Tolstoy on Honesty

As a follow-up to ’s entry about whether honesty is the best policy, I was finally able to dig up an English translation of Tolstoy’s remarks on the subject.

Tolstoy starts off by reprinting news accounts of the manipulation of patriotism in Russia and in France to support the Franco-Russian alliance. This can be summarized by replacing “Oceana” with “Russia”, “Eurasia” with “France,” and “Eastasia” with “Germany” in the following quote from Orwell’s 1984:

[A]t just this moment it had been announced that Oceana was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally. There was, of course, no admission that any change had taken place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia, was the enemy.

The celebrations of brotherhood and mutual admiration that accompanied what was, after all, just a temporary strategic alliance between governments, went to absurd lengths. Tolstoy describes in detail this mutual mania, which made him “first amused, then astonished, then indignant.”

There is no single speech or article in which it is not said that the purpose of all these orgies is the peace of Europe… ¶ It is as if a man should come into a peaceful company, and commence energetically to assure every one present that he has not the least intention of knocking out any one’s teeth, blackening their eyes, or breaking their arms, but has only the most peaceful ideas for passing the evening.

Well, what’s wrong with a little diplomatic, patriotic ballyhoo?

It is wrong because it is false — a most evident and insolent falsehood, inexcusable, iniquitous. ¶ It is false, this suddenly begotten love of Russians for French and French for Russians. And it is false, this insinuation of our dislike to the Germans, and our distrust of them. And more false still is it that the aim of all these indecent and insane orgies is supposed to be the preservation of the peace of Europe.

Tolstoy predicts that the idea of balancing military alliances against each other in an attempt to ward off war is doomed to fail (as of course it did fail, spectacularly, in the World War), and is really just the cover story behind the real motivation which is to increase military power in preparation to launch war. “Every one who realizes the true import of these festivities cannot but protest against what is tacitly included in them:”

[B]efore we can look round, the usual ominous absurd proclamation will appear in the papers:—

“We, by God’s grace, the autocratic great Emperor of all Russia, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc., etc., proclaim to all our true subjects, that, for the welfare of these our beloved subjects, bequeathed by God into our care, we have found it our duty before God to send them to slaughter. God be with us.”

The bells will peal, long-haired men will dress in golden sacks and pray for successful slaughter. And the old story will begin again, the awful customary acts.

The editors of the daily press, happy in the receipt of an increased income, will begin virulently to stir men up to hatred and manslaughter in the name of patriotism. Manufacturers, merchants, contractors for military stores will hurry joyously about their business, in the hope of double receipts.

All sorts of government functionaries will buzz about, foreseeing a possibility of purloining something more than usual. The military authorities will hurry hither and thither, drawing double pay and rations, and with the expectation of receiving for the slaughter of other men various silly little ornaments which they so highly prize, as ribbons, crosses, orders, and stars. Idle ladies and gentlemen will make a great fuss, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross Society, and ready to bind up the wounds of those whom their husbands and brothers will mutilate, and they will imagine that in so doing they are performing a most Christian work.

And, smothering despair within their souls by songs, licentiousness, and wine, men will trail along, torn from peaceful labor, from their wives, mothers, and children, — hundreds of thousands of simple-minded, good-natured men with murderous weapons in their hands — anywhere they will be driven.

They will march, freeze, hunger, suffer sickness, and die from it, or finally come to some place where they will be slain by thousands, or kill thousands themselves with no reason — men they have never seen before, and who neither have done nor could do them any mischief.

And when the number of sick, wounded, and killed becomes so great that there are not hands enough left to pick them up, and when the air is so infected with the putrefying scent of the “food for cannon” that even the authorities find it disagreeable, a truce will be made, the wounded will be picked up anyhow, the sick will be brought in and huddled together in heaps, the killed will be covered with earth and lime, and once more all the crowd of deluded men will be led on and on till those who have devised the project weary of it, or till those who thought to find it profitable receive their spoil.

Tolstoy then launches into a long attack on patriotism itself, which in pithy summary comes to:

Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthrallment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached.

Patriotism is slavery.

And it is through large-scale deceptions and falsehoods like patriotism itself that people come to believe that they are doing good things — like securing peace in Europe by celebrating the eternal brotherhood between Oceana and Eurasia — when in fact they are directing their energies toward murder and destruction.

“The emperors, kings, and their ministers… the various ministers, diplomatists, and functionaries… military men, got up in ridiculous costumes… likewise the priests, journalists, writers of patriotic songs and class-books… All these people do what they are doing unconsciously, because they must, all their life being founded upon deceit, and because they know not how to do anything else; and coincidentally these same acts call forth the sympathy and approbation of all the people amongst whom they are done.”

Tolstoy observes that even in the land of Kaisers and Czars, governments are kept in power not primarily by military force but by public acquiescence, and that the base of this acquiescence is patriotism:

A public opinion exists that patriotism is a fine moral sentiment, and that it is right and our duty to regard one’s own nation, one’s own state, as the best in the world; and flowing naturally from this public opinion is another, namely, that it is right and our duty to acquiesce in the control of a government over ourselves, to subordinate ourselves to it, to serve in the army and submit ourselves to discipline, to give our earnings to the government in the form of taxes, to submit to the decisions of the law-courts, and to consider the edicts of the government as divinely right.

Government comes into being by inducing this public opinion, and once in power, uses its control to try to shape public opinion to reinforce its power and prestige. Is there any way out of this trap?

No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity; neither the armament of millions of soldiers, nor the construction of new roads and machines, nor the arrangement of exhibitions, nor the organization of workmen’s unions, nor revolutions, not barricades, nor explosions, nor the perfection of aërial navigation; but a change in public opinion.

And to accomplish this change no exertions of the mind are needed, nor the refutation of anything in existence, nor the invention of any extraordinary novelty; it is only needful that we should not succumb to the erroneous, already defunct, public opinion of the past, which governments have induced artificially; it is only needful that each individual should say what he really feels or thinks, or at least that he should not say what he does not think.

And if only a small body of the people were to do so at once, of their own accord, outworn public opinion would fall off us of itself, and a new, living, real opinion would assert itself. And when public opinion should thus have changed without the slightest effort, the internal condition of men’s lives which so torments them would change likewise of its own accord.

One is ashamed to say how little is needed for all men to be delivered from those calamities which now oppress them; it is only needful not to lie.