(Count Leo N Tolstoi 1828-1910)
A VERY large majority of people have no idea whatever about Theosophy, and regard Theosophists as more or less crazy members of a new sect. They naturally deny any superiority to one new sect among so many, and aver that, as a considerable number of sects have been “tried in the balances and found wanting”, this one is no better than its predecessors. Theosophists — the real ones — can only reply that they are unsectarian and superior to none. They believe that they have found a good road to the discovery of truth, and wish to share their discovery — if it can be so called — with others.
The very assumption of superiority would be a contradiction in terms to the name itself. But, while giving this emphatic denial with reference to the name “Theosophist”, no attempt is made to assert, that all members of the Theosophical Society are also Theosophists. True indeed, that when they enter that society, they subscribe to rules and declare their objects to be such that, were they to carry them out thoroughly, no other name than Theosophists would be applicable. Nor does the name imply that, in the studies which Theosophists make their own, it is necessary that the sole and best place should be given to studies of Oriental philosophy. That again would be a contradiction, for it has most emphatically been stated that “there are those who are ignorant of the Eastern wisdom” who are nearer to divine wisdom, than some who have devoted their entire lives to Oriental studies. It is again the old story that, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”.
Still while holding to the assertion that the study of Oriental wisdom is only one road out of many, it is necessary to remember the analogy which philology may here present to ” religion”. Just as philology traces all languages to a common root — the Sanskrit or rather pre-Sanskrit — so the religions of the world can also be traced to a common root and birth place, identical with the cradle and birth place of the human race, which ethnology locates on the high plateaux of Central Asia. Therefore it is, that the study of Oriental philosophy has something to be urged in its especial favour, because that philosophy has its home nearer to the source of the wisdom religion than any other.
Still more must it be borne in mind, that members of the Theosophical Society are not necessarily Theosophists, for a very considerable number are attracted merely by the name and through curiosity. They either do not understand what they profess, of if they do, they do not practise it. But this is no attempt to run counter to the proverb, that the tree is known by its fruit, although there is some amount of injustice in it [Page 56] All that is asserted is that, if this argument is used against a Society with aims and aspirations such as the Theosophical Society has, it can be used with even more terrible effect against all religions whether Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhist, etc. The real reason why this has come to pass, lies in a few words — the cultivation of the individual; and, as a later result of this, in anthropomorphism. It is only those individuals who can “grasp their whole individuality firmly”, and by the force of their “awakened spiritual will, reach out to the life beyond individuality” — it is only they, who can shake themselves loose from the curse which has gradually spread over the whole world. It is in consequence of this growth of individualism that the “blessings of civilization” have become the curse of mankind, and every religion; originally altruistic, has become inverted, and the reign of anti-Christ and hypocrisy has superseded that of Christ and truth. No sweeping accusation is made against the whole world in this statement. A dim and misty veil has been thrown over the face of Truth, and it is as though we saw everything outside the principal focus of a lens, and consequently, under full faith that we see the real image, perceive the inverted image. In the time of Elizabeth, for instance, men learnt to cultivate the individual within the circle of the race, and to attempt to unite in patriotism for the benefit of that race or empire. But it is a vain attempt, and the dissociating effects of this culture will soon be evident in the impossibility of the attempt. Originally the attempt was to cultivate the individual, but only with a view to the increase of that race and with that object as paramount. That is to say, that an English soldier would cultivate himself to the uttermost in order that the world should see what English soldiers were. But the time came when the egoistic element appeared in overwhelming force, and the cultivation was devoted to the sole aim of making this or that man stronger than any man of his own race, or any other.
And now another aim has been substituted for the paramount one of patriotism. Mammon has superseded the latter, and the strength of the individual is cultivated and devoted to withstanding the pressure of life and to getting a start in the great race to worship at the feet of the demon of cupidity. But again, while devoting their own lives and worse — the lives of their neighbours — to this worship, they yet professed to be Christians or members of other religions. They tried to worship two gods — Mammon on six days of the week and the other divinity on Sunday, or any day set apart for his service. But still, in most cases, it was not the divine instinct of search for the divine in their hearts, but a fear of wrath to come. It really was a pharisaical idea of “hedging”, to use a term of racing slang, with reference to the race of life. The end of it was that Mammon received the real worship of their hearts, and the other god only lip-service. Thus in the end hypocrisy became almost as paramount as Mammon. Time still passed on, and man almost lost [Page 57] sight of any idea of an offended and avenging deity, and any germ of spirituality was very nearly dead from want of cultivation. The material needs held him in complete sway, and the spread of physical science helped him mightily. Losing sight of all the subtler side of nature, he immersed himself in gross matter, and utilitarianism was the watchword and rallying cry. In all this change the age of mechanical inventions took no small part. Man can hardly be blamed as an individual nor as a whole. It is part of the great law of evolution, and the working out of the law of the survival of the fittest.
It may be asked what this has to do with the subject of the article; but in justification it is averred that a picture is most clearly seen by its contrast.
Perhaps the best definition of a Theosophist, is that given by the Alchemist, Thomas Vaughan:
” A Theosophist is one who gives you a theory of the works of God, which has not a revelation, but an inspiration of his own for basis.”
“A man once abandoning the old pathway of routine and entering on the solitary pathway of independent thought — Godward — he is a Theosophist, an original thinker, a seeker after the Eternal Truth, with an inspiration of his own to solve the Eternal problems”.
Such a one as this is the subject of the article. Count Tolstoi, the Russian novelist, is a true Theosophist, and his words and actions in contradiction and illustration of the foregoing, are taken from an interview with him by Mr. George Kennan (Century, June 1887). The interview first describes the surroundings amidst which Count Tolstoi lives, and gives also a description of the Count’s appearance.
Apparently the first thing which impressed Mr. Kennan was the sight of “a wealthy Russian noble, and the greatest of living novelists, shaking hands upon terms of perfect equality with a poor, ragged, and not over clean droshky driver”, who had been engaged in the streets.
Then follows a description of the rooms, the furniture etc., which was observed during the time that Mr. Kennan’s host had retired — not, indeed, to change his coat, but to put one on after a morning’s labour in the fields. Mr. Kennan, it seems, had journeyed through Siberia, and had there promised several of the exiles to visit Count Tolstoi on his return, and to tell him of their condition. In the course of conversation on these matters, Mr. Kennan asked Count Tolstoi whether he did not think that resistance to such oppression as the exiles had experienced was justifiable?
“That depends”, he replied, “upon what you mean by resistance; if you mean persuasion, argument, protest, I answer yes; if you mean violence — no. I do not believe that violent resistance to evil is ever justifiable under any circumstances”.
He then set forth clearly, eloquently, and with more feeling than he had yet shown, the views with regard to man’s duty as a member of society which are contained in his [Page 58] book entitled “My Religion”, and which are further explained and illustrated in a number of his recently published tracts for the people. He laid particular stress upon the doctrine of non-resistance to evil, which, he said, is in accordance with both the teachings of Christ and the results of human experience. He declared that violence, as a means of redressing wrongs, is not only futile, but an aggravation of the original evil, since it is the nature of violence to multiply and reproduce itself in all directions. “The Revolutionists”, he said, “whom you have seen in Siberia, undertook to resist evil by violence, and what has been the result ? Bitterness, and misery, and hatred, and bloodshed ! The evils against which they took up arms still exist, and to them has been added a mass of previously non-existent human suffering. It is not in that way that the kingdom of God is to be realised on earth”.
For a long time I did not suggest any difficulties or raise any objections. … It is one thing to ask a man in a general way whether he would use violence to resist evil, and quite another thing to ask him specifically whether he would knock down a burglar who was about to cut the throat of his mother. Many men would say yes to the first question who would hesitate at the second. Count Tolstoi, however, was consistent. I related to him many cases of cruelty, brutality, and oppression which had come to my knowledge in Siberia, and at the end of every recital I said to him, “Count Tolstoi, if you had been there and had witnessed that transaction, would you not have interfered with violence? ” He invariably answered “No”. I asked him the direct question whether he would kill a highwayman who was about to murder an innocent traveller, provided there were no other way to save the traveller’s life. He replied, ” If I should see a bear about to kill a peasant in the forest, I would sink an axe in the bear’s head; but I would not kill a man who was about to do the same thing”. There finally came into my mind a case which, although really not worse than many that I had already presented to him, would, I thought, appeal with peculiar force to a brave, sensitive, chivalrous man.
This was a case of most brutal treatment of a young girl who was exiled to Siberia. At a certain town on her journey the governor ordered that she was to put on the clothing of an ordinary convict. This she declined to do on the ground that administrative exiles had the right to wear their own clothing. Furthermore the clothing supplied to convicts is not always new, and it is quite possible that it is of the filthiest description and full of vermin. She argued that she would have been compelled to change at Moscow had it been necessary, and again declined. The local governor persisted and ordered that force should be used to effect the change. Accordingly, in the presence of nine or ten men, the change of clothing was effected — she was stripped naked, forcibly reclothed, and left bleeding and exhausted after ineffectual resistance.
“Now”, I said, “suppose all this had occurred in your presence; suppose that this bleeding, defenceless, half-naked girl had appealed to you for protection, and had thrown herself into your arms; suppose that it had been your daughter, would you still have refused to interfere by an act of violence ?”
He was silent. Finally, ignoring my direct question as to what he personally would have done in such a case, Count Tolstoi said, “Even under such circumstances violence would not be justifiable. Let us analyse that situation carefully. I will grant, for the sake of argument, that the local governor who ordered the act of violence was an ignorant man, a cruel man, a brutal man — what you will; but he probably had an idea [Page 59] that he was doing his duty; he probably believed that he was enforcing a law of the Government to which he owed obedience and service. You suddenly appear and set yourself up as a judge in the case; you assume that he is not doing his duty — that he is committing an act of unjustifiable violence — and then, with strange inconsistency, you proceed to aggravate and complicate the evil by yourself committing another act of unjustifiable violence. One wrong added to another wrong does not make a right; it merely extends the area of wrong. Furthermore, your resistance, in order to be effective — in order to accomplish anything — must be directed against the soldiers who are committing the assault. But those soldiers are not free agents; they are subject to military discipline and are acting under orders which they dare not disobey. To prevent the execution of the orders you must kill or maim two or three of the soldiers — that is, kill or wound the only parties to the transaction who are certainly innocent, who are manifestly acting without malice and without evil intention. Is that just ? Is it rational ? But go a step further: suppose that you do kill or wound two or three of the soldiers; you may or may not thus succeed in preventing the completion of the act against which your violence is a protest; but one thing you certainly will do, and that is, extend the area of enmity, injustice, and misery. Every one of the soldiers whom you kill or maim has a family, and upon every such family you bring grief and suffering which would not have come to it but for your act. In the hearts of perhaps a score of people you rouse the anti-Christian and anti-social emotions of hatred and revenge, and thus sow broadcast the seeds of further violence and strife. At the time when you interposed there was only one centre of evil and suffering. By your violent interference you have created half-a-dozen such centres. It does not seem to me, Mr. Kennan, that that is the way to bring about the reign of peace and good-will on earth’. ‘
Mr. Kennan had a manuscript written by one of those prisoners who took part in the desperate “hunger-strike” of 1884, with which he had been entrusted to hand on to Count Tolstoi. He read two or three pages of it, and then, alluding to the Nihilists, condemned their methods most heartily. Mr. Kennan appeared rather to sympathise with their motives. Count Tolstoi appears only to do so partially, and, while he earnestly desires a revolution, declines to have anything to do with one brought about by violence. Mr. Kennan objected that violence might close the mouth of the peaceable revolutionist and prevent his teaching and thoughts from ever becoming public.
“But do you not see”, replied the Count, “that if you claim and exercise the right to resist by an act of violence what you regard as evil, every other man will insist upon his right to resist in the same way what he regards as evil, and the world will continue to be filled with violence ? It is your duty to show that there is a better way”.
” But”, I objected, ” you cannot show anything if somebody smites you on the mouth every time you open it to speak the truth”.
“You can at least refrain from striking back”, replied the Count; “you can show by your peaceable behaviour that you are not governed by the barbarous law of retaliation, and your adversary will not continue to strike a man who neither resists nor tries to defend himself. It is by those who have suffered, not by those who have inflicted suffering, that the world has been advanced”.
I said it seemed to me that the advancement of the world had been promoted not a little by the protests — and often the violent and bloody protests — of its inhabitants against wrong and outrage, and that all history goes to show that a people which tamely submits to oppression never acquires either liberty or happiness.
“The whole history of the world”, replied the Count, “is a history of violence, and [Page 60] you can of course cite violence in support of violence; but do you not see that there is in human society an endless variety of opinions as to what constitutes wrong and oppression, and that if you once concede the right of any man to resort to violence to resist what he regards as wrong, he being the judge, you authorise every other man to enforce his opinions in the same way, and you have a universal reign of violence ?”
Count Tolstoi considers it necessary to labour for and help the poor by whom he is surrounded; but he is keenly alive to the danger of pauperising them. In doing this he runs counter to the ideas of organised society and the existing traits of human character. He declines to regard these as sacred and immutable, and is doing what he can to change them.
“Count Tolstoi then related with great fulness of detail the history of his change of attitude toward the teaching of Christ, and the steps by which he was brought to see that that teaching, rightly understood, furnishes a reasonable solution of some of the darkest problems of human life. He based upon it not only his opposition to resistance as a means of overcoming evil, but his hostility to courts of justice, established churches, class distinctions, private property, and all civil and ecclesiastical organisation in existing forms. His frequent references to the New Testament, and his insistence on the precepts of Christ as furnishing the only rule for the right government of human conduct, might lead one to regard Count Tolstoi as a devout and orthodox Christian, but, judged by a doctrinal standard, he is very far from being so. He rejects the whole doctrinal framework of the Christian scheme of redemption, including original sin, atonement, the triune personality of God, and the divinity of Christ, and has very little faith in the immortality of the soul. His religion is a religion of this world, and it is based almost wholly upon terrestrial considerations. If he refers frequently to the teachings of Christ, and accepts Christ’s precepts as the rules which should govern human conduct, it is not because he believes that Christ was God, but because he regards those precepts as a formal embodiment of the highest and noblest philosophy of life, and as a revelation, in a certain sense, of the Divine will and character. He insists, however, that Christ’s precepts shall be understood — and that they were intended to be understood —literally and in their most obvious sense. He will not recognise nor tolerate any softening or modification of a hard commandment by subtle and plausible interpretation. If Christ said, ‘Resist not evil,’ he meant resist not evil. He did not mean resist not evil if you can help it, nor resist not evil unless it is unbearable; he meant resist not at all. How unflinchingly Count Tolstoi faces the logical results of his system of belief I have tried to show.”
Count Tolstoi’s views as to his own action and practice have been recently published in an authorised interview which appeared in a Russian journal. He said:
” People say to me, ‘Well, Lef Nikolaivitch, as far as preaching goes, you preach; but how about your practice ?’ The question is a perfectly natural one; it is always put to me, and it always shuts my mouth. ‘You preach’, it is said, ‘but how do you live ?’ I can only reply that I do not preach — passionately as I desire to do so. I might preach through my actions, but my actions are bad. That which I say is not preaching; it is only an attempt to find out the meaning and the significance of life. People often say to me, ‘If you think that there is no reasonable life outside the teachings of Christ, and if you love a reasonable life, why do you not fulfill the Christian precepts ?’ I am guilty and blameworthy and contemptible because I do not fulfill them; but at the same time I say — not in justification, but in explanation, of my inconsistency — Compare my previous life with the life I am now living, and you will see that I am trying to fulfill. I have not, it is true, fulfilled one eighty-thousandth [Page 61] part, and I am to blame for it; but it is not because I do not wish to fulfill all, but because I am unable. Teach me how to extricate myself from the meshes of temptation in which I am entangled — help me — and I will fulfill all. I wish and hope to do it even without help. Condemn me if you choose — I do that myself — but condemn me, and not the path which I am following, and which I point out to those who ask me where, in my opinion, the path is. If I know the road home, and if I go along it drunk, and staggering from side to side, does that prove that the road is not the right one ? If it is not the right one, show me another. If I stagger and wander, come to my help, and support and guide me in the right path. Do not yourselves confuse and mislead me, and then rejoice over it and cry, ‘ Look at him ! He says he is going home, and he is floundering into the swamp !’ You are not evil spirits from the swamp; you are also human beings, and you also are going home. You know that I am alone — you know that I cannot wish or intend to go into the swamp — then help me ! My heart is breaking with despair because we have all lost the road; and while ” I struggle with all my strength to find it and keep in it, you, instead of pitying me when I go astray, cry triumphantly, ‘See ! He is in the swamp with us !’ ”
In this report of Count Tolstoi, it is impossible not to recognise the generous, just, and sympathetic man — the true Theosophist. He may be mistaken, but he is endeavouring to carry out the precepts of Christ. Not indeed, doctrinal Christianity, but to put in practice the actual precepts of the Master he follows. He does this as far as he can; and even with this little (as he says) he is accused of quixotism, and is obliged to stay his hand in order to keep up the example he affords. Why is this. For fear of interested relatives and the lunatic asylum. Here we have a man endeavouring to carry out “under an inspiration of his own”, the precepts laid down by the last of the world’s great teachers. What is the result of his endeavours ? That he is in danger of the same fate that the author of ” Modern Christianity a civilized Heathenism”, threatened Christ with, were he to return in the XlXth century — the lunatic asylum. Nothing is so intolerable to modern minds as an example of what they (unconsciously to themselves) recognise as that which they ought to follow, but do not. Therefore it has to be put out of sight. Since madness has been defined as a mental state which is in contradiction to the average mental state, it is evident that all religious reformers ought to be put away in a lunatic asylum.
It is quite possible to recognise what an extraordinary effect Count Tolstoi’s principle of non-resistance to evil would have. Still it is a strictly Christian one. Christ went further, and ordained that the other cheek should be offered to the man who smites. It might be argued that this would result in a tacit acquiescence in evil. But if it be so, the whole of the Count’s life is a contradiction to this, and a standing protest against the existence of those who create, or rather perpetuate, this evil. Every reform, this included, is a protest against doing at Rome what Romans do, or the laisser aller, which is the indolent curse of human progress. Count Tolstoi desires to see the reign of Christ on Earth, and in this accords well with the Theosophists who desire “Universal Brotherhood”. But neither of these can be effected save by the cultivation of the inner [Page 62] and spiritual man, so that it shall shine through and form the guide to the outer and physical man. But unfortunately the welfare of the latter is taken as the standard at present and humanity, without the spiritual man as a guide, is left to flounder in the ditch into which it has fallen.
Those who desire to follow Count Tolstoi, or to become real working Theosophists, may find something to think about in comparing his words with his actions. He endeavours to “go about doing good”, and to help his fellow men on the hard path of life. When it is followed it will be found that to run counter to the spirit of the age, and instead of the indolent laisser aller, to work not for self, but for humanity at large, is the hardest task ever set to men. Mankind as a rule “does not want an example or to be worked for both are rude awakenings from the lotus-eating state they desire to be left in . ” Let us alone”, is their cry, and they resist with violence any attempt to rouse them.
But those who desire a greater unity than that which any race or nation can afford — the unity of the human race — the Universal Brotherhood — cannot leave them alone. There is a power which impels Count Tolstoi to protest against the reign of violence, and he truly replies, that the readiest means of continuing this reign is to meet violence by violence. Therefore he, by his writings, and his words and life, endeavours to place before men the noblest philosophy of life that he recognises, in answer to the appeal which is silently uttered from the hearts of many men and women in the world.
It is a cry of despair at the ignorance which surrounds them and to which the Theosophical Society, according to its avowed aims, is an answer. It is best described in the words of Tennyson —
An infant crying in the night,
And with no language but a cry.