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Classics Review: What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy

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.

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whatibelieveWhat 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.

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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.

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