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Thou Shalt Kill No One
by Leo Tolstoy
Early in July 1907, a man connected with the Petersburg Renovation publications was accused of circulating a pamphlet I wrote seven years ago, entitled Thou Shalt Not Kill, and he was sent to prison by a Petersburg government official. Unimportant as it is in comparison with the continual incarcerations, banishments and executions that are now occurring, this event is rendered remarkable by its cause.
Now, when all Russia is groaning with horror at the unceasing murders that are continually increasing in number and in audacity, a pamphlet promoting the ancient law, “Thou shalt not kill,” a law acknowledged for thousands of years by all religions, is prohibited, and the man who circulates it is imprisoned as a malefactor.
One would expect the Government, which has struggled so long and so unsuccessfully with the mania for murder that keeps taking hold of the Russian people more and more, to encourage those who circulate thoughts discouraging murder. But strange to say and on the contrary, the Government punishes them.
But perhaps the pamphlet, Thou Shalt Not Kill, in spite of its title, says something else – something opposed to religion arid morality.
I wrote it long ago, and might have forgotten its contents. So I have re-read it attentively. No! It says just what the title indicates, and nothing else. It says that, besides every murder of man by man being a crime opposed to the religious teaching we profess, the murder of kings, emperors, and rulers by revolutionaries is in general senseless. The organization of the State cannot be altered by such murders, and the motives prompting them are unfounded. When killing rulers in revenge for violence they have committed, people forget that they are themselves to blame for obeying governments and for taking part in what they blame the Government for doing.
Therefore, the general meaning of the pamphlet is that the words “Thou shalt not kill” simply mean that Christians should not kill anyone, either directly or indirectly by aiding murderers.
But perhaps those engaged in the Renovation publications are prosecuted not for the pamphlet Thou Shalt Not Kill, written on the occasion of the murder of the King of Italy, but for a pamphlet under the same name, which includes three other articles: A Letter to a Corporal, Reminders for Soldiers, and Reminders for Officers.
I have therefore re-read these articles also, and find in them the same as in the first: an endorsement of the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” and in particular an explanation of the fact that preparation for killing, and cooperation therein, is as criminal and as contrary to the law of Christ as killing is itself. In general, the meaning of these articles is also that Christian people should neither take part in killing, nor prepare to do so, nor kill anyone at all.
Wonderful is the law of requital, inevitably punishing those who pervert the law of God.
Nineteen hundred years ago, Jesus announced the basic laws of his teaching. He placed at the head of them all, not the old law, “Thou shalt not kill,” which he considered so well established that he did not talk about it, but the command that every man should avoid all that might lead to murder, should not be angry with his neighbor, should forgive everything, should be reconciled to all men, and should have no enemies. (Matthew 5:21-26)
Not only was this law not accepted, but even the ancient law forbidding murder was denied (as it had been by the laws of Moses). People calling themselves Christians continued to kill both in war and at home all those whose death seemed to them desirable, in full assurance that they were doing right.
The Governments of the Christian nations, aided by their Churches, long taught the nations they ruled that the law, “Thou shalt not kill,” does not mean that people must refrain from killing their fellow-men without any exception, but that there are cases when we not only may, but must, kill people. The citizens believed their Governments, and concurred in the killing of those whom the Governments determined to murder. But when the time came for belief in the infallibility of Governments to break down, the people began to act towards those who formed the Governments just as the Governments acted towards those whose death seemed to them desirable. Only this was different: the Governments considered it right to kill in time of war and after certain deliberations, called trials, whereas the people decided that it is right to kill in time of Revolution, and after the deliberations of certain people who call themselves Revolutionary Committees.
After that came about that which we now see in Russia: after Christianity has been taught for 1900 years, people have now been killing one another unceasingly for two years. The Revolutionaries kill their enemies: men, women, and children – all, in fact, whose death they consider desirable. And what is strangest of all, while acting thus they all feel fully assured that they are not infringing any moral or religious law.
It has come to the point that, were the possibility given to everyone to kill all whom they consider harmful to themselves, almost the whole Russian population would be slain. The Revolutionaries would kill all the rulers and capitalists, the rulers and capitalists would kill all the landlords, and so on with the peasants.
This is not a joke, it is really so. This terrible condition has already continued for a couple of years, and is becoming worse and worse each year, each month, and each day.
The situation becomes worse and worse because the Government, feeling itself obliged to resist this state of things, tries to check it by the only means it considers efficacious. These stupid and cruel means consist in permitting the very crimes the Government wishes to suppress. And, as must necessarily be the case – especially now with the present improved implements of murder such as Browning revolvers, bombs, and quick-firing guns, with which a little child can kill a hundred strong men – these foolish and cruel means not only fail to attain their end, but render the situation worse and worse. The tragedy of the present position of the Russian Government is that, though it cannot but see that affairs only grow worse by the application of the stupid and cruel means it uses, it still cannot stop. Not only can it not stop, it cannot use the only possible and efficient means of resisting murder: it cannot explain the criminality and sin of murder. Not only can it not use that means, but it has to employ its own stupid and cruel methods to punish those who wish to employ this one possible way of saving men from the miserable condition in which the Russian people now live.
Government has prohibited the pamphlet, Thou Shalt Not Kill, and imprisoned the man who circulates it. Now it must necessarily prohibit what I am writing today, and must also punish me. To be consistent, it should long ago have forbidden not only the Gospels, but also the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, and have punished all who circulated them.
Yes, wonderful is the law of requital, which surely punishes those who pervert the law of God. In the mean time, all Russia groans with horror at the unrestrained brutal instincts that break out, prompting people to commit most horrible and meaningless murders.
The foremost Liberals, men who defend every kind of human freedom, in reply to the question whether one should respect freedom of life and should refrain from killing people, have to remain silent, tacitly admitting murder to be necessary. Or, they actually admit this necessity, as do the Revolutionaries and the Government. And the Government, the Revolutionaries, and murderers belonging to no party continue to slay one another on the most diverse pretexts.
The situation in Russia is terrible. But what is most terrible is not the material situation, the slackness of trade, the agrarian disorder, the proletariat, the financial distress, the robberies, the riots, or the Revolution in general. What is most terrible of all is the spiritual and mental disorder at the root of all these ills. What is most terrible of all is that most Russians now live without any moral or religious law binding on all and common to all. Some guide their lives merely by their own fancies and tastes, embracing religions with old and obsolete creeds, which no longer contain any reasonable meaning or any really restraining influence on conduct. Others, assuming all religious beliefs to be unnecessary, are similarly guided only by their own most diverse fancies and wishes. The majority of people now active in Russia, while pleading most contradictory conceptions as to what forms the welfare of society, are in reality guided only by their own personal and almost animal impulses. And the most terrible thing of all is that these people, having rejected reasonable human life, and descended almost to the level of brutes, are perfectly content with themselves. They are convinced that all the stupidities and hasty actions they (both Government men and Revolutionaries) utter and perpetrate, in imitation of the Western nations, indubitably prove their superiority to the wise and holy men of the past. They are convinced that, not only is there no need to try to set up any religious view of life common to all, any faith capable of uniting people, but that the absence of all belief proves their mental and moral superiority.
People can in no way live a harmonious, human life by merely sharing certain political opinions, but only by union in one and the same comprehension of the fundamental meaning of life.
Political opinions cannot unite people, for there may be innumerable political opinions. Some people believe in this kind of parliamentary, socialist, or anarchist government; others believe in another kind. But at a given historical period and for a certain people, there can be but one highest attainable understanding of life’s meaning. It has always been this way. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Indians lived united by one and the same highest law of life. The Chinese did and do the same. The Europeans, so-called Christian, nations were similarly united as long as they really believed the faith adapted by Paul to pagan morals, which was called the Christian Catholic religion.
We now see clearly all the discrepancies of that religion, of that confused, obscure, and hypocritical Church teaching, which forbade the reading of the Gospel and put salvation by faith and by the observance of the Sacraments in place of deeds of love and the evangelical renunciation of earthly welfare. It made submission to earthly rulers obligatory, instead of the evangelical acknowledgment of the rule of God alone. It recognized miracles, the worship of images and relics, and the infallibility of the Pope. To us the irreconcilability of this doctrine with the simple, clear teachings of the Gospels is evident. But men were born into that false faith and it was instilled into them from childhood. However coarse it may appear to us – sanctioning as it did murders, executions, wars, and duels, and at the same time acknowledging a God of love – men believed in it sincerely, and that belief united them. This union continued for centuries, but a time came when men arose who began to explain the teaching in a fresh way of their own, and Protestantism appeared in its different forms. Quarrels and disputes then commenced between the various sects of perverted Christianity. These disputes more and more weakened faith, and the end of it was that Paul’s adaptation to paganism, being yet further perverted by the Churches, ceased to be a religion in the real meaning of that word, namely, the guiding element of men’s lives.
The identity of faith that had formerly united men was destroyed. People first ceased to believe in religion in one and the same way, and then in consequence of the various interpretations and disputes, ceased really to believe in pseudo-Christian religion itself.
Many causes destroyed faith in the Christian religion in any of its forms – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Protestant. Among such causes were religious disputes and ever-increasing enlightenment, but above all, the fact that Catholic and Protestant Christianity alike permitted executions and wars.
To those who, belonging to the ruling classes, introduced Christianity among heathen populations, it was natural, when adopting and introducing Christianity, either to hide or not to perceive all in it that was irreconcilable with the pagan order of life from which they reaped advantages. When such men adopted Christianity and introduced it among the people, one of two things had to occur: either they had to alter the organization of pagan life to conform to the Christian teaching, or they had to alter Christian teaching to conform to the existing order of life. They chose the latter alternative. Utilizing Paul’s interpretations, they perverted the meaning of everything in true Christianity that ran counter to the existing order, which rested on violence and murder, so that it was hidden and explained away.
To explain Christianity so that it should not contradict the pagan organization of life and the toleration of murder, on which the whole order of pagan life rested, it was necessary to alter and to hide the very essence of Christianity. In Judaism and in Islam it was possible to evade the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” without destroying the law. Both religions divided mankind into the faithful and the unfaithful, and so one could regard the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” as referring only to the faithful. But in Christianity, which by its very essence regards all men as brothers, and in which the whole teaching is based on love expressed by forgiveness of injuries and the love of enemies, one could not do this. To permit the murder of anyone at all destroyed the chief basis of the teaching. Therefore, to conform Christianity to murder was impossible, except by interpretations that destroyed the very essence of the faith. That was what was done. And when it had been done, perverted Christianity ceased to be a religion. The result was that adherence to the Christian Church faith became either a matter of habit, respectability, profit, or merely a poetic mood. No real religion’ remained among Christian people – that is to say, no faith that really united people and guided their actions.
It would seem that, having lost the one religious element that is capable of uniting people, men of the Christian Church world would have fragmented, fallen apart, and ceased to live a common life, but this did not occur. It did not occur because emancipation from belief in perverted Christianity did not come all at once, but little by little. Side by side with this emancipation from union by faith, people were more and more bound by another union, founded no longer on religion but on power – on that power which was based on and supported by false religion. Men, ceasing to believe in God and in His law, believed more and more, as they were encouraged, in the power of the rulers and in their law. And when faith in false Christianity disappeared, faith in Governments, in their power, and in their law replaced the vanished false religion and continued to hold people together in an artificial union.
But a union based, not on religion, but on the inertia of power could not endure. A time came when, with the spread of enlightenment, people realized that there is no inner reason for submitting to one power, and not to some other power. And understanding this, men ceased to believe in the need of obeying Governmental power, and began to resist it. This struggle commenced long ago, but showed itself with particular strength at the close of the eighteenth century. It went on during the last century and still continues in more or less hidden forms all over the so-called Christian world, and is now going on with special intensity in Russia.
What we now see in Russia is this conflict of those who, having lost the inner religious bond that united them, have also lost faith in the need of obeying the powers that be. The conflict consists in men trying to free themselves from coercive power by the same coarse and cruel means that Government has used, and still uses, to hold them in submission to itself.
If this struggle manifests itself in more hideous and cruel forms in Russia than in other countries, that is only because in Russia the struggle has come at a later period.
In many respects the position of the Russian people now resembles that of the European nations a hundred years ago; but in other ways it is quite different. The similarity is that the Russian nation now, like the European nations then, as far as most of the people are concerned, has understood that the faith it was taught – the Trinity, heaven and hell, the sacraments, icons, fasts and prayers, belief in the sanctity and majesty of the Czar, and the duty of obedience to rulers – a faith compatible with murder and every kind of violence – is not a real faith, but only an imitation. And lately the people have freed themselves with extraordinary rapidity and ease both from this false religious faith and from the even less valid belief in the beneficence and necessity of Imperial and Governmental power.
In this effort to free themselves from belief in perverted Christianity and in the necessity and sanctity of power, the position of the Russian people quite resembles that of other European peoples at the commencement of the last century. The difference is that the Revolution now taking place in Russia has come later, and the Russian people can see what the European nations could not then see: to what results the struggle with the rulers has led the nations. The Russian people cannot help seeing that this struggle has failed not only to destroy, but even to lessen, the evil against which the people strove. The Russian people cannot help seeing that all the efforts spent during the Revolution, and all the bloodshed, have not abolished poverty and the dependence of the workers on the rich and powerful. It has not prevented the expenditure of the people’s strength on the seizure of foreign lands, and on wars, and has not freed the many from the power of the few. The Russian people cannot help seeing how vain is the struggle of violence against violence, in which the European peoples have uselessly expended so much strength.
That is one cause of the difference between the present position of Russia and the position of the Western world a hundred years ago. Another and the most important difference is that besides the official, pseudo-Christian religion with which both the Western and the Russian nations were inoculated, in the Russia people from the earliest times, side by side with the official, there always existed an unofficial, living Christian faith. It reached the people in some strange way, through the holy lives of hermits and pilgrims, was preserved in proverbs, stories, and legends, and took root among them and guided their lives. The essence of that faith was that a man must live according to the will of God for his soul, that all men at brothers, that what is greater before men is an abomination before God, and that man cannot save himself by rites and prayers but only by deeds of mercy and love. This faith always lived among the people and was their true faith, guiding their life side by side with the false, ecclesiastical faith with which they were formerly inoculated.
This true faith was still strong among the people seventy years ago; but during the last fifty years, in consequence particularly of the decay of morality among the priests and especially among the monks, it has become weaker and weaker throughout the nation. It is still preserved in some sects – Molokans, Stundists, Hlists, Sabbatarians, God’s Folk, Malevantsi, Jehovists, Doukhobors, and many others. The common characteristics of most of these sects (besides a decided repudiation of Greek-Orthodoxy common to them all) has been an ever greater and greater adoption of the moral rules of Christianity into their conduct, a repudiation of the demands of Governmental power, and, above all, a repudiation of the righteousness or necessity of the slaughter of man by man. That faith lately, as though by reaction from the Revolutionary wrath that has infected a part of the Russian people, has clarified and purified itself more and more. A larger and larger number of people, of the most diverse social positions and education, profess this faith, and are becoming more and more closely united, while their comprehension of Christian truth more and more simplifies itself and enters into their lives.
Thus, in spite of the characteristics that the Russian Revolution shares with all former Revolutions, the Russian people, both because their Revolution comes later, and because they always were a particularly religious people, and side by side with their external, official religion developed and maintained Christian principles in their true significance, cannot but reach a different exit from their Revolution than that which the Western nations reached in the last century.
In the Russian people an intense struggle is now proceeding between the two most opposite characteristics of man: man the beast, and man the Christian. The Russian people have before them two paths. One is that along which the European nations have travelled and are traveling: to oppose violence by violence, to overcome it, and to violently set up and strive to maintain a new order of similarly coercive things. The other consists in recognizing that a union based on violence can be but temporary, and that only by sharing one and the same understanding of life, and one and the same law resulting that understanding, can men be truly united. It consists in nurturing within themselves the view of life more or less clearly accepted by the people, and the law that results from it – a law that, at any rate, denies the right of man to kill his fellow man. And it consists in solely basing life and unity on this law and understanding of life, and not on violence.
In our time, such a replacement of the union based on violence by a union based on an understanding of life common to all men of our Christian world awaits, not only the Russian people, but also the whole of Christendom.
Much water will flow, and perhaps also much blood, before this is accomplished. But it is impossible that it should not be accomplished. It is inevitable that a time will come when the people of our Christian world, having freed themselves from false faith and from the violence resulting from it, will all unite in such a religious conception of life (the highest accessible to them all) as will render the killing of man by man not merely impossible, but quite unnecessary. That time will come, for the uniting of men by violence proceeding from a worn-out faith can be but a temporary, transitional condition, and cannot regulate the lives of reasonable beings. Animals may be united by violence, but men are united only by a common understanding of life, and there is only one comprehension of life common to all men in our day. I think that such an understanding is expressed by that Christianity which, however we may understand it, rejects the utility, necessity, or righteousness of murder.
Those who think they believe in Christianity should put aside from it all the nonsense about Trinities, the origin of the Holy Ghost, salvation by faith, heaven and hell, and even all the sentimental words about love in the so popular thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. And those who do not believe in Christianity, but believe in science, should reject from it all the verbose and complex dissertations about Law, the State, Representation, Progress, and Future Socialism. In place of all that, if these two groups would admit the one simple, clear truth, expressed thousands of years ago, which forms the first, indispensable, negative condition of all morality, a truth recognized by the heart, mind, and whole being of every unperverted man, the truth that man should not slay his fellow-man, then immediately the whole horrible, brutal order of our lives would be changed, and a life consistent with the consciousness of the men of our day would naturally result, accomplishing the aims of the best men of our time.
Slowly, with stoppages, retreats, and turnings backward, humanity rises higher and higher, passing from step to step in its movement toward perfection and welfare. Humanity has long stood before the step that will lift it to the possibility of an harmonious life without the need of murder, but in our time it must mount that step whether it wishes to or not. If not reason or the impulse toward goodness, then the ever increasing misery of their position will compel men to begin to arrange their lives, not on a basis of hatred and threats, but on a basis of reason and love.
“The kingdom of heaven on earth – that is the aim and wish of humanity. (‘Thy kingdom come.’) Jesus brought that kingdom near to us, but men did not understand him and set up in us the kingdom of priests, and not the kingdom of God,” says Kant. “And only then,” says he, “shall we have a full right to say that the kingdom of God has reached us, when the conception of the necessity of a gradual transition from Church faith to a universal, reasonable religion has taken root among us.”
And I think – and not only think but also am assured – that that time has come.
People have arranged for themselves a life depending entirely on deeds repellent alike to man’s reason and man’s heart. At the same time, by a whole, long, cunning fraud evolved during centuries, they have quite convinced themselves either that they confess the law of Jesus, or that they know a science that indubitably proves that the murder of man by man agrees with our hearts and reason. And when they are told that their life is brutal, and that their Christianity and science are a satire and a parody on true religion and science – that they must cease to be murderers if they wish to be either Christians or enlightened men – they only smile and shrug their shoulders. It appears impossible to them to cease to do what was forbidden even by the most primitive religious laws of the most ancient nations, implanted both in the conscience and heart of every unperverted man, and what cannot by the most ingenious argumentations be made to agree with the Christian teaching they profess, or agree with that enlightenment of which they are so proud.
How terrible must be the mental decadence of the men of our world, when they can believe that their lives will become worse if they cease to execute, torture, kill, and hang one another! And how great must be the moral and religious perversion of men, when it is necessary to prove to them that “Thou shalt not kill” does not mean that they may kill the people of other nations, and those in general whose murder they consider advantageous for themselves, but that these words (which we attribute to God) mean that no one should, and therefore no one may, kill anyone!
Yes, horrible is the moral and mental depravity of such people, when they moreover consider themselves to have reached the highest stage of spiritual development. And it is terrible to say it, but such, with few exceptions, are all the people of our civilized, perverted world. The only consolation is that this terrible decadence is a sign of that last stage of perversion which is sure to result in an awakening, and I believe the present Russian Revolution will bring that to pass.
Yes, of course, the teaching of Jesus is impracticable for those who live by supervising and managing the construction of ironclads and fortresses, the training of soldiers to kill, the schools that educate man-slayers, the Law Courts, prisons and scaffolds, as well as for people who possess riches defended by murder. For such people, evidently, the teaching of Jesus is impracticable. But for those who have to build the forts and ironclads, who are taught to kill, who are perverted in the schools, who are executed and shot, and for all who produce the riches defended by murder, life without murder and without violence is much more practicable than the life they now live. I think the immense majority of the Russian people will understand this, and do already in part understand it.
The absurdity of what is taking place is too obvious. The government men and revolutionaries preach either the most refined, ingenious, scientific, and political laws, or yet more ingenious, complex, far-reaching plans of how humanity must be organized in the future. But they all, to accomplish their plans, consider it an unimportant matter that, for the time being, the necessity and righteousness of murder is allowed. And so, in spite of all their profundity, diligence, and enthusiasm, their refined and ingenious conceptions do not improve life. On the contrary, life becomes worse and worse.
People have arranged a garden and, in the most approved manner, have planted in it the most precious plants, which they manure, water and tend, but they have forgotten one thing. They have left a breach in the fence. Cattle enter the garden, tread down and tear up all that is in it, and the people are surprised and grieved. They cannot at all understand why all their labor leads to nothing.
That is what is happening in the lives of the men of the so-called Christian world. They have invented all kinds of religious and political laws, which are supposed to protect them and have improved their physical condition in all sorts of ways. They exchange thoughts across the oceans, they fly through the air, and they perform various miracles. But they have allowed one small deviation from what is taught by the wisdom of past ages, as well as by their own reason and heart. They have acknowledged the right of man to slay his fellow, and, as a result, all their religious and political defenses cease to be defenses, and all their miraculous technological improvements not only do not promote their welfare, but in fact destroy it.
This happens because, before setting up some other organization of life, before perfecting the means to harness the forces of nature, man should first of all establish the moral-religious teaching revealed to him thousands of years ago: the teaching that in every human body there dwells one and the same divine spirit, and that therefore no man, and no body of men, can have any right to violate that union of the divine spirit with the human body by depriving a man of his life.
The acknowledgment and establishment of such a moral-religious teaching is not only possible, but life becomes impossible without its acknowledgment and establishment. And it is simply the true meaning of the teaching of Christ, known by and near to us all.
Yes, all this will be so when the kingdom of God comes. But what must we do until then?
Do what is necessary so that the kingdom of God may come!
What must a hungry man do while he lacks food? Work to procure food. Food does not come of itself, nor will the kingdom of God, that is to say, a good life for mankind. We must make it. And to make it, we must cease to do the greatest of evils, that which most of all confirms people in their evil lives: murder!
And very little is necessary to cease to do this. In Christendom, the consciousness that the slaughter of his fellow runs counter to man’s nature is already sufficiently rooted in the great majority of men. It is only necessary to understand, admit, and embrace the idea that we are not called on to use violence to organize other people’s lives. Such violence inevitably results in murder. No murder that we commit, in which we participate, or by which we profit can be truly profitable to others or to ourselves. On the contrary, it can only increase the evil that we wish to correct. If people would but understand that, refrain from all interference with other people’s lives, cease to seek to improve their own positions by external, coercive organizations that rely on murder, and seek to improve their lives by each man drawing personally nearer to the ideal of perfection clearly placed before him by his own best nature and by true Christian teaching – an ideal quite irreconcilable with murder – then that organization of life which people now vainly strive to bring about by external means, only making life worse and worse, would come about of itself.
There is only one way for men to free themselves from the ever-increasing ills they bear. They must acknowledge and embrace, in the new era now dawning on humanity, true Christian teaching, and its basic principle, non-resistance to evil by evil. If that principle is not acknowledged, then Christianity becomes merely a hypocrisy that binds no one to anything, and far from altering the brutal, animal life men now live, it merely confirms such a brutal life.
“Ah! Again the old story of Non-Resistance,” I hear self-confidently and contemptuously remarked.
But what can a man do, who sees a crowd of people crushing and destroying one another, pushing and pressing against a solid door, hoping to open it outwards, while he knows that the door only opens inwards?
August 18, 1907
Transcribed and edited by WWW.NONRESISTANCE.ORG.
Thanks go to Paul Efremov for leading us to this essay.
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Transcriber’s note – Sadly, this prediction proved to be incorrect.