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Letter to Engelhard

by Leo Tolstoy

Since the receipt of your first, but especially of your second, letter, I feel that you are very near to me, and I love you very much.  There is much that is egoistical in the sentiment that I experience.  You probably do not think so, but you cannot imagine to what extent I am lonely, and to what extent that which is my real ego is despised by all who surround me.

I know that he who suffers until the end shall be saved.  I know that it is only in trifles that a man is given the right to enjoy the fruits of his labor, or at least to see this fruit.  But in matters of divine truth, which is eternal, it cannot be given to man to see the fruit of his work, especially in the short period of his brief life.  I know all that but frequently lose courage, and so the meeting with you and the hope, almost the assurance, of finding in you a man who is sincerely walking with me on the road and tending toward the same goal is a great joy to me.

Well, now I will answer everything in order.

Your letters to Aksákov[1] have pleased me, especially the last.  Your proofs are incontestable, but they do not exist for him.  I have long known everything he says.  It is all repeated in life, in literature, and in conversations – it is all one and the same.  It is this: “I see that this is true, and that is false for such and such reasons.  That this is good and this bad because it is so and so.”

Aksákov and his like see that it is true; even before you have told it to them, they know that it is true.  But they abide in the lie, and in order that a man may be able to live in the lie and the evil, and serve them, he had to close his eyes against the truth even before this, and to continue to do the favorite evil.  They have all the same shield: the historical conception, the objective view, the care for others, and the removal of the question as to their relation to the good and to truth.  Aksákov does this, so does Solovév[2], and so have done all the theologians, all the statesmen, all the political economists, and all who live contrary to the truth and to goodness, and who have to justify themselves before themselves.

This cannot be said any more clearly than it has been said in John 3:19-21.

From this I draw the conclusion that in relation to these people one must not cast the pearls, but must work out a certain relation to them so as not to waste strength.  Disputing with them is not only an idle matter, but even harmful for our purpose.  They irritate us with provocations to something superfluous and inexact, and, forgetting all the chief things that you have said, will harass you only about that one thing.

The relation that I am trying to work out in myself toward them, and which I advise’ others to work out, too, is like my relation to a debauched, drunken bully who is trying to draw my sixteen-year-old son into debauch.  I am sorry for this debauchee, but I will not try to mend him, for I know that it is impossible.  He is beyond any hope, and will only ridicule me in the eyes of my son.  Nor will I remove my son from him by force, for my son will inevitably meet him or his like tomorrow, if not later today.  I will not even try to disclose his baseness to my son.  My son has to find it out for himself.  Instead, I will try to fill my son’s soul with such contents that the temptations of the bully will not corrupt him.  Otherwise, I shall lose all my strength in casting the pearls, for my strength is limited, and they will trample upon and crush us, and put out the little flickering light amidst the darkness.

And with this digression I have accidentally come to the second point in your letter: “How are men’s eyes to be opened?  How are they to be saved from the temptations of the debauchees, when violence is in the way?  How is the evangelical teaching to be realized?  Must I not take the part of men if they ask my aid when others kill and torture them before my eyes, even though I should have to free them by force?”

It is not right to free and defend men by force.  It is not right because it is impossible and also because it is foolish to attempt doing good by means of violence.

Please, for the sake of the God of truth, which you serve, be in no hurry, do not get excited, and do not invent proofs of the justice of your opinion before you have thought deeply, not of what I am writing to you, but of the Gospel – and not of the Gospel as the word of Christ or of God, but of the Gospel as the clearest, simplest, most comprehensible, and most practical teaching of how all men are to live.

If a mother in my presence thrashes her child, what shall I do?

Consider that the question is what I must do, that is, what is good and rational, and not what my first impulse will be.  The first impulse in the case of a personal insult is revenge, but the question is whether this is rational.

Precisely such is the question as to whether it is rational to use violence against the mother who is whipping her child.  If a mother is whipping her child, what is it that pains me and that I consider evil?  Is it that the child is suffering pain, or that the mother, instead of the joy of love, is experiencing the agony of malice?  I think that in either there is evil.

One man can do no evil, for evil is the disunion between men.  And so, if I want to act, I can do so only for the purpose of destroying the disunion and establishing the union between the mother and the child.  What, then, shall I do?  Shall I use violence on the mother?  I shall not destroy her disunion (sin) with the child, but shall only introduce a new sin: the disunion between her and me.  What, then, shall I do?  I will take the child’s place, and this will not be irrational.

To what Dostoevsky writes (which has always disgusted me) and what the monks and the metropolitans have told me – that it is lawful to wage war for the purpose of defense (“to lay down one’s life for one’s brothers”) – I have always replied, “To defend with one’s breast and to substitute oneself, yes; but to shoot people with guns, that is not defending, but killing.”

Ponder on the teaching of the Gospel, and you will see that the very short fifth commandment of Jesus in Matthew 5:9, “Do not resist an evil person,” is the binding link of the whole teaching.  It is the one that all the pseudo-Christian teachings have most carefully circumvented, and the non-recognition of it has served as the foundation of everything that you so justly hate.

This is to say nothing of the Nicene Council, which has created so much evil, which was based on this same lack of comprehension of Christ’s teaching and which promoted violence in the name of good and of Christ. This violence in the name of good is to be found in its germ in apostolic times, even in the Acts of Paul, and vitiates the meaning of Christ’s teaching.

I have often felt sad in my conversations with priests and revolutionists, who look upon the evangelical teaching as upon a weapon for obtaining external aims.  The men of either extreme position have with equal virulence denied this fundamental proposition of Christ’s teaching.  The first must not persecute and crush the heterodox, and bless battles and executions.  The second must not use force to destroy the existing monstrous disorder, which is called order.

Apparently, the priests and the authorities cannot even imagine human life without violence.  The same is true of the revolutionists.  By its fruits do you tell the tree: a good tree cannot bring forth fruits of violence.  Christ’s teaching can neither serve for killing, nor for temporizing.  And so, the men of either class, by perverting the teaching, deprive themselves of the one force that is given by the faith in the truth, in the whole truth, and not in a fragment of it.

“Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” is not a prediction, but a confirmation of a fact well known to all.

“If your light is darkness,” if that which you regard as good is not good, but evil, what will the evil of your life and of your works be?

It is impossible to serve God a little and the devil a little, and the gospel is not such a stupid book as the priests have made it out for us.  Every proposition is not given there to the winds, but is organically connected with the whole teaching.  Even so, the commandment about nonresistance to evil by means of violence goes through the whole Gospel, and without it the teaching of the Gospel falls to pieces.  At least it does so to me.  Not only is it expressed clearly and directly many times so that it cannot be concealed; not only are all the descriptions of life and of Christ’s works an application of this commandment; not only does John the Evangelist present Caiaphas as not understanding this truth and, in consequence of his lack of comprehension, as ruining Christ’s life in the name of the people’s good; the Gospel shows directly that resistance to evil by means of violence is the most terrible and dangerous offence into which Christ’s disciples fall, and He Himself comes very near to falling into it.

More than this, it now seems to me that if Christ and His teaching did not exist, I should have discovered this truth myself.  So simple and clear does it appear to me now, that I am convinced it will appear such to you also.  It is now so clear to me that if I were to admit the slightest violence in the name of correcting a most terrible evil, someone else would permit himself a small act of violence on this basis, and a third, and a fourth, and millions of small acts of violence would combine into one terrible evil, which exists even now and crushes us.

If you have fulfilled my request and have calmly read to the end, refraining from arguments in confirmation of your opinion, and have followed my exposition, then I hope that you will agree with me that there are also strong arguments for the contrary opinion, and I hope that you will still more agree with me when you have read the exposition which I am sending you.

So far as I can guess, you are now in the position of your reason telling you that I am right, but your heart revolts against such a proposition concerning nonresistance to evil.

You say to yourself, “Something is wrong here.  There is some error of judgment here.  I will find it and will prove that it is impossible that Christ’s teaching, the teaching of love for my brother, should lead me to sit with folded arms looking at the evil that is being committed in the world.  It is all very well for an old man who has seen his day to talk idly and assure all men that we must not resist evil.  He does not suffer.  He has enough to eat, is satisfied, has everything he wants, and has but a short time left to live.  The whole fire of life has been used up by him, but I feel without reflection that love for what is good and true and hatred for what is evil and untrue is stored in me, and not vainly so.  I cannot help but express it and live in its name, and every step of my life is a struggle with evil.  I am obliged to struggle, and I will struggle with it, using all the means which have already become clear to me and which will become clear to me in the future.  What is needed is a propaganda among the people, a closer union with the sectarians, the exertion of an influence on the government, and so forth.”

The feeling that prompts this is good, and I love you for it, but it is the feeling that prompted Peter to provide himself with a sword and cut off the slave’s ear.

Imagine what would have happened if Jesus had not repressed those feelings.  There would have been a fight.  Let us suppose that Jesus’ men would have been victorious and would have conquered the whole of Jerusalem.  They would have struck down men, and others would have struck down them.  What would have become of the Christian teaching?  It would not exist now, and we would have nothing to lean on.  We would be worse than an Aksákov or Solovév.

In order completely to express my idea to you, I will tell you what I take to be the meaning of Christ, a meaning which is not hazy and mystical, but clear and vital.

All say that the meaning of Christianity lies in loving God, and our neighbor as ourselves.  But what is God?  What is meant, by loving something as incomprehensible as God?  What is a neighbor?  What am I?

These words have this meaning for me: to love God means to love truth.

To love my neighbor as myself means to recognize the unity of my essence, soul, and life with every other human life, with eternal truth, and with God.  So it is for me.  But it is clear to me that these words, which define nothing, may be understood differently, and that the majority of men are even unable to understand them as I do.  The main thing is that these words put no obligations on me, or on any one else, and define nothing.

How is this?  I am to love God, whom each understands in his own way, and others do not recognize at all.  And I am to love my neighbor as myself, whereas there is implanted in me the love of self, which does not leave me for a moment, and very frequently just as constant a hatred of others.

This is so obscure and impracticable that it remains an empty phrase.  It is my opinion that it is a metaphysical proposition, which is important in itself, but it is simply stupid when it is understood as a rule of life and as a law.  Unfortunately, it is frequently understood as such.

All this I say in order to make clear that the meaning of Christianity, as of any other faith, does not lie in metaphysical principles – these will always be the same with all humanity (Buddha, Confucius, Socrates) – but in their application to life, in the living representation of that good of every man and of all humanity which is obtained in their application, and in the determination of the rules by means of which they are obtained.  Even in Deuteronomy it says, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself,” but the application of this rule according to Deuteronomy consisted in circumcision, in the Sabbath, and in the criminal law.

The significance of Christianity consists in the indication of the possibility and the happiness of the execution of the law of love.  Christ very clearly defined in the Sermon on the Mount how this law must and can be carried out for His own happiness and for that of all men.  There would be no teaching of Christ without the Sermon on the Mount (in this all agree), and in it Christ does not address the sages, but the illiterate and the tawny-handed common folk.  It is hedged in with the introduction, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments,” and with the conclusion that we must not speak of them, but fulfill them.  Everything is said in this sermon, and five commandments[3] are given as to how to fulfill the teaching.

In the Sermon on the Mount are expounded the simplest, easiest, most comprehensible rules of the application of the love of God and of our neighbors to life, without the recognition or fulfillment of which it is impossible to speak of Christianity.  And, no matter how strange this may seem, after eighteen hundred years I had to rediscover these rules as something new.  And only when I comprehended these rules did I comprehend the meaning of Christ’s teaching.

These rules so marvelously embrace the whole life of each man and of all humanity that a man need but imagine the fulfillment of these rules on earth in order that the kingdom of righteousness may be realized upon the earth.  Then analyze all these rules separately, applying them to yourself, and you will see that this incredibly blessed and enormous result is obtained through the fulfillment of the simplest, most natural rules, which are not only easy, but even pleasurable to execute.

Do you think it is necessary to add anything to these rules in order that the kingdom of righteousness may be realized?  It is not.  Do you think that it is possible to reject one of the rules without impairing the kingdom of righteousness?  It is not.  If I did not know anything of Christ’s teaching but the five rules, I should still be as good a Christian as I am now.  Be not angry.  Commit no debauch, either through adultery or divorce.  Do not swear.  Do not judge.  Wage no war.  In this does the essence of Christ’s teaching consist for me.

This clear expression of Christ’s teaching has been concealed from men, and so humanity has always deviated from it in two extreme directions.  Some, seeing the teaching of the salvation of the soul in Christ’s teaching, have removed themselves from the world for the sake of a grossly conceived eternal life.  These have cared only for what to do for themselves and how to perfect themselves individually, which would be ridiculous if it were not pitiful.  Tremendous forces have been wasted by these people (and there have been many of them) on what is impossible and foolish: on doing good for themselves individually without considering other men.

Others, not believing in the future life, have lived only for others, but have not known and have not wanted to know what is necessary for themselves, why they wanted the good for others, or what good they wanted.

It seems to me that one thing is impossible without the other.  A man cannot do any good to himself or to his soul without acting for others and with others, as did the religious ascetics and others.  And he cannot do good to men if he does not know what he himself needs or why he is acting, as in the case of the public workers who have no faith.

I love the men of the first order, but I despise their teaching with all the forces of my soul.  I love the men of the second category very much, though I also despise their teaching.  Only that teaching has the truth which points out an activity – a life – that satisfies the demands of the soul, and that is a constant activity for the good of others at the same time.

Such is the teaching of Christ.  It is equally distant from religious quietism, from the care for one’s soul, and from the revolutionary zeal of him who wants to benefit others without knowing wherein this true, indubitable good consists.  The Christian life is such that it is impossible to do good to people except by doing good to oneself, to one’s rational soul, and impossible to do good to oneself except by doing good to one’s neighbors.  The Christian life is equally distant from quietism and from excessive zeal.

Young people, who are of your frame of mind, are inclined to confuse true Christian teaching with the quietism of the superstitious.  It seems to them that it is very convenient and very easy to reject the resistance to evil through violence, and that this causes the Christian work to weaken and lose force.  That is not true.  You must understand that a Christian renounces violence, not because he does not love the object of your desire, and not because he does not see that violence is the first thing which begs for recognition at the sight of evil, but because he sees that violence removes him from his aim, that it does not bring him nearer to it, and that it is senseless.  Violence is senseless, just as it is senseless for a man to beat the ground with a stick in order to get to the water of an underground spring.  It is more difficult to take a spade and dig, and it is more difficult for a man to deny violence.  But the job is made easier for him, because he knows full well that by opposing evil, not with violence, but with goodness and truth, he is doing what he can according to Christ’s expression and fulfilling the will of the Father.

It is impossible to put out fire with fire, to dry up water with water, and to destroy evil with evil.  They have been doing that ever since the beginning of the world, and have reached the state in which we live.  It is time to give up the old method and to take hold of the new, the more so since it is more sensible.  If there is a motion forward, it is so only thanks to those who have paid with good for evil.

What would happen if only one-millionth part of those efforts which are employed by people in order to fight evil with violence were employed for the purpose of enduring evil, without taking part in it, and of shedding the light that is given to each of us?  If only it were so, simply from the point of view of experiment!  Nothing has been gained by the other way, so why not try this, the more so since it is clear, obvious, and joyful?

As a special example, let us recall Russia for the last twenty years.  How much sincere desire for good and readiness for sacrifice has been wasted by our young intellectual classes in order to establish the truth, and to do good to men!  And what has been done?  Nothing.  Worse than nothing.  They have wasted enormous spiritual forces.  The sticks are broken and the earth is beaten down harder than ever, so that the spade does not enter into it.

Instead of those terrible sacrifices that the youths have brought, instead of shooting, causing explosions, and running printing offices, these men need but believe in Christ’s teaching and consider that the Christian life is the one rational life.  What if, instead of that terrible tension of forces, one, two, ten, dozens, or hundreds of men should say in reply to the call to military service, “We cannot serve as murderers because we believe in Christ’s teaching, which forbids such murder by a special commandment”?  They might say the same in respect to the oath and to the courts.  They might say and do the same in respect to the violence that asserts private possession.  What would happen in this case I do not know, but I know that it would advance matters.

I know that there is one truly fruitful way, and that is not to do what is contrary to Christ’s teaching, but outright and openly to profess it, not for the purpose of obtaining any external aims, but for one’s own inward satisfaction, which consists in not doing any evil to others, as long as one is not yet able to do them good.

Here is my answer to your questions as to what we should strive after.  We should strive to carry out Christ’s rules for ourselves and disclose to men the light and the joy of their execution.  All this is, however, much better expressed in the Gospel (Matthew 5:13-16).

I foresee another objection.  You will say, “It is not clear how to carry out these rules, and what they will bring us to.  How are we to bear ourselves in relation to property, to the authorities, and to international relations according to these rules?”

Do not think that there is anything obscure with Christ.  Everything is as clear as daylight.

The relation to the authorities is expressed in the story of the penny.  Money – property – is a non-Christian matter.  It comes from the authorities, so give it back to the authorities.  But your soul is your own; it is from the God of truth, and so give your works and your rational freedom to no one but God.  They can kill you, but they cannot compel you to kill or to do any unchristian deed.

There is no property according to the Gospel, and woe to those who have it, for they will fare badly.  In relation to property, a Christian can only refuse to take part in acts of violence that are committed in the name of property, and may explain to others that property is a myth, that there is no property, and that there are habitual acts of violence in relation to the use of things – called property – which are bad.  There can be no question of property for a man who will give up his cloak when they want to take his coat from him.

Nor can there be any question about international relations.  All men are brothers; all are alike.  If a cannibal comes and wants to roast my children, there is only one thing that I can do: to impress upon him that this is not advantageous and good for him, and to impress this upon him while submitting to his force, the more so since there is no profit in struggling with a cannibal.  Either he will overcome me and will roast more of my children, or I shall overcome him, and my children will get ill tomorrow and die in worse agonies of disease.  There is profit in it, because by submitting I certainly do better, while by resisting I do something doubtful.

So here is my answer: the best that we can do is for us to carry out the whole teaching of Christ.  In order to do so, we must be convinced that it is the truth both for humanity at large and for each of us in particular.

Do you have that faith?

There are two more objections or questions, which, I imagine, you will bring forward.  The first is that if we shall submit to a cannibal or a policeman; if we shall give to a bad man everything that he may want to take from us; if we are not to take part in the governmental institution of the courts, schools, or universities, and are not to defend our property; then we shall fall to the lowest rung of the social ladder and shall be trampled upon and crushed.  We shall be mendicants and tramps, the light that is in us will be lost in vain, and no one will see it.  Would it not be better to hold ourselves on a certain level of independence from want, so that we may be educated and of communicate with as large a circle of men as possible?

Indeed, so it seems, but it only seems so.  It seems so because we highly value our comforts of life, our education, and all those imaginary joys that they furnish us, and we temporize when we say so.  It is not true, because, no matter on what level a man may stand, he will always be with men, and so able to do good to them.  But whether the professors of a university are better, or the residents of the night lodging-houses are more important for the work of Christianity – that is a question which no man can decide.  My own sentiment and Christ’s example speak in favor of the poor.  Only the poor can preach the Gospel, that is, teach the rational life.  I can speak beautifully and be sincere, but no man will ever believe me so long as he sees that I, living in a mansion, spend with my family in a day the amount of a year’s provision for an indigent family.  And as regards our vaunted education, it is time to stop speaking of it as of a good.  It will easily spoil ninety-nine of every hundred men, and it will certainly not add anything to one man.  You no doubt know about Syutáev.  Here is an illiterate peasant, but his influence on people, and on our intellectual classes, is greater and more important than that of all the Russian savants and writers, with all their Púshkins and Byelínskis taken together, from Tredyakóvski until our day.  We shall not lose much.  And everyone that has forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, shall receive a hundred times more houses, and a father here in this world, and also everlasting life.  Many that are first shall be last.  (Matthew 19:29-30)

Another question directly and involuntarily follows: “Well, and you, Lev Nikoldáevich?  You preach indeed, but how do you carry it out?”  This is a most natural question, which people always put to me and with which they triumphantly close my mouth.  “You preach, but how do you live?”  And I answer that I do not preach and cannot preach, though I passionately wish to do so.

I could preach by my works, but my works are bad.  What I speak is not preaching, but only a rebuttal of the false understanding of the Christian teaching and the explanation of its real meaning.  Its meaning does not consist in reorganizing society in its name through the exercise of force; its meaning consists in finding the meaning of life in this world.  The fulfillment of the five commandments gives this meaning.  If you want to be a Christian, you must fulfill these commandments.  If you do not want to fulfill them, do not speak to me of Christianity outside of the fulfillment of these commandments.

“ But,” people say to me, “if you find that there is no rational life outside of the fulfillment of the Christian teaching, and you love this rational life, why do you not fulfill the commandments?

I answer that I am guilty and wretched, and that I deserve contempt for not fulfilling them.  But, at the same time, not so much in justification as in explanation of my inconsistency, I say, “Look at my former and at my present life, and you will see that I am trying to fulfill them.  I have not fulfilled one ten-thousandth part, it is true, and I am to blame, but I have not fulfilled them, not because I did not want to, but because I could not.  Accuse me – I do so myself – but accuse me only, and not the path over which I walk, and which I point out to those who ask me where, in my opinion, the path is.”

If I know the way home and walk on it, drunk and tottering from side to side, does it follow from this that the path over which I am travelling is not right?  If it is not right, show me another.  But if I have lost my way and am tottering, help me and hold me on the right path, even as I am prepared to hold you up, and do not push me off. 

Do not rejoice because I have lost my way, and do not shout in glee, “There, he says that he is going home, and yet he is making for the swamp!”  Do not rejoice at this, but help me and assist me!  You are not yourselves wills-o’-the-wisp, but men who are making for home!

I am one, and I certainly do not wish to go into the swamp.  Help me!  My heart bursts from despair, because we have all gone astray.  When I struggle with all my might and main, you, at every deviation of mine, instead of pitying yourself and me, push me into the swamp and shout in delight, “See, he is in the swamp with us!”

Such is my relation to Christ’s teaching and its fulfillment.  I try with all my power to fulfill it.  On every failure to fulfill it, I not only repent, but also implore aid so as to be able to fulfill it, and with joy meet every man like me who seeks the path, and who seeks to obey Him.

If you read what I send you, you will also understand the contents of this letter.  Write to me.  I am very glad to commune with you, and will in agitation await your answer.


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[1] Transcriber's Note - Ivan Sergeyevich Aksákov (1823-1886) was a Russian littérateur and notable supporter of the movement to unite all of the Slavic peoples.

[2] Transcriber's Note - Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovév (1853-1900) was a Russian philosopher, poet, pamphleteer, and literary critic, who played a significant role in the development of Russian philosophy and poetry at the end of the 19th century.

[3] Transcriber’s note – Tolstoy combines Christ’s separate admonitions regarding adultery and divorce and thus considers there to be five commands instead of six.