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Philosophy in Russia

Tolstoy’s Theory of Nonviolence

Academician Abdusalam A. Guseinov on pacificism and the perspective of the infinite beginning.

The idea of nonviolence entered into the cycle of Russian ethics on the wave of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. It struck a chord among society at large. Since that period, the attitude to pacifist ideas has changed considerably. This attitude can now be expressed by two words: doubt and disappointment. I would like to comment on one common opinion, namely that nonviolence can be considered only as a wonderful dream. It has moral attractiveness but there is no compelling force of logic to it. This is a widely held view, but I will attempt to demonstrate its falseness by discussing Leo Tolstoy, who more than anyone else is reproached for having an inclination to utopianism.

The teaching of Tolstoy which he called ‘nonresistance to evil’, is one of the most valuable and deeply developed versions of the nonviolence idea. It springs from a life position that has been named tolstovstvo and it had a great influence upon the nonviolence movement of the Twentieth Century.

Humans ask the question “What is the Meaning of Life?” For philosophers like Schopenhauer, the answer to this question is that there is no ultimate meaning. But the fact that a person asks this question at all means that life itself cannot be the answer. Therefore the question about life’s meaning, reduced logically to the justification of the question itself, comes to the postulating of some infinite source of life, to God.

Tolstoy gave his own specific meaning to the concept of God. For him, it signified the unknown beginning of life, its endless foundation. It is the absolute limit of reasonable knowledge, the limit established by reason itself. We cannot utter any positive statement about God. We know that he is, but do not know what he is. In the same way that we know what a infinite number is through the summing up of simple numbers, but cannot say what kind of number (even or odd) it is, so a man comes to the notion of God in searching for answers to where he comes from and for what is he, but he has no clue as to what God really is.

We live but do not know what is the beginning of life. The existence of God gives each of us the choice of how to live: for ourself or for God; within the boundary of a finite life or from the perspective of the infinite beginning. This question is the main content of any religion. Life lived either for oneself in an individual sense (for Ivan, Peter and so on) or in the creativity belonging to a particular group (or population, or class, or even humankind) comes face-to-face meaninglessness, a goalless existence that is the source of the question concerning the sense of life. According to Tolstoy, the adequate answer of life’s essence is in God. In Tolstoy’s opinion the question about life’s sense was most accurately formulated by Jesus Christ, who was not God himself (at least, not in the sense described above). “Who believes in God”, wrote Tolstoy, “cannot consider Christ as God.”

We ought to live for God. This was the decision suggested by Jesus. He expressed it in the phrase: “Not as I want, but as You” (Matthew 26, 39). Following Jesus, Tolstoy considered the relation to God in terms of the relation between a son and his father. Tolstoy supposed that Jesus called himself the Son of God in the same way that any man can do so. At the same time, the relation of a man to God is the formula of love. Love in any of its variations and appearances is a relation in which one situates oneself in the position of servant, and sacrifices oneself for the benefit of the other. A woman loves a man and cannot live without him; a subject loves his sovereign and protects him; a friend loves a friend and struggles for him. But God is different from all others, as he is the Other that absolutely merits to be loved. Love as the normative foundation of conduct is represented in all religions, but according to Tolstoy only Jesus elevated it to the height of a law of consciousness.

But how can one practically apply love in this highest sense? That is, how can one follow God’s will if we do not know God and consequently do not know what he wants us to do?

The formula of love has two parts: negative (not as I want), and positive (as you want). The love of God in its positive expression is not possible, as we do not know what God wants. Therefore the adequate relation to God appears not as a positive service but as a voluntary restriction of activity. This negation, this restriction, is the only possible way in which a man can directly and responsibly express his love to God.

In relation to judging questions of good and evil, the restriction of one’s activity is nothing other than nonviolence. According to Tolstoy, to act in a violent way means to do what is not wanted by the object of the violence. It is not difficult to see that his definition of violence is the direct opposite of love. Consequently, the negative part of one’s expression of love is the negation of violence, that is, nonviolence.

Nonviolence (nonresistance to evil), in the accurate sense of the word, means only that a person does not agree to be judge in questions of life and death, does not agree to accuse other people because this is not within his or her competence. It is necessary to stress that this doesn’t suppose that we ought to completely abandon any kind of judgment concerning people’s actions. It only supposes that we have no right to judge them as people. A brother cannot judge his brother in the same way their father can do. The crime of Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was in the fact that he crossed over the boundary put before him as a brother. He acted as if he was not a brother.

The essence of Religion for Tolstoy is that it considers the life of a man from an endless perspective which recognizes the equality of all people. Their relation to infinity is equal for everybody. Therefore the recognition of the equality of all people (in the Christian variant, through their brotherhood in relation to God) is the most important moral imperative. Tolstoy supposed that religions of all kind demand us to act by the model of the Golden Rule (i.e. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”). The main consequence of applying this rule is nonviolence.

Tolstoy’s position on this question shows the difference that he sets between the violence of a robber and the violence of people acting as representatives of the state (kings, presidents, military commanders and so on). The second is worse than the first. No violence has any justification: it is always bad. But if the violence of a robber can to some degree be understood, the violence of a state representative can not. It is much worse because it pretends to be moral, and is conducted in a ‘legal’ form. A robber does not flaunt his violent acts, but the robber on the throne is proud of his violence.

The main statements of Tolstoy’s teaching have an analytical nature. They can be derived from his reasoning about God as an absolute, infinite, immortal source of life. Tolstoy in his methodical way proves that violence cannot be the conclusion from the syllogism the main premise of which is the initial equality of all people. Thus his teaching has a philosophical status in the sense that it is rationally founded. And it has ethical status in the sense that it is established by the boundaries of responsible behavior for each individual.

© A.A. Guseinov 2006

Professor Abdusalam A. Guseinov is an Academician of the Russian Academy of Science, and is Chair of the Ethics Department at Moscow State University.

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