain– the hardwork of miners, and fishermen, and farmers, and the modern equivalent of lumberjacks. These back-breaking, hands-on-Nature jobs –which people have performed since the beginning of civilization– are still being performed today, though now they are more hidden from us– not on purpose, but due directly to the modern mode of life (this is similar to how Death and even old age are often hidden from view during the course of a modern person’s daily routine). The fact that such fundamental facets of real life are missing from most of our experiences most of the time, surely has profound, perhaps twisting, effects upon the human psyche and would provide grist for a big blogpost by itself, but that’s not actually where I’m heading with this.

In his work, What I Believe, Leo Tolstoy writes that “every minute of our cherished tranquility is obtained at the expense of others’ suffering.” This may sound a bit hysterical, but one can interpret it in several ways, the least controversial interpretation being merely an acknowledgement of the fact that somebody has had to work– perhaps even quite hard– to provide us with the things that make our lives better– the chair we are sitting it, the cup in our hand, the food on our table. And it’s not unusual that items which make our lives only marginally more pleasant (such as say a smartphone or an e-book) come at a high physical cost to those providing us with such goods.

More controversially, one could assert that, in addition to the producer-consumption relationship, a consumer-consumer relationship exists in which one consumer’s pleasure comes at the expense of another consumer’s misery.  To choose a somewhat banal example, a relatively rich man could make the choice to purchase a $80,000 Mercedes with his excess-over-the-mean wealth, or he could instead treat 3,000 people to a dinner out. Since he chooses the Mercedes, 3,000 people will not be able to have that night out.

Of course, the Capitalist argument is that… well, if that above-the-income-mean man did not buy his Mercedes, then there would be car-factory workers out of a job. But again, this not where I’m heading, so I’ll save that fight for another day…

Continuing to follow Tolstoy’s thought, what he does is to take the fact of inequality and explore– not its physical effects– but its psychic ones. The worst suffering of the poor comes not from their absolute condition, states Tolstoy in The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, but “in the glaring contrast between what is and what ought to be”–  in the discord between the morality taught to us by our parents and other spiritual guides, and the actual behavior of society members. This psychic discord afflicts not just the poor, but the rich as well, and “does more to pervert our minds than thousands of the violent orgies of coarse laborers, officers, and workmen of drunken and debauched habits.”

Even when the attempt is made to alleviate the pangs of conscience (on one side) and of envy (on the other) through welfare programs, the sting of the discord between ideal and realworld is not eased, for (as Tolstoy writes in What I Believe) “condescending deeds, like public assistance” […] “breed nothing but resentment, both among the rich and the working class.”

The question of course arises… Well, if we’re all so bloody unhappy, why don’t we change things? Or as Tolstoy puts it in Stop And Think, “why does the sentiment of love, so natural and so beneficent, fail to rule our lives?” Answering his own question, he states that “evidently some secret but overwhelming reason prevents us from doing what is ultimately to our advantage, what would save us from the perils that menace us, and what the law of God and our conscience alike dictate.” The secret reason, according to Tolstoy, turns out to be two things: 1) habit and 2) our concern for what other people think of us.

From the time we get up in the morning until we go to bed, says Tolstoy, our life is ruled by: “propriety, custom, and duty.” We do not so much listen to the inner voice of conscience as we pay strict attention to the outer voice of public opinion. “Unfortunately,” writes Tolstoy, “too many of us care less about whether our conscience is working properly than about whether it should APPEAR to be working right.” We direct our impulses and desires into certain socially acceptable modes of behavior, and over time form habits– habits which “like folds on a sheet of paper, will remain forever.”

When it comes to the antagonism between what we know is right and what we actually do– “we will do anything to avoid the struggle,” asserts Tolstoy.  “By drinking and getting high, or by becoming obsessed with trivial objects and activities, we try, even if unconsciously, to drive from our consciousness” the discord in our souls. If we become too still, too introspective, we “take a stick and stir up the water the moment it begins to settle and become clear.”

The problem– and we are all aware of it only too well– is that “one is never content.” One ever-wants “new and stronger pleasures.” In his correspondence, Tolstoy describes the “predictable pattern” of unceasing pleasure-chasing: “this is always how it goes: candy, flavored drinks, bicycles and horse; then steak, cheese, alcohol, tobacco, fashion, and the opposite sex” with sexual lust being the strongest of all lusts; “when it is no longer possible to replace these pleasures with anything new and more potent, one reaches the stage of relying on artificially exaggerated pleasures through self-intoxication, drugs, pulsating music, and other means of stimulation and excitement. This path is so common today that few young people reach adulthood unscathed; some are entirely destroyed. Rich or poor, this is what young people confront”— although the rich can satisfy their lusts more quickly “and so more quickly grow bored and grasp after extremes.”

What I find most amazing, even eerie, about Tolstoy’s description of the pattern of pleasure pursuit is how well it holds up today, in spite of the fact that society has experienced a complete change-over in the items we use for our pleasure.

Sadly, in Tolstoy’s day as in our own, the satisfaction of our desires “brings in its train an inevitable and a countless number of new lusts.” … “Herein lies the snare, which always leads to torment.”

The irony here is that, the farther we run from our basic humanity and toward the pleasures of the moment– and the greater the zeal with which we make “the ongoing quest to fill the emptiness of our selfish lives,” –the less often we allow ourselves to experience the simple pleasures of life.  By making others work for us, contends Tolstoy, we rob ourselves of the very real satisfaction of work followed by rest, and of a hearty meal eaten after hours of exertion.  “We become so absorbed in safe-guarding our lives that no life is left in us,” writes Tolstoy in What I Believe.

And there are other ways –besides pleasure-seeking– that we attempt to blunt our conscience. One of those is taking of comfort in the responsibility-insulation provided by bureaucracy (I know, I know– bureaucracy providing comfort?!).

In The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, Tolstoy explains that –because society operates through both an immense bureaucracy and a complex division of labor– “no one is responsible.”

Tolstoy had propounded the same theme ten years earlier, in What I Believe, when he writes that “no clerk would tear a villager from his weeping family and cast him into prison” without the hierarchy of the bureaucracy to shield him. Similarly, the average soldier would find it almost incapacitatingly difficult to kill a fellow human being if he has not first been “hardened” and relieved of the burden of personal responsibility by military institution. “Yet all these things are done thanks to the administrative machinery that divides responsibility for misdeeds in such a way that no one feels them to be contrary to nature.”

Nevertheless, in spite of our attempts to forget about the evil in the world– in spite of all the hole-filling pleasure-seeking, all the evasions of responsibility, all the stultifying and numbing effects of habit and custom– many of us consider ourselves to be in a constant state of struggle against evil. However, we inevitably can never win this struggle against evil because we attack with the wrong strategy in mind– we fight with wrong motivations and wrong methods.

“The need to oppose evil by violence is little more than our way of justifying our own habitual vices of vengeance, cupidity, envy, ambition, pride, cowardice, and spite,” writes Tolstoy in The Law Of Love And The Law Of Violence. If someone strikes us, and we strike them back… the physicality of our responding act carries no less violence than the initiating act. Additionally, our act of vengeance will serve to increase the ill-will between us and our aggressor, and not unlikely will lead to further acts of aggression against us, either overt or covert– acts we may again violently respond to, thus creating a cycle of retribution. In this way, says Tolstoy, “the majority calmly continue under the guise of destroying evil to spread it more widely.” This is precisely why he is led to the conclusion that “evil cannot be annihilated with evil” and that “all resistance to evil by violence only leads to more evil.”   For Tolstoy, the only logical and efficacious response to evil is non-violence and love. “Love alone destroys the germ of violence.”

“Love evokes love in others,” writes Tolstoy in Thoughts On God. “God, having awakened in me, also produces the awakening of the same God in others.”

He is not, however, condoning apathy toward evil. In fact, apathy is the anti-thesis of what he is proposing. “Our whole life is a battle against evil,” he says, “but this battle must be fought by reason and love.”

Does this mean we must forgive those who trespass against us? Actually, according to Tolstoy, once you have accepted that reason and love make-up the only arsenal you need in the battle against evil, the question of pardoning someone who has raised your ire will not be in your heart… “for you will feel compelled to pardon only yourself for not having seen God in him.”

As Tolstoy amply shows, neither acts of vengeance nor the endless search for pleasure will provide our souls with peace or happiness. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that “love alone is the only reasonable activity or pursuit of humankind.” Therefore, the only sensible life is the life of service, the life of “activity directed toward the well-being of others.” Tolstoy considered this approach to life as the difference between living a “God-centered” life and a “self-centered” one.

Until one recognizes this fundamental fact –that only love can eradicate evil– then one is cursed to continue along the path of personal suffering. “If I consider the wrong road to be the right one,” states Tolstoy in What Is To Be Done, “then my every step will lead me farther from my aim.” Thus, the first step along the proper path is the discovery of the Truth. To arrive at Truth, we must be honest– honest with others, of course– but just as importantly, honest with ourselves. “Lying to one’s self leads to complete ruin,” declares Tolstoy.

Writing in The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, Tolstoy describes dishonesty, especially in the form of hypocrisy, as one of the most of destructive sins. When people see their supposed superiors, or any of those whom they respect or admire, behaving in ways that jar with the commonly espoused laws of decency, they grow confused concerning good and evil. This is why those who propose or enforce one morality and yet practice another are especially pernicious: they “injure themselves and their victims, and thousands of others as well, who are led astray by the falsehood with which the wrongdoing is disguised.” […] “They corrupt by obliterating the sense of distinction between right and wrong.”

The solutions to suffering offered by Tolstoy– living without hypocrisy, responding to evil with love– are often met with skepticism simply because they seem too idealistic for actual implementation in this rotten world into which we are born. Sure, we may respond, this ideal of non-violent resistance… it’s sweet and all, but it’s not very realistic.

Tolstoy answers this objection by declaring that, actually, ideals are, in a sense, the most real things we possess. For instance, we can imagine the ideal of the perfectly straight line, and by imagining, know it completely; we can know, along every point of it, exactly how it is shaped and which way it runs. It is the material lines which we can never fully know. No line in the physical world is perfectly straight… each will have its own set of bends and blemishes and nicks. We cannot therefore, writes Tolstoy in On Life, know a non-ideal line as completely as we can know an ideal one.  

Thus we arrive at the irony that “the ideal is the only thing we know with certainty, but it doesn’t actually exist.”

Tolstoy compares this situation to the ideal of Christian love. Just because we may never see the ideal of Christian love perfectly expressed within the world, this does not mean that the ideal is not real, nor that it should not be striven for. For Tolstoy, not striving toward an ideal because it appears unattainable, is like tossing overboard the compass because you’re not certain of arriving safely in port.

Tolstoy admits the insignificant results a lone person can directly accomplish in this world. However, he contends that people fighting darkness are basically contagious… they pass the light they bring from one person to the next… as “one candle kindles another.” In this way, to switch metaphors, “the smallest of seeds can grow into the tallest of trees.”

“Our life is but a continual movement from darkness into light,” Tolstoy writes in The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, “from a lower stage of truth to a higher, from a truth more alloyed with errors to a truth more purified.”

Deep within our souls we know that we are all spiritually equal, that violence only begets more violence, and that darkness can never be driven out by more darkness but only by light. Concerning the question, “What Is To Be Done?”– we all know the answer. We all know what needs to be done. As Tolstoy, himself put it in What I Believe, “it is not help from heaven we need. We simply need to stop destroying ourselves.”


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