Dr Charlotte Alston
- Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do? (London: Oxford University Press, 1934) Introduction by Jane Addams, pp. vii-xiii, and chapter 38, pp. 304-328
- Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You (London: Oxford University Press, 1935) chapter 11 and Conclusion, pp. 316-444
Introduction to readings
Tolstoy devoted the last thirty years of his life to writing a series of tracts, plays, short stories and a novel that expounded his Christian anarchist philosophy. This embraced vegetarianism, chastity, a refusal to use money or swear oaths, and a rejection of violence in all its forms. In this session we discussed extracts from two of the key texts in the Tolstoyan canon: What Then Must We Do? (1886), and The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893). The first is a polemic about the pointlessness and hypocrisy of philanthropy, in which Tolstoy argues that the only solution to inequality in society is to ‘get off men’s backs’, and provide for one’s own needs. The latter argues that all government is based on violence and coercion, and anticipates the arrival of a new order which will come about when ‘each of us begins to do what he ought to do and ceases to do the contrary’. In both texts, Tolstoy emphasises the need for honesty and integrity – it is important not to lie to oneself, and not to take part in collective lies perpetrated in order to hold up the current system. In this session we discussed the challenge Tolstoy’s writings presented to his contemporaries; the conundrum for Tolstoyans of following both Tolstoy and their own conscience; the image of Tolstoy as a hypocrite; and the extent to which it was, is (or was intended to be) possible to adopt the programme Tolstoy sets out here.
I was taken with Tolstoy’s optimistic and faith-based view of human nature. He seems to identify conscience with an anti-individualistic and kind set of motivations that we (supposedly) all have. I like that way of looking at things. If we all chose to believe that all people, at their foundation, have such a conscience and we acted on that belief then I think human social reality would be much more harmonious. Does that resonate with Arendt’s thoughts on speech, action and the human condition, R?