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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

From The Vegetarian (London), December 21, 1889:

Leo Tolstoi

It has long been a reproach against Vegetarianism that it produces no great men. Its opponents all too willingly forget such names as Buddha, Plutarch, Wesley, Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, Shelley, and other epoch-making Vegetarians, who have helped to mould the destinies of the world ; and they sneer at the simplicity of teach-ing which is to them foolishness and a rock of offence. To the long list of Vegetarian heroes and giants must now he added the honoured name of Count Leo Tolstoi, the Russian novelist and social reformer.

Tolstoi has long been known in the literary world as the first novelist of the age. The subtle delicacy, the intense realism, the naive humour, of such works as "Anna Karennina," "War and Peace," and the "Cossacks,' have left their impress all the world over, and epicures in style have hugged themselves over the reflexion that there was still one novelist left, realistic as Zola without his putrescence, dramatic as Dumas without his frivolity, and typical. as Dickens without his cornmon-place.

But the fame of the Novelist is rapidly being eclipsed by the reputation of the Social Reformer; and it is in this character that Tolstoi has a special claim upon the interest and sympathy of Vegeta-rians. Living at the centre of the most autocratic em-pire of the world, nurtured in traditions of imperial rule, saturated with an at-mosphere of cynical dis-content, Count Tolstoi has preserved untainted the freshness of an original soul. He is not content to look out upon a world that sins, suffers, and sor-rows, through the rose-tinted glasses of the pro-fessional optimist ; still less is he willing to magnify the "dreariness of the in-evitable" with the petulant pessimism of the self-satisfied agnostic. No! Leo Tolstoi is intensely human - his breast beats responsive to the complex chords of nineteenth century exis-tence; he feels and there-fore he knows, he believes and therefore he loves. For, indeed, sympathy must ever he the warp and woof of the fabric whereon the poet pictures the great drama of life; and without sympathy the brightest intelectual gifts are polished in vain. Before we come a more formal criticism his special social doctrines, it may be interesting -for a moment to see him as he appeared to an American visitor, not many years ago. He writes :

As we left behind us one by one the black-and-white barred posts which mark the long versts between stations on a Russian post-road, the heatof the sun grew more and more oppresive, and the blinding reflexion of its vertical rays from the white unshaded turnpike became more and more insupportable, until my head and eyes ached with the heat and the glare. I was just about to ask my driver if we were not almost there, when he gathered up his reins, turned into what seemed to be an old wood-road leading away from the turnpike on the right in the direction of an inclosed forest, and said, "Na konets daiekheli" ("At last we have arrived"). I looked eagerly around for the imposing baronial mansion which I had pictured to myself as the country home of the great author, who was at the same time a wealthy Russian noble ; but, with the exception of a little cluster of thatched log-houses on the crest of a sloping ridge about a mile away, I could not see a sign of human habitation.

"Where's the Count's house?" I enquired.

"It is over there in the woods," replied the driver, pointing with his whip ; "you can't see it until you get close to it. Here is the gate of the park," he added, as, skirting the edge of a mud hole, we turned again to the right and passed between two high and evidently ancient brick columns which were hollow on the inner side, as if to afford places of shelter for gate-keepers or sentinels. Nothing, except these columns and an artificial but long-neglected pond which glimmered between the trees on the left, indicated that we were in a park or upon the premises of a wealthy Russian landowner. I should have supposed that we were taking "a short cut" through the woods to some peasant village. The road had not been graveled, and was muddy from recent rain ; the grass under the forest trees was long, choked by weeds, and mingled with wild-flowers; and there was not the slightest evidence anywhere of care, cultivation, or pride in the appearance of the grounds. About two hundred yards from the gateway the road turned suddenly to the right, and stopped abruptly at one end of a plain, white, rectangular, two-story house of stuccoed brick, standing among the trees in such a position that it could not be seen from the road at a greater distance than thirty or forty yards. It would he hard to imagine a simpler, barer less pretentious building. It had neither piazzas, nor towers, nor architectural ornaments of anykind ; there were no vines to soften its hard rectangular outlines or releive the staring whiteness of its flat walls ; and its front door, which looked so much like a side or back door that I did not dare to knock at it was situated nearer the end than the centre of the façade, and was reached by a flight of steps and a small square platform of gray uncut paving-stones with grass growing in the chinks.

At the end of the house, where the road had stopped, there was a croquet-ground of bare, hard-trodden earth, and on a bench beside it, in the shade of a tree sat a lady in a broad brimmed summer hat, reading. Not feeling sure that what I saw was the front of the house and dreading the awkwardness of knocking at what might prove to be the kitchen or dining-room door I crossed to the croquet-ground, apologised to the lady for interupting her reading, and enquired if the Count was at home. She replied that he was, and. Asking me to follow her, she entered the house, requested me to be seated in a small reception room, and then, turning to an open door in a wooden partition, she called in English, "Count, are you there?" A deep voice from the other side of the partition replied, "Yes." "A gentleman wishes to see you," she said ; and then, without waiting for a response, she returned to the croquet-ground. There was a sound of a moving chair in the adjoining room, and in a moment Count Tolstoi appeared at the door. I had heard not a little from his friends with regard to his eccentricities in the matter of dress ; I had been shown photographs of him in peasant garb, and I did not therefore expect to see a man clothed in soft raiment ; but I was hardly prepared, nevertheless for the extreme unconventionality of his attire.

The day was a warm and sultry one ; he had just returned home from work in the fields, and his apparel consisted of heavy calfskin shoes, loose, almost shapeless trousers of the coarse homespun linen of the Russian peasants, and a white cotton undershirt without collar or neckerchief. He wore neither coat, nor waistcoat, and everything he had on seemed to be of domestic manufacture. But even in this coarse peasant garb Count Tolstoi was a striking and impressive figure. The massive proportions of his heavily moulded frame were only rendered the more apparent by the scantiness and plainness of his dress ; and his strong, resolute, virile face, deeply sunburned by exposure in the fields, seemed to acquire added strength from the feminine arrangement of his iron-gray hair, which was parted in the middle and brushed back over the temples. Count Tolstoi's features may be best described, in Tuscan phrase, as "moulded with the fist and polished with the pick-axe," and the impression which they convey is that of independence, self-reliance, and unconquerable strength. The face does not seem at first glance to he that of a student or a speculative thinker, hut rather that of a man of action, accustomed to deal promptly and decisively with perilous emergencies, and to fight fiercely for his own hand, regardless of odds. The rather small eyes, deeply set under shaggy brows, are of the peculiar grey which lights up in excitement with a flash like that of drawn steel ; the nose is large and prominent, with a singular wideness and bluntness at the end; the lips are full, and firmly closed and the outlines of the chin and jaws, so far as they can be seen through the full grey beard, only give additional emphasis to the expression of virile strength which is the distinguishing characteristic of the large, rugged face.

He stood for an instant on the threshold, as if surprised to see a stranger, but quickly advanced into the room with outstretched band and, when I had briefly introduced myself, he expressed simply but cordially the great pleasure and gratification which he said it gave him to receive a visit from a foreigner, and especially from an American. I explained to him that my call was the result partly of a promise which I had made to some of his friends and admirers in Siberia, and partly of a desire to make the per-sonal acquaintance of an author whose books had given me so much pleasure.

"What books of mine have you read?" he asked quickly. I replied that I had read all of his novels, including "War and Peace," "Anna Karennina," and "The Cossacks."

"Have you seen any of my later writings?" he enquired.

"No," I said; "they have all, or nearly all, appeared since I went to Siberia."

"Ah!" he responded, "then you don't know me at all. We will get acquainted."

At this moment my ragged and generally unpresentable droshky driver, whose existence I had wholly forgotten, entered the door. Count Tolstoi at once rose, greeted him cordially as an old acquaintance, shook his hand as warmly as he had shaken mine, and asked him with unaffected interest a number of questions about his domestic affairs and the news of the day in Tula. It was perhaps a trifling incident, but I was not at that time as well acquainted as I now am with Count Tolstoi's ideas concerning social questions; and to see a wealthy Russian noble, and the greatest of living novelists, shaking hands upon terms of perfect equality with a poor, ragged, and not overclean droshky driver whom I had picked up in the streets of Tula, was the first of the series of surprises which made my visit to Count Tolstoi memorable.

In the course of the visit, long discussions took place upon social subjects - but specially upon that crowning command of Christ which Tolstoi has adopted for his own: " Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you THAT YE RESIST NOT EVIL; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." The writer describes how that:

Mindful of my promise to the exiles, I began to relate to Tolstoi what I knew about Russian administration, and the treatment of political con-victs. It soon became evident that he was not to be surprised, or shocked, or aroused by any such information as I had to give him. He listened attentively, but without any manifestation of emotion, to my descriptions of exile life, and drew from the storehouse of his own experience as many cases of administrative injustice and oppression that were new to me, as I could give that were new to him. He was evidently familiar with the whole subject, and had with regard to it well-settled views which were not to be shaken by a few additional facts not differing essentially from those that he had previously considered. I finally asked him whether he did not think that resistance to such oppression 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 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 both with 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." The writer then goes on to say:

I had not yet had a favourable opportunity to show Count Tolstoi the manuscript embodying the narrative of the "hunger strike" in the Irkoutsk prison, which I has promised the political exiles in the Trans-Baikal that I would give to him. I raised again the question of the treatment of the political convicts in Siberia, and, as an illustration of some of my statements, I handed him the manuscript. It was a detailed history of the voluntary self-starvation of four political convicts, all educated women, in the prison at Irkoutsk. This "hunger strike" which took place in December, 1884, lasted sixteen days and brought all of the women very near to death. It was undertaken as the last possible protest against what they regarded as intolerable cruelty. The narrative was written by Madame Rossikova, one of the "hunger strikers" and was smuggled out of the prison by an administrative exile who occupied a cell near hers, and who succeeded in opening communication with her at night by means of a cord with a small weight attached which he swung within -reach of her window.

Count Tolstoi read three or four pages of the manuscript with a gradually clouding face, and then returned it to me. His manner and his subsequent conversation conveyed to my mind the impression that he was already over-burdened with a consciousness of human misery, and thathe shrank from the contemplation of more suffering which he was powerless to relieve, and which could not change his views with the regard to the principles that should govern human conduct.

"I have no doubt," he said, "that the courage and fortitude of these people are heroic, but their methods are irrational and I cannot sympathise with them. They resorted to violence, knowing that they rendered themselves liable to violence in return, and they are suffering the natural consequences of their mistaken action. I cannot imagine," he continued, "any darker conception of hell than the state of some of those unfortunate people in Siberia, whose hearts are full of bitterness and hatred, and who, at the same time, are absolutely powerless even to return evil for evil. If," he added after a moment's pause, "they had only changed their views a little, if they had adopted the course which seems to me to be the only right one to pursue in dealing with evil - what might not such people have done for Russia! Mine is the true revolutionary method. If the people of the empire refuse, as I believe they should refuse, to render military service - if they decline to pay taxes to support that instrument of violence, an army - the present system of government cannot stand."

"But," I said, surprised by this advocacy of a revolutionary method which seemed to me utterly impracticable and visionary, "the Government forces its people to render military service and and pay taxes - they must serve and pay, or go to prison."

"Then let them go to prison," he rejoined. "The Government cannot put the whole population in prison ; and if it could, it would still be without material for an army and without money for its support."

But," I objected, "you cannot get the whole of the people to act simultaneously in this way. If you were let alone, you could perhaps convert a few hundred thousand peasants to your views ; but do you think you would be let alone? As soon as your teaching began to be dangerous to the stability of the state, it would be suppressed. Suppose for the sake of argument, that you succeeded in converting a quarter of the population ; the Government would draw soldiers enough from the other three quarters to put that one quarter in prison or in Siberia, and there would be an end of your propaganda and your revolution. It seems to me that the first thing to be done is to obtain freedom of action - peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary. You cannot persuade, nor teach, nor show people how they ought to live, if some other man holds you by the throat and chokes you every time you open your mouth or raise your hand. How are you ever going to get your propaganda under way?"

"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 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 has 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 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 an universal reign of violence?"

"If, on the other hand," I said, "oppression is advantageous to the oppressor, and if he finds that he can oppress with impunity and that nobody resists, when is he likely to stop oppressing? It seems to me that the peaceable submission to injustice which you advocate would simply divide society into two classes : tyrants, who find tyranny profitable, and who therefore will continue it indefinitely ; and slaves, who regard resistance as wrong, and who will therefore submit indefinitely."

Count Tolstoi, however, continued to maintain that the only way to abolish oppression and violence is to refuse absolutely to do violence, regardless of provocation. He said that the policy of passive resistance to evil which he advocated as a revolutionary method is in complete harmony with the character of the Russian peasant, and he referred to the wide and rapid spread of religious dissent in the empire as showing the chance of success which such a policy would have, in spite of repressive measures.