Category Archives: Non-fiction
I wrote the following review about a year ago. The book kind of rocked my world at the time and influenced the way I interpret certain other books which I will be reviewing soon. I wrote quite a lot about this book – I was thinking of doing a study guide and I may still do that. You can see my articles on many of the chapters by clicking on Notes on Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” in the menu above.
* * * * * *
What I Believe is Leo Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession in which he describes his profound existential crisis. In A Confession Tolstoy describes how, at age 50, when he was at the height of his worldly success, he became so depressed that he wanted to commit suicide. In desperation he turned to the Orthodox church of his childhood and discovered that when he could believe in God, even if only for a moment, for that moment he felt the life. The moment he stopped believing, he felt the oppression of death.
Reading A Confession led me to read his final novel Resurrection, which in which an aristocrat has a spiritual awakening of his own and discovers the far-reaching dysfunctions of the Russian justice system and the evils of bureaucracy. I had read Tolstoy’s two great classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in the past. His post spiritual crisis writing are just as great but different in content, tone, and purpose. What I Believe turned my world upside down as did The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book considered so radical it was banned in Russia for many years.
Tolstoy begins What I Believe by explaining how he began to feel uncomfortable with the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was attracted to Christ’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and the brotherhood of man, but he found the Church, while never denying Christ’s doctrine of love, put a tremendously disproportionate emphasis on ritual and ceremony and devoted scant attention to how Christians should behave toward other people in their daily lives.
Also he was disturbed that the Church supported such things as persecution of certain populations, serfdom, capital punishment, and war. Tolstoy read the gospels over and over, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5 through 7. Then, reading through all the church’s commentaries on the gospels, he found that the church seemed to ignore or distort the clear teachings of Jesus whenever they conflicted with the established systems of civilization. It was as if the world’s system were the default, and the teachings of Jesus, who they claimed to believe is God, had to be made to fit into that mold.
By the end of the book Tolstoy comes reluctantly to the conclusion that for centuries the Church has been teaching a form of Christianity far different from what Jesus intended. Jesus was teaching the eternal law that leads to life: real life on earth, the only kind of life that continues after death. Jesus also teaches how this law based on love is utterly incompatible with the world’s law, which is based on fear and competition and is merely a sophisticated version the predatory law of the beasts. Tolstoy saw that Jesus’ primary message was that to be truly human, that is to rise to a level higher than a talking animal and to be born into the new life of the spirit, we have to stop living according to the law of the world and embrace the higher law of love. This is the only way to break the cycle of violence. When you start embracing the higher law, the world will probably not like you and may even hurt or kill you, but you will be truly alive, and will actually be happier, both before and after your physical death.
The part of the book I found most fascinating is Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ, all of which are clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount. For each one he explains the research he did into the original texts and how he reached each conclusion. The key commandment for Tolstoy, the one that really opened the floodgates of light, is that followers of Christ are not to return evil for evil. That means no violence to anyone, including enemies, and not just personal enemies, but also those populations that your government calls enemies. When Tolstoy realized that Christ did not mean this statement as an unreachable ideal but as a practical lifestyle, all the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. Here are the five commandments of Christ as interpreted by Tolstoy:
1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48
Tolstoy believes that these commandments are not intended to be impossible ideals but are in fact Christ’s specific instructions for how his followers ought to live. If we would only try them, we’d find they really do result in a happier life. In Chapter 10 he identifies the ingredients of a truly happy life: being in touch with the natural world, family, peaceful and unrestricted fellowship with all classes of people, and surprisingly, labor: working to supply our own needs and enjoying the fruits of our labor. A life lived according to Jesus’ commandments would produce to all of these ingredients.
Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The law of love that Jesus taught, according to Tolstoy, is more in accord with our real nature than the world’s law which tells us we are obligated to kill total strangers if the State tells us to take up arms and go to war. I am not so sure about it being more in accord with human nature. The law of love appeals to me but I am a peaceful person who does not find the least pleasure in killing living things. However I know plenty of people who say they sincerely enjoy killing animals, watching ultra-violent films, and even claim to relish the thought of killing certain people. And some of these people are Christians.
I understand none of us made this world and most of us feel stuck in its tangled web of systems. We are born into a world where we don’t have access to enough earth to grow our own food and are dependent from birth on government and complicated economic systems to obtain food and water. So I don’t know that God would hold us accountable for the situation we find ourselves in, and I am glad that one of the rules is that no one gets to judge anyone else. Maybe we could just not assume that the way the world is necessarily the way it has to be. Human systems are not set in stone. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves why we do the things we do every day: are we acting out of fear or out of love? Or have we somehow mixed the two concepts in our minds – as in I go to a job I hate because I love my children and am afraid I won’t be able to feed them. It’s more complicated than you think, Mr. Tolstoy, when you are not a world-renowned Russian nobleman. Also I am puzzled about how this doctrine of non-violence relates to crazed terrorists and keeping child predators and psychopaths off the streets. However, that said, I think Tolstoy is onto something here, namely the truth. It changed his life and it may yet change mine.
You can read What I Believe online and download it in various formats free of charge at Wikisource. It is also available in various editions on Kindle and in print at Amazon.com.
Utopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”
Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called Utopia. Says More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”
The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.
Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.
You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.
The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation from the British Library website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”
Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet. I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.
Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.
After several months of lavishly gorging myself on Victorian fiction, I am in the process of changing my reading focus for a while to something entirely different: philosophy. I think it will be just as fun. I have dreams of writing my own philosophy one of these days, but first I need to study up. Some philosophers in the immediate pipeline include Thomas More, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, David Hume, and a 20th century philosopher named Susanne Langer. I know I am all over the map but I have my own logic here. I will eventually add more to the philosophy list, including some classical thinkers. Suggestions are welcome. I am primarily interested in what the greatest thinkers have to say about the source and reason for human existence. Hope that’s not too narrow an area for anyone.
* * * * * * *
I am currently reading a sweet little book called The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air by Søren Keirkegaard (translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse). I’ve been longing to get to Kierkegaard for a long time and the other day checked at Barnes & Noble to see it they had a copy of Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s works, although published in the first half of the 19th century, are for some reason not in the public domain. They are not any less expensive on Kindle so I figured I might as well buy the real book at a real book store.
B & N didn’t have Either/Or but they had this one. The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air is sort of a contemplative commentary on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. So far it’s about the wisdom that silence can lead to, a listening kind of silence that you can learn from birds and flowers. Most of my lessons of this sort come from dogs, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Kierkegaard says that we must first seek the kingdom of God and the way to seek it is through prayer, not babbling prayer but the kind of prayer in which you realize you are in the presence of God and fall silent at the realization because there is simply no other way to respond to the presence of God. For several years of my life I used to repeat that verse to myself all the time: “Seek first the kingdom of God” – and in my scattershot disorganized way I tried to do that. But like the disciple Thomas I did not know the way.
In response to the disciple’s question, Jesus said he is the Way, so I tried to follow him, but never did it very well. I needed to give more to the poor, I needed to have more love and less judgment in my heart, I needed to be less self-indulgent and give in less to desires for instant gratification. I fall short in so many ways it’s surprising I can get up off the floor and keep living every day. But I do keep living. Based solely on his promises, his mercy, and my own hope, I believe I can keep living today and will in fact live forever. I’m keenly aware that I probably do not deserve to live forever, but deserve it or not, I am pretty sure I will.
There is a lot of fun to be had in doing in doing the impossible and getting away with what you don’t deserve. I have a theory that existence itself is as near to impossible as it is possible to be and still happen. Existence is wrought in the point of friction between “is” and “is not”, yes and no. Existence defies the powerful suck of the abyss and chooses to be. All of us have all cleared that formidable hurdle. We have gotten a seat on the plane with the rarest tickets. We have won the ultimate lottery. And yet we question, some of us, why we exist at all and agonize all day over the meaning of it all and whether we have a purpose. Some people actually kill themselves over things like losing a job. A job. After all that stupendous luck in becoming an existing being.
Look at a dog. No one really cares about the existence or non-existence of a single puppy unless: a) you have formed a personal emotional attachment to the mutt or b) the dog has enabled you to develop an interest in himself by becoming a celebrity. There is an ongoing saga in a city near where I live about the trials and tribulations of a certain labradoodle who is shaved to looked like a lion. The local newspaper has run several stories on his brushes with the law. People love reading about the dog, whose name is Charles the Monarch. He sells papers. But if you see a dog dead on the road you may feel a pang, be sorry for the dog’s suffering and and experience a split second of empathy for the grief and loss of the people who owned (regrettable word) the dog. In two minutes you will have forgotten all about it.
I love that most dogs in our culture are useless in a utilitarian sense. Some dogs are used for hunting or service to the disabled or police work, but the vast majority are “merely” pets. They number in enough millions to support PetSmart, Petco, Pet Mountain, Petstore.com, and numerous other retailers as well as multitudes of grooming and boarding services, veterinarians, and even a few periodicals. And yet they do nothing but live in your house and keep you company.
Obviously dogs fill some important human needs. They can be social agents: getting you outdoors and giving you something easy to talk to people about. They can be status enhancers for those to like to acquire status-enhancing breeds. They can be atmosphere fresheners and stress reducers. You have trouble at work? Someone is drunk again? Your teenager has issues? You have anxiety about where the world is headed? Well there is Cocoa or Fluffy or Max, lying placidly on the rug, utterly unconcerned. Or he is wagging his tale and licking your face, caring about nothing but his doggy comforts and your happiness. The atmosphere becomes balanced, the stress is reduced, perspective is restored. You can laugh again.
I seem to have gotten off point, thinking about a dog’s purpose from my human point of view and all. My point is that the dog himself does not care one iota whether he has a purpose or not. To the dog, his existence is his purpose and he has already fulfilled it. He is full to the jowls with a specific kind of doggy essence. Dogs are just one reason I have to doubt the “we are all one thing” kind of philosophies that say forms are illusions and we are all destined to be re-absorbed into the eternal oneness. I believe we must all come from one source, but I am not so sure that once a form is created it ever gets absorbed back into the oneness. Sure, the material body turns to dust, but what of the idea, the essence, that something that makes your dog so individually doggy? I am not convinced that any being once created can be absorbed back into the source, any more than a word spoken can ever be unspoken.
God must love forms; and that which is loved by God cannot be erased. Love is the engine of creation. If forms and ideas could go away as if they had never been, then it would mean love, the source of all things, could go away. Because I exist, am the result of the nearly impossible miracle, I must believe that love exists and that which created me will always exist. Besides God/the source created what we call time but does not live as part of of time. If once God exists at all God always exists in an eternal present. The negation of love would be the negation of thought and all that is. We who exist cannot conceive of such an occurrence without annihilation. If this doesn’t make sense bear with me. I am still working it all out.