Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love

Tolstoy Law Love

(Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, no date)

As well as being one of the great titans of world literature, Leo Tolstoy was a convinced anarchist and pacifist. The British philosopher and writer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his book, Russian Thinkers, states that Tolstoy’s anarchist beliefs even informed his great work, War and Peace. Instead of portraying world history as being shaped by the ideas and actions of great men, Tolstoy’s epic of the Napoleonic Wars shows instead how it is formed by the actions of millions of individuals.

The writer himself attempted to put his own ideas into practise. He was horrified by the poverty and squalor, both physical and moral, of the new, urban Russia which was arising as the country industrialised, and the degradation of its working and peasant peoples. After serving in the army he retreated to his estate, where he concentrated on writing. He also tried to live out his beliefs, dressing in peasant clothes and teaching himself their skills and crafts, like boot-making, in order to identify with them as the oppressed against the oppressive upper classes.

Tolstoy took his pacifism from a Chechen Sufi nationalist leader, who was finally captured and exiled from his native land by the Russians after a career resisting the Russian invasion. This Islamic mystic realised that military resistance was useless against the greater Russian armed forces. So instead, he preached a message of non-violent resistance and peaceful protest against the Russian imperial regime. Tolstoy had been an officer during the invasion of Chechnya, and had been impressed by its people and their leader’s doctrine of peaceful resistance. Tolstoy turned it into one of the central doctrines of his own evolving anarchist ideology. And he, in turn, influenced Gandhi in his stance of ahimsa – Hindu non-violence – and peaceful campaign against the British occupation of India. Among the book’s appendices is 1910 letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I also believe Tolstoy’s doctrine of peaceful resistance also influence Martin Luther King in his confrontation with the American authorities for civil rights for Black Americans.

Tolstoy considered himself a Christian, though his views are extremely heretical and were officially condemned as such by the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote a number of books expounding his religious views, of which The Law of Violence and the Law of Love is one. One other is The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy’s Christianity was basically the rationalised Christianity, formed during the 19th century by writers like David Strauss in Germany and Ernest Renan in France. In their view, Christ was a moral preacher, teaching devotion to a transcendent but non-interfering God, but did not perform any miracles or claim He was divine. It’s similar to the Deist forms of Christianity that appeared in the 18th century in works such as Christianity Not Mysterious. While there are still many Biblical scholars, who believe that Christ Himself did not claim to be divine, such as Geza Vermes, this view has come under increasing attack. Not least because it presents an ahistorical view of Jesus. The Deist conception of Christ was influenced by the classicising rationalism of the 18th century. It’s essentially Jesus recast as a Greek philosopher, like Plato or Socrates. More recent scholarship by Sandmel and Sanders from the 1970’s onwards, in works like the latter’s Jesus the Jew, have shown how much Christ’s life and teaching reflected the Judaism of the First Century, in which miracles and the supernatural were a fundamental part.

In The Law of Violence and the Law of Love, Tolstoy sets out his anarchist, pacifist Christian views. He sees the law of love as very core of Christianity, in much the same way the French Utopian Socialist Saint-Simon saw universal brotherhood as the fundamental teaching of Christianity. Tolstoy attacks the established church for what he sees as their distortion of this original, rational, non-miraculous Christianity, stating that it’s the reason so many working people are losing their faith. Like other religious reformers, he recommends his theological views, arguing that it will lead to a revival of genuine Christianity. At the same time, this renewed, reformed Christianity and the universal love it promotes, will overturn the corrupt and oppressive rule of governments, which are built on violence and the use of force.

Among the other arguments against state violence, Tolstoy discusses those, who have refused or condemned military service. These not only include modern conscientious objectors, such as 19th century radicals and Socialists, but also the Early Church itself. He quotes Christian saints and the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, who firmly condemned war and military service. For example, Tertullian wrote

It is not fitting to serve the emblem of Christ and the emblem of the devil, the fortress of light and the fortress of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters. And besides, how can one fight without the sword, which the Lord himself has taken away? Is it possible to do sword exercises, when the Lord says that everyone who takes the sword shall perish by the sword? And how can a son of peace take part in a battle.

Some scholars of the Early Church have argued that its opposition to military service was based on opposition to the pagan ceremonies the soldiers would have to attend and perform as part of their duties. As believers in the only God, these were forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, despite his condemnation, Tertullian admits elsewhere that there were Christians serving in the Roman army.

Other quotations from the Church Fathers make it clear that it was opposition to the bloodshed in war, which caused them to reject military service. Tolstoy cites Cyprian, who stated that

The world goes mad with the mutual shedding of blood, and murder, considered a crime when committed singly, is called a virtue when it is done in the mas. The multiplication of violence secures impunity for the criminals.

Tolstoy also cites a decree of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 proscribing a penance to Christians returning to the Roman army, after they had left it. He states that those, who remained in the army, had to vow never to kill an enemy. If they violated this, then Basil the Great declared that they could not receive communion for three years.

This pacifism was viable when the Church was a small, persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire. After Constantine’s conversion, Christians and the Christian church entered government as Christianity became the official religion. The Church’s pacifist stance was rejected as Christians became responsible for the defence of the empire and its peoples, as well as their spiritual wellbeing and secular administration. And as the centuries progressed, Christians became all too used to using force and violence against their enemies, as shown in the countless religious wars fought down through history. It’s a legacy which still understandably colours many people’s views of Christianity, and religion as a whole.

This edition of Tolstoy’s book is published by the Institute of World Culture, whose symbol appears on the front of the book. This appears from the list of other books they publish in the back to be devoted to promoting mysticism. This is mostly Hindu, but also contains some Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian works, as well as the Zohar, one of the main texts of the Jewish Qabbala.

Pacifism is very much an issue for your personal conscience, though it is, of course, very much a part of the Quaker spirituality. Against this pacifist tradition there’s the ‘Just War’ doctrine articulated and developed over the centuries by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and Christian philosophers. This examines and defines under which circumstances and for which reasons a war can be fought, and what moral restrictions should be imposed on the way it is fought. For example, combatants should not attack women, children and non-combatants. Despite this, the book is an interesting response to the muscular Christianity preached during the days of the British Empire, and which still survives in the American Right. Many Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, really do see Christianity as not only entirely compatible with gun rights, but as a vital part of it. Bill O’Reilly, one of the anchors on Fox News, has stated that Christ would fully approve of the shooting of violent criminals, even in circumstances others find highly dubious. These include some of the incidents where teh police have shot unarmed Blacks, or where such resistance from the suspect may have been the result of mental illness and the cops themselves were in no danger. In the Law of Violence and the Law of Love, you can read Tolstoy’s opinion of the official use of lethal force, and his condemnation of the capitalist statism O’Reilly and Fox stand for.

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5 Responses to “Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love”

  1. Michelle Thomasson Says:

    Thank you for this information. I know most probably think the recorded teachings of Jesus are speculative but I took them to heart while very young, or better said I found Jesus’ viewpoints in accord with how I felt, even at a very young age. Hence when my mum and grandma wanted me to be confirmed in the local C of E church I walked out just before going through with the confirmation service because I understood that the State Church idolised war on behalf of the nation and even at the age of 11 I couldn’t see how that was in accord with the sayings of Christ.

    He taught the opposite to the Judaic status quo i.e. to love one’s enemies (an agape love that socially and morally seeks the best for all) and Jesus famously said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ peace-makers from (ĕirēnŏpŏiŏs) an adjective that signifies actively making peace. I could never imagine him being a paid up member of the national rifle association!

    Yes, the humble, gentle, radical, loving message from Christ about the real Kingdom of God is meant to grow in our hearts… but it’s been subverted by all in sundry over the centuries.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Michelle. The injunction ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ is a truly great teaching, and has inspired some of the very best in humanity among people who have taken it to heart. And I’m really impressed by your knowledge of ancient Greek too. Actually, I think the recorded teachings of Jesus aren’t speculative at all. The only people, who actually believe that were the Jesus Seminar, who were a very tiny minority of scholars. Nowadays most of them have formed a circle connected to the Centre for Scientific Inquiry, or what used to be CSICOP, while loudly declaring that they’re still independent.

      Most Biblical scholars believe that the teachings of Christ recorded in the Bible really are historically sound, whatever you believe of His claim to be the Messiah, because of how much they are a part of the conditions in 1st century Palestine and contemporary Jewish culture. There’s a lot of emphasis on prompt payment of debts owed to servants and the poor, for example, which seems to reflect the contemporary economic situation. The Graeco-Roman settlers were developing massive estates at the expense of the Jewish people, and Christ’s teaching on these matters would have been particularly significant to a subjected people fearing their displacement and further impoverishment from the gentile outsiders. And no, I don’t think Jesus would have joined the National Rifle Association.

      A little while ago our local priest spoke about the incident, when Christ was seized by the Romans on the orders of the Sanhedrin, and St. Peter cut the ear of the High Priest’s servant. He said that the type of sword Peter carried would have been the type normally carried by merchants and ordinary citizens for their own protection. It was not the weapon of a professional soldier. Furthermore, the wound itself was symbolic. Apparently, cuts to the ear in the culture of the time weren’t intended to be too serious. Peter wasn’t aiming to cut the ear off totally, but to make a point. I got the impression that it was symbolic violence, a way of saying, ‘I’ve got you marked, mate.’ A threat, definitely, but not an attempt to start a battle.

      You mentioned that you refused to get confirmed because of the Anglican church’s stance supporting war. I didn’t have that experience, but I do remember one of the German teachers at my old school, who also taught Russian, putting up various pacifist posters around the classroom as he was annoyed at the militant hatred of Russia coming out of Maggie and the Tories.

      • Michelle Says:

        I did try modern Greek for a short while with a German friend but as we both lived in The Netherlands at the time the Greek teacher taught in Dutch, not sure what I thought I’d accomplish as I was still learning Dutch! However, my biblical Greek is mostly from my reference books and Interlinears but I thank you for your compliment.

        On the Anglican Church now… I do sing intermittently in a lovely non formal choir with a wonderful pianist but a lovely friend there calls me Maria because I’m usually in a last minute rush, can’t get the staff 😊 I’m not so good on formality I’m a Dr Martens not a dog collar type of person and I’ve been labelled a church crawler though I regularly attend a Congregational church. Apologies for the digression but didn’t want readers to think I wouldn’t have anything to do with the C of E. Thanks again for all your valuable info.

      • beastrabban Says:

        That’s all right – I don’t think anyone reading your comment would think you had dissed the old C of E. I’m still impressed with your having learned New Testament Greek. I’ve seen the interlinear Bibles and the textbooks for it about myself. One of my friends tried to teach himself it, and he found it very difficult.

        If you look about, you can still find the odd religious book in an exotic language. A year or so ago I found an edition of St. Paul’s epistles in Coptic in the Oxfam Bookshop in Bristol. I didn’t buy it for the obvious reason that I can’t speak Coptic. But it was fascinating to find it there, nonetheless. Especially as it was the original language of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, who used to trace their origins back to St. Mark.

  2. Michelle Says:

    If you are still in the Bristol area the lovely old central city library has some very old Interlinears (well it did have when I referenced them in 2012 / 2013) and as long as it’s a keyed (numbered reference above each word) with a dictionary concordance such as Strongs the Greek can be accessible. However, even when my Hebrew theological dictionarys link to the Strong’s key number the Hebrew for me is not quite as friendly, but it’s worth trying for example reading about the real meaning of the Semitic Shalom (peace, prosperity, well, health, completeness) and how the New Testament writers such as Paul referenced it brings the meaning of peace into full colour.

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