Summarizing Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”

Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You

“Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You overwhelmed me,” wrote Gandhi. “It left an abiding impression on me.”

Ammon Hennacy wrote: “I felt that it must have been written especially for me, for here was the answer already written out to all the questions that I had tried to figure out for myself…”

Gandhi went on to read more of Tolstoy’s works on nonviolence, and began to develop his own implementations of ahimsa (non-harm) and satyagraha (truth-force) at a place he called “Tolstoy Farm” in South Africa. Hennacy adopted a life of voluntary poverty and tax resistance “as I had learned them from Tolstoy and the Catholic Worker.”

The book is the most influential work of Christian anarchism, and would probably be considered the founding work of that tradition if it didn’t itself claim to merely be pointing out Christian anarchism as the plain meaning of the gospels.

Well, why don’t you read it yourself, then?

I’ve made a translation of The Kingdom of God Is Within You available on The Picket Line.

I added many links so that when Tolstoy mentions events and personalities from the end of the 19th century that are no longer common knowledge, or he references Bible verses or quotes from other works, you can more-easily figure out what he was getting at.

I’ve also made a few changes to Leo Wiener’s translation: modernizing and Americanizing spelling, putting Tolstoy’s footnotes in-line in bracketed sections, correcting some unfortunate translation decisions (calling Ivan the Terrible “John Ⅳ,” overliterally translating Nicene Creed into the Nicene “Symbol,” referring to icons as “images,” and so forth), and when I could find the original sources for things in English that Tolstoy quoted but that Wiener translated back to English from Tolstoy’s Russian translations I have replaced these with the originals.

You’d rather I summarize it for you?

It is hard to do justice to the book by a quick summary, but I’ll give it a shot.

Tolstoy argues that Christianity as it currently exists in the form of doctrines, church institutions and hierarchies, and ritual practices, is anti-Christian. Not just that it happens to be anti-Christian because these things have become corrupt (though they have) but because Christ explicitly told his followers to reject doctrines, church institutions and hierarchies, and ritual practices, and instead to love truth, to honor God, and to treat all people as your family and as you would want to be treated.

This intuitive and simple message, which Jesus made explicit in the gospels, ought to be the lodestone of all of our lives, and indeed the progress of society throughout human history is leading us in this direction as truth slowly erodes away falsehood.

An inevitable conclusion of the command to treat all people as your family and as you would want to be treated is that the current political order is unsupportable. You cannot participate in the political system, which is based on the use of violence to enforce the separation of people and the privileging of some people over others, and at the same time follow the guideline to love your neighbor.

Everybody ought to work to orient their lives along true Christian lines immediately (without waiting for the world to be “ready” for it). This means ending all support of and participation in government, for instance as a soldier, an office-holder, a juror, or a taxpayer. And it also means renouncing any privileges that the government implicitly defends by violent means (such as private property).

What did I think of it?

I am not a Christian. That Jesus said this or the gospels say that, to me does not constitute an argument for a course of action. Tolstoy’s interpretation of Jesus’s message is attractive in some ways, but does not convince me as being so clearly the best and most accurate summation of what Jesus had to say (though it strikes me as much less preposterous than most of Christianity then or now). When I read the gospels, Jesus seems to me to be saying something like:

There is nothing in this world — family, honor, riches, even knowing where your next meal is coming from — that matters even a little bit compared to devoting yourself entirely to God, since I will be coming back to earth on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory, sending my angels with a loud trumpet call to gather my elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other, and putting an end to everything and ushering in something entirely new within your lifetime.

This makes questions of worldly ethics a sideshow at best, and may explain why people have so much difficulty trying to get a consistent worldly ethics, applicable to our situation today, from the gospels (Jesus never intended to develop one).

Jesus also didn’t come back on the clouds of the sky, etc., etc., like he said he would, which to me means that we do need to create a worldly ethics after all and that Jesus is unlikely to be of much help to us in this regard.

So while Tolstoy thought of himself as explaining the clear teachings of Christ to people who wanted to follow those teachings, I think of Tolstoy as explaining to us what worldly ethics he thinks the wisest person he can think of would have naturally taught. This is the Gospel of Tolstoy, and as such it is interesting even to a non-Christian.

The Birds & The Bees

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Tolstoy explains why he thinks small, individual, conscientious actions are important in creating large-scale social changes:

In their present condition men are like bees which have just swarmed and are hanging down a limb in a cluster. The position of the bees on the limb is temporary, and must inevitably be changed. They must rise and find a new home for themselves. Every one of the bees knows that and wishes to change its position and that of the others, but not one is able to do so before the others are going to do so. They cannot rise all at once, because one hangs down from the other, keeping it from separating itself from the swarm, and so all continue to hang. It would seem that the bees could not get out of this state, just as it seems to worldly men who are entangled in the snare of the social world-conception. But there would be no way out for the bees, if each of the bees were not separately a living being, endowed with wings. So there would also be no way out for men, if each of them were not a separate living being, endowed with the ability of acquiring the Christian concept of life.

If every bee which can fly did not fly, the rest, too, would not move, and the swarm would never change its position. And as one bee need but open its wings, rise up, and fly away, and after it a second, third, tenth, hundredth, in order that the immovable cluster may become a freely flying swarm of bees, so one man need but understand life as Christianity teaches him to understand it, and begin to live accordingly, and a second, third, hundredth, to do so after him, in order that the magic circle of the social life, from which there seemed to be no way out, be destroyed.

But people think that the liberation of all men in this manner is too slow, and that it is necessary to find and use another such a means, so as to free all at once; something like what the bees would do, if, wishing to rise and fly away, they should find that it was too long for them to wait for the whole swarm to rise one after another, and should try to find a way where every individual bee would not have to unfold its wings and fly away, but the whole swarm could fly at once wherever it wanted. But that is impossible: so long as the first, second, third, hundredth bee does not unfold its wings and fly, the swarm, too, will not fly away or find the new life. So long as every individual man does not make the Christian life-conception his own, and does not live in accordance with it, the contradiction of the human life will not be solved and the new form of life will not be established.

I also found interesting his discussion of the “intoxication of servility” — what happens when, by submitting to the orders of an authority figure, you become capable of doing things that your conscience would normally not permit you to do. (Several times before at The Picket Line I have referred to Hannah Arendt’s ponderings about this temptation and its consequences and to the Milgram Experiment and its theory of the “agentic state.”) Tolstoy sees the intoxication of servility as the flip-side of the intoxication of power — if you feel yourself to be occupying a role that gives you authority over other people, this has the same intoxicating, morally enfeebling, and disastrous effects as does feeling yourself to be occupying a role in which you are obeying and carrying out orders.

To Tolstoy, much of the evil in the world is done by people who have become blinded by the hierarchical roles they inhabit, and it doesn’t really matter where in the hierarchy the roles put you. When you feel you are enacting a role in a hierarchy rather than fulfilling the common responsibilities of an equal human being, you become willing to do things to other people that you would never do to them if you saw them as a member of the human family whose needs were as worthy of respect as anyone else’s.

I always appreciate Tolstoy’s witty mockery of liberal pretensions, and this book has a particularly good analogy. He spends some time reviewing the proclamations, propositions, declarations, denunciations, petitions, and recommendations of various international peace conferences, and says:

When I was a little fellow, I was assured that to catch a bird it was just necessary to pour some salt on its tail. I went out with the salt to the birds, and immediately convinced myself that, if I could get near enough to pour the salt on a bird’s tail, I could catch it, and I understood that they were making fun of me.

It is the same that must be understood by those who read books and pamphlets on courts of arbitration and disarmament.

If it is possible to pour salt on a bird’s tail, this means that it does not fly, and that there is no need of catching it. But if a bird has wings and does not want to be caught, it does not allow any one to pour salt on its tail, because it is the property of a bird to fly. Even so the property of a government does not consist in being subjected, but in subjecting, and a government is a government only in so far as it is able, not to be subjected, but to subject, and so it strives to do so, and can never voluntarily renounce its power; but the power gives it the army, and so it will never give up the army and its use for purposes of war.

A little clumsy, in translation anyway, but a good analogy. I see a lot of these salting-the-bird’s-tail proposals from liberal peaceniks today.