Tolstoy in Ryazan

2021-01-09 • 9 min read

Tolstoy with a group of peasants.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.[1]

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy was a man with a moral system. To most people, morals is what happens when you are faced with a choice of right and wrong. It’s intuitive, spontaneous, automatic. But Tolstoy spent many anguished years constructing a system which, given a certain situation, would output the right and proper action. He based this system on the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount.

He derived from the injunction to turn the other cheek a principle of non-resistance[2] which later influenced Mahatma Gandhi and, through him, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez among others. It is astonishing in a way to think that this came from the same one-time officer who had once from Sevastopol written to his brother: “The heroism of the troops beggars description. There was far less in the time of the ancient Greeks! […] I have not had the good fortune to see action yet myself, but I thank God for allowing me to be with these people and live through this glorious time!”[3] But the older Tolstoy went further than did any of his famous admirers. He not only advocated non-resistance to one’s oppressors. He also advocated non-resistance to an impersonal universe.

That sounds counterintuitive: it’s not as if the universe particularly cares whether one does or does not resist. But that, I think, is the wrong way of looking at it. I think Tolstoy considered it impossible to remove the pain from human lives; that, if you did, pain would return tomorrow in another guise. It would be a losing game. The only way to win is not to participate. And the only way to do that, thought Tolstoy, I think, was through pure, infinite Christian love. Because all these calamities are happening in the material world: they have to do with material conditions – with love, envy, hatred, hunger, ambition. But it is in the inner, immaterial world that salvation lies.

An Appeal to Charity #

This will go some way towards explaining Tolstoy’s thinking during the events described in the following passage taking place in 1891 (taken from Henri Troyat’s magisterial biography of the man):

Toward midsummer, alarming news reached Yasnaya Polyana: an unusually prolonged period of drought had brought famine to some of the central and southwestern provinces of Russia. A number of people, including the author Leskov, came to ask Tolstoy whether he did not think something should be done to help the suffering peasants. The master was annoyed by this appeal to charity – to begin with, because he had not had the idea first, and then because, together with the muzhik-philosopher Syutayev, he had long condemned private charity because, according to him, the principle of “non-resistance to evil” should apply to natural disaster as well. His reply to his colleague was sententious:

“There are crowds of customers for operations of this type [aid to the starving]: people who have lived all their lives without a thought for the common people, often disgusted by and disdainful of them, and who, at the drop of a hat, are consumed by solicitude for their inferior brothers. … Their motives are conceit, vanity and fear of the people’s anger. … To fight famine, all that is necessary is for men to do more good deeds. A good deed does not consist in giving bread to feed the famished, but in loving the famished as much as the overfed. Loving is more important than giving food. … Therefore, since you ask me what must be done, I reply: awaken, if you can (and you can), the love of men for one another, not now when there is a famine, but always and everywhere.”

Excerpts from this letter were published and aroused a storm of indignation in other newspapers. Tolstoy was called a “heartless doctrinarian”. He himself, upon learning that the famine was growing worse, felt his paper turn to ash in the heat of reality. On September 19, 1891 he decided he would take his daughter Tanya and go to his brother’s place at Pirogovo to investigate the extent of the damage and seek a remedy. In response to Sonya’s ironic smile at his sudden devotion to a cause erstwhile held in contempt, he snapped, “I beg you not to imagine I am doing this in order to get talked about; the fact is that I simply can’t stop thinking about it!”[4]

There was another reason, too, for his opposing private charity, stemming from that first reason (non-resistance to evil). This was Tolstoy’s views on money and property, by which he may have meant something like the industrial system, or capitalism. Taking as his starting point the observation that his class – the landowning class – extracted wealth from the muzhik’s labour through violence and extortion, Tolstoy saw a kind of slavery at the core of which lay the property system. Property was a means for the landowner to extract wealth from the labourer. It was the root of evil. And so the moral thing for a landowner to do was not to give a little of this extracted wealth back to the oppressed, but to stop exploiting altogether, in other words divest oneself of one’s property.[5] Or as the Redeemer put it:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Tolstoy and his daughter Tanya went to the villages around Pirogovo and finally saw how bad things really were.[6] In October, they made another trip, this time to Ryazan where a friend of Tolstoy’s was making a Herculean effort to organise emergency relief.[7] Troyat goes on:

“We are about to leave for the Don”, wrote Tanya on October 26, 1891. “I am not looking forward to this trip and am feeling completely unenthusiastic about it, because this action of Father’s is inconsistent; it is not right for him to handle funds, take in gifts and ask Mother for the money he has just turned over to her. … He says and he writes (and I agree with him) that the people’s hardships stem from the fact that they are robbed and exploited by us, the landowners, and that the whole point is not to rob them any more. That is right, and Papa did what he said, he stopped robbing them.[8] In my opinion, there is nothing more for him to do.”[9]

But when the party arrived at Ryazan they were overwhelmed by the misery that met them:

Many peasants had died of starvation. Others had fled to seek work elsewhere. The survivors, dull-eyed skeletons, were too weak to move. Tattered children with swollen stomachs, their faces blue with cold, dozed on heaps of rags inside glacial isbas. There was no wood, so they burned the thatch off the roofs.[10]

Tolstoy, Tanya and the others set to work. They bought firewood and organised a kitchen for baking brown bread.[11] Then they set up more kitchens.[12] Mothers came to feed their little children but ate nothing themselves.[13] And every day Tolstoy went to the villages, drew up lists of the needy and organised the fair distribution of supplies, while his daughters (this time Masha had joined them, too) spared no effort to help.[14]

Every evening when he returned to Begichevka[15], freezing and exhausted, Tolstoy commented on the day’s incidents to his daughters and the team of volunteers he had assembled. Some, like Tanya, reproached him for compromising himself by accepting gifts from persons who were part of the “System” and therefore despicable. He admitted, with tears in his eyes, that his present activities were not in harmony with his principles. But at the same time he said he could not stand by and do nothing when the people were in such a plight.[16]

Looking Within #

It’s no wonder that Tolstoy was conflicted. His moral system told him that this kind of charitable work was bad. But his intuition told him that it was good. When I say intuition, I mean not that he immediately understood that it was good, but that it seemed good to him, in the same way that a tree can seem sick to the eye or that somebody’s character can seem good on first meeting them. Whether he then went on to believe that it was good is a different question.

We can make the proposition formal:

(P) It is good to organise charitable activities for the starving poor, even if the money was gained through exploitation of them.

Because it’s possible that P seemed right to him even as he did not believe that it was right, just as torturing one tiny creature to provide a nation of people with everlasting happiness might seem wrong to a hedonistic utilitarian even as they don’t believe it is wrong. (Suppose the torturing has no adverse effects other than those on the tortured one. For example, it would have to not adversely affect norms against harming or abusing people, and not generate angst or resentment in those who carry out the act.)

Tolstoy could even have believed that the intuition that P was in a sense good, but at the same time thought that the intuition was overridden by the force of some moral system. But that seems unlikely, because he did deliberately act as if P. He went to Ryazan, he raised money and he organised emergency relief for the needy. So I think he really did believe that P; and that this belief was somehow stronger or more important than his moral system. In fact, I think that almost anyone would believe that P, as is also evidenced by the reaction in Russia against Tolstoy’s letter to Leskov opposing charity. But why? There’s no obvious reason why a mere intuition should weigh more heavily than a carefully considered moral system. What was it about P that made Tolstoy prostrate himself and comply?

Maybe P was simply self-evident? By “self-evident”, I mean “providing all the evidence needed to believe it once understood”. Understanding that P would involve knowing what charity is, what starvation is, what poverty is, what exploitation is and something about the relationship between these, in other words the moral facts of the proposition. But I don’t think P is self-evident in that way. I think a reasonable, if rare enough person can know all of those things and still not believe that P. (Remember that Tanya seems to have disapproved of her father’s decision to act as if P.)

There may be another way for us to reconcile intuitive morality with a moral system. We can use intuitions as evidence to consider when forming beliefs about moral questions, just as we consider perceptions of the world when forming beliefs about the world.[17] There seem to be white flecks of snow falling outside the window. One believes that it is snowing outside. It seems like a good thing to organise charitable activities for the starving muzhiks. One believes that it is a good thing to do so.

Of course there are problems with intuition. It is sometimes wrong, distorted by biases, hamstrung by social tradition. But it’s right more often than not, especially on many elemental moral questions like murder, theft, bearing false witness and so on.[18] So one could assign it a certain weight and let it overrule one’s moral system when an intuition is particularly strong. What this is is simply to recognise that one’s moral system, like any moral system, has failure modes because it is a kind of abstraction. And intuition can both on the one hand act as a safeguard against such failure modes and on the other cause us to adjust – to recalibrate, so to put it – the system itself.

I am sympathetic to Tolstoy’s attempts at building a moral system. But to me it’s clear that, concerning Ryazan at least, he did right to trust and act on his intuition.

Footnotes #

  1. This and the other New Testament passages in this post are taken from the English Standard Version. ↩︎

  2. It’s not quite true to say that he derived this principle from the Sermon on the Mount alone. He was at the very least also influenced by a number of pacifist Quakers like George Fox and William Penn. ↩︎

  3. Troyat, H. (1967). Tolstoy. Doubleday & Company, Inc.

    Of course Tolstoy was young then and would soon see the horror of war. ↩︎

  4. ibid. ↩︎

  5. For more on this, read Brian Morris’s article Tolstoy and Anarchism. ↩︎

  6. Troyat, H. (1967). Tolstoy. Doubleday & Company, Inc. ↩︎

  7. ibid. ↩︎

  8. Tolstoy, having inherited much land and then expanded his wealth through the success of his writing, had previously, after spending many years anguishing about the state of his soul, given up all of that wealth, although the benefactors of this cleansing were mostly his wife and children, with whom he went on living, so that not much changed in practice. ↩︎

  9. Troyat, H. (1967). Tolstoy. Doubleday & Company, Inc. ↩︎

  10. ibid. ↩︎

  11. ibid. ↩︎

  12. ibid. ↩︎

  13. ibid. ↩︎

  14. ibid. ↩︎

  15. Begichevka was the location of their provisional headquarters in Ryazan, in the home of Tolstoy’s friend. ↩︎

  16. Troyat, H. (1967). Tolstoy. Doubleday & Company, Inc. ↩︎

  17. This is similar to two-level utilitarianism. Of course Tolstoy’s moral system isn’t consequentialist. But what I describe here is not unlike how, in two-level utilitarianism, an agent would allow act-utilitarian calculations to override rule-utilitarian calculations when, to take one example, different rules are in conflict. This gets a little bit confusing in that it’s critical thinking (act utilitarianism) that overrides intuition (rule utilitarianism) here, not, as in Tolstoy’s dilemma, intuition overriding critical thinking. ↩︎

  18. There are further good reasons to believe intuition is not worth paying much attention to. It is, after all, evolved, presumably to provoke whatever action favours our survival, which may not be the action that’s morally right. On that view, intuition may only be right to the extent that it’s evolved to make us act in a prosocial way (if still only to improve our genes’ fitness). ↩︎