The (Anti?)Utopian Political Philosophy of Tolstoy

I went on at some length about my idea of the proper understanding of anarchism in contrast to utopian political philosophies, and complained that people frequently seem unable to evaluate political theory outside of a utopianist framework.

I was very interested, then, recently to read Tolstoy’s “Letter to the Editor of the Daily Chronicle” in which he comes up against a similar stubborn misunderstanding of his own species of Christian Anarchism and responds in a very similar way. Excerpts:

Ever since the appearance of my book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and of the article, Christianity and Patriotism, I frequently have had occasion to read in articles and in letters retorts, I shall not say to my thoughts, but to their misinterpretations. This is sometimes done consciously, and sometimes unconsciously, only through a sheer misunderstanding of the spirit of the Christian teaching.

“All that is very well,” I am told; “despotism, capital punishment, the armament of the whole of Europe, the oppressed condition of the labourers, and the wars are all great calamities, and you are right when you condemn the existing order, but how can we get along without a government? What right have we, the men with a limited comprehension and intellect, because it seems better to us, to destroy that existing order of things, by means of which our ancestors attained the present high degree of civilization and all its benefits? While destroying the government we ought to put something else in its place. If not, how can we risk all those terrible calamities, which must inevitably assail us, if the government is destroyed?”

But the point is, that the Christian teaching, in its true sense, has never proposed to destroy anything, nor has it proposed any new order, which is to take the place of the older one. The Christian teaching differs from all the other religious and social doctrines in this very thing, that it gives the good to men, not by means of common laws for the lives of all men, but by the elucidation for every individual man of the meaning of his life, by showing him what the evil and what the true good of his life consists in. And this meaning of life, which is revealed to man by the Christian teaching, is so clear, so convincing, and so unquestionable, that as soon as a man has come to understand it and so cognizes what the evil and the good of his life consists in, he can in no way consciously do that in which he sees the evil of his life, and cannot fail to do that in which he sees its true good, just as water cannot help but run down, and a plant tend toward the light.

But the meaning of life, as revealed to man by Christianity, consists in doing the will of Him, from whom we have come into this world and to whom we shall go, when we leave it. Thus the evil of our life lies only in the departure from this will, and the good lies only in the fulfilment of the demands of this will, which are so simple and so clear that it is as impossible to miss understanding them as it is absurd to misinterpret them. If you cannot do unto another what you wish that he should do unto you, at least do not do unto another what you do not wish that another should do unto you: if you do not wish to be compelled to work in a factory or in mines for ten hours at a time; if you do not wish your children to be hungry, cold, ignorant; if you do not wish your land, on which you can support yourself, to be taken from you; if you do not wish to be locked up in a prison and hanged, because through old age, temptation, or ignorance you have committed an illegal act; if you do not wish to be wounded and killed in war, — do not do the same to others.

All this is so simple, so clear, so incontestable, that a small child cannot help but understand it, and no sophist can overthrow it.

[W]hat must be the feelings of a Christian, who is approached with the demands that he shall take part in oppression, in the seizure of land, in capital punishments, wars, and so forth, demands which are made upon us by the governmental authorities[?]… that unquestionable knowledge of every man who is uncorrupted by false teachings, that he must not do unto others what he does not wish to have done unto himself, and that he, therefore, must not take part in acts of violence, in levying for the army, in capital punishments, in the murder of his neighbour, which is demanded of him by his government. Thus, the question for a Christian is not, as it is unwittingly and sometimes consciously put by the advocates of the government, whether a man has the right to destroy the existing order and put a new one in its place, — a Christian does not even think of the general order, leaving this to be managed by God, being firmly convinced that God has implanted His law in our minds and hearts, not for disorder, but for order, and that nothing but what is good will come from following the unquestionable law of God, which is revealed to us; the question for any Christian, or for any man in general, is not, how to arrange matters in an external or new way (no one of us is obliged to solve this question), — what is subject to the solution of every one of us, not at will, but inevitably, is the question as to how I am to act in the choice which presents itself to me all the time: must I, contrary to my conscience, take part in the government, which recognizes the right to the ownership in land in the case of those men who do not work upon it, which collects the taxes from the poor, in order to give them to the rich, which deports and sends to hard labour and hangs erring men, drives soldiers to slaughter, corrupts the masses with opium and whiskey, and so forth; or must I, in accordance with my conscience, refuse to take part in the government, whose acts are contrary to my conscience? But what will happen, what the government will be as the result of this or that act of mine, I do not know; not that I do not wish to know it, but I cannot know it.

I am told, “This is the destruction of government and the annihilation of the existing order.” But if the fulfilment of God’s will destroys the existing order, is not that an undoubted proof that the existing order is contrary to God’s will and ought to be destroyed?

I’ll return to this topic tomorrow, as I think this may be worth fleshing out some.


On , Jonathan Harris wrote to John B. Crenshaw:

I am sorry to hear of the sufferings of our friends in the army around Petersburgh, I hope their sufferings may soon be alleviated. For the confederate Congress to require friends to be taken into the army or pay an annual tax of $500 of their surplus, and that too to the government or the soldiers wives, and that at schedule prices, it looks to me they have become perfectly reckless and have lost all regard for conscientious religious liberty or that they do not understand the position of Friends.

We cannot consistently with our principles pay said tax.

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