WHAT I BELIEVE
by Leo Tolstoy
Why does man not do the things that Christ enjoins and that can give him the highest earthly felicity – the felicity he has ever longed to attain? The answer as usually given, with slight variations of expression, is that the doctrine of Christ is indeed sublime, and its fulfillment would establish the kingdom of God on earth, but it is difficult and therefore impracticable.
It is in the nature of man to strive after what is best. Each doctrine of life is but a doctrine of what is best for man. If men have pointed out to them what is really best for them, how do they come to answer that they wish to do what is best, but cannot?
Human intellect, ever since man has existed, has been directed toward discovering what is best among all the demands that are made both in individual and in social life. Men struggle for land, for any object that they may want, and then end by dividing all among themselves, each calling what he may get his ‘personal property.’ They find that though difficult of adjustment, it is better arranged thus, and they keep to their own property. Men fight to get wives for themselves, and then come to the conclusion that it is better for each to have his own family; and though it may be hard to maintain a family, men keep to their property, their families, and all else they are said to possess. No sooner do men find it best for themselves to act in a particular way, than they proceed to act in that way, however hard it may be. Then what do we mean by saying the doctrine of Christ is sublime, a life in accordance with His doctrine would be a better one than the one we now lead, but we cannot lead the life that would be best for us because it is hard to do so?
If ‘hard’ means that it is hard to give up the momentary satisfaction of our desires for some great and good end, why do we not say, as well, that it is hard to plough the ground in order to have bread; to plant apple trees in order to have apples? Every being endowed with the least germ of reason knows that no great good can be attained without trouble and difficulty. And now we say that though Christ’s doctrine is sublime, we can never put it into practice because it is hard to do so. Hard, because its observance would deprive us of what we have always possessed. Have we never heard that it may be better for us to suffer and to lose, than never to suffer and always to have our desires satisfied?
Man may be but an animal, and nobody will find fault with him for being such; but a man cannot reason that he chooses to be only an animal; no sooner does he reason than he admits himself to be a rational being, and, making this admission, he cannot help recognizing a distinction between what is rational and what is irrational. Reason does not command, it only enlightens.
While groping about in the darkness in search of the door, I bruise my hands and knees. A man comes with a light, and I see the door. I can no longer bruise myself against the wall now that I see the door, still less can I assert that, though I see the door and feel convinced the best plan would be to enter it, it is hard to do so, and I prefer bruising my knees against the wall.
There must evidently be some strange misconception in the argument that the doctrine of Christ is good, and conducive to good to the world, but man is weak, man is bad, and, while wishing to act for the best, he acts for the worst, and therefore he cannot do what he know is best for himself.
This notion must be the result of some false assumption. It is only by assuming that what is, is not, and that what is not, is, that man can have arrived at so strange a negation of the possibility of fulfilling a doctrine that, as he himself admits, would give him happiness.
The assumption that has brought mankind to accept this notion is based on the dogmatic Christian creed – the creed that is taught to all members of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches from their earliest childhood.
This creed, according to the definition given by believers, is an acknowledgement of the existence of things that seem to be (a definition given by St. Paul and repeated in works on divinity and catechisms as the best definition of faith). It is this belief that has brought mankind to the singular conviction that the doctrine of Christ is good, but cannot be put in practice.
The doctrine of this creed is literally as follows: God eternal, Three Persons in one God, chose to create a world of spirits. The bountiful God created that world of spirits for their happiness; but it chanced that one of the spirits grew wicked, and therefore unhappy. Some time passed away, and God created another world, a material world, and created man, likewise for happiness. God created man happy, immortal, and sinless. Man was happy because he enjoyed all the blessings of life without labor; immortal, for he was always to live thus; sinless, for he did not know evil.
Man was tempted in Eden by the spirit of the first creation who had grown wicked; and from that time man fell, and other fallen men like him were born into the world; men labored, sickened, suffered, died, and struggled morally and physically; i.e., the imaginary man became the real man, such as we know him to be; and we have no grounds for imagining him ever to have been otherwise. The state of man who labors, suffers, strives after good, avoids evil, and dies; this state, which is real, and beyond which we can imagine no other, is not the true state of man, according to this orthodox belief, but it is a temporary, accidental state, unnatural to him.
And though, according to this teaching, this state of man has continued for all men from the expulsion of Adam out of Eden, i.e., from the beginning of the world to the birth of Christ, and has continued in the same way since that time, believers are bound to think that this is only an accidental, temporary state. According to this teaching the Son of God, God Himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, was sent down from heaven by God, and was made man, to save men from this accidental, temporary state, unnatural to them, to deliver them from the curse laid upon them by the same God for the sin of Adam, and to re-establish them in their former natural state of perfect happiness, i.e., of health, immortality, innocence, and idleness. According to this teaching, again, the Second Person of the Trinity redeemed the sin of Adam by the fact that men crucified Him, and thus put an end to the unnatural state of man, which has lasted from the beginning of the world. And from that time man believed in Christ, and became again such as he was before the fall, immortal, healthy, sinless, and idle.
The orthodox teaching does not dwell at any length upon the consequent results of the redemption, according to which, after the death of Christ, the earth should have begun to yield up her fruits to believers without labor, sickness should have ceased, and mothers should have given birth to their offspring without suffering; for, however great their faith is, it is difficult to instill into those who find labor hard, and sickness painful, that labor is not hard, and suffering is not painful. Great stress, however, is laid on that part of the teaching that says that ‘death and sin are no more.’
It is confidently asserted that the dead live. And, as the dead cannot possibly tell us whether they are dead or alive, any more than a stone can tell whether it can speak or not, this absence of all denial is taken as a proof of the assertion that those who are dead are not dead. And with yet greater solemnity and assurance is it asserted that, after the coming of Christ on earth, man is delivered from sin by his faith in Him, i.e., that man has no need of reason to enlighten his path in life, and has no need to strive after what is best for himself; he only has to believe that Christ redeemed him from sin to become sinless, i.e., perfectly good. Thus, according to this doctrine, men must think their intellect impotent, and that therefore they are sinless, i.e., cannot err.
The true believer must fancy that ever since Christ came into the world, the earth yields fruit without labor; that children are brought into the world without suffering; that there is no sickness, no death, no sin – i.e., no errors. He must imagine that what is not, is, and what is, is not.
Such is the teaching of our strictly logical theory of theology.
This teaching seems innocent in itself. But a deviation from truth can never be innocent; it entails consequences, more or less important, according to the importance of the subject of the untruth. In this case the subject of the untruth is the whole life of man.
This teaching calls an individual blissful, sinless; and eternal life the true life, i.e., a life that nobody has ever seen, and that does not exist. And the life that is, the only one we know, which we lead, and which mankind has ever led, is, according to this teaching, a fallen, wicked life.
The struggle between the intellectual and animal nature of man, which lies in the soul of each, and is the substance of the life of each man, is entirely set aside. The struggle is made to refer to what befell Adam at the creation of the world. And the question, ‘Am I to eat the apples that tempt me?’ according to this teaching, no longer applies to man. Adam solved the question in the negative, once and forever, in the garden. Adam sinned, that is, Adam erred, and we all fell irrevocably, and all our endeavors to live rationally are useless, and even godless. I am irrevocably bad, and I must know it. My salvation does not lie in the fact that I can order my life by my reason, and, having learned to know good from evil, do what is best. No, Adam sinned once for all, and Christ has, once and for ever, set the evil right; and all that is left for me to do is to mourn over the fall of Adam, and rejoice in my salvation through Christ.
According to this teaching, not only are the loves of good and truth, which are innate in man, his endeavors to enlighten by his reason the various phenomena of life, and his spiritual life deemed unimportant, but they are all vainglory and pride.
Our life here on earth, with all its joys, with all its charms, with all its struggles between light and darkness, the lives of all those who lived before, my own life with its inward struggles and consequent victories of reason, is not the true life, but a hopelessly spoiled, fallen life; the true life, the sinless life, according to this teaching, lies only in faith, i.e., in fancy, i.e., in madness.
Let a man but set aside the teaching he has imbibed from his childhood, let him transfer himself in thought into a new man, not brought up in that doctrine, and then let him imagine in what light this teaching would appear to him. Would he not deem it complete insanity?
Strange and awful though it was to think thus, I was forced to admit that it was even so, for only thus could I explain to myself the strikingly inconsistent, senseless arguments, which I heard all around me, against the possibility of fulfilling the doctrine of Christ. ‘It is good and would lead to happiness, but men cannot fulfill it.’
It is only the assumption that what does not exist, exists, and what exists, does not exist, that can have brought mankind to so surprising an inconsistency. And I found that false assumption in the so-called Christian faith, which has been preached during 1800 years.
Believers are not the only persons who say that the doctrine of Christ is good, but impracticable. Unbelievers, men who either do not believe, or think that they do not believe, in the dogmas of the fall and the redemption, say the same. Men of science, philosophers, and men of cultivated minds in general, who consider themselves perfectly free from superstition, likewise argue the impracticability of Christ’s doctrine. They do not believe, or at least think that they do not believe, in anything, and therefore consider themselves as having nothing to do with superstition, with the fall of man, or with redemption. I thought so too, formerly. I also thought that these learned men had other grounds for denying the practicability of the doctrine of Christ. But, on closer examination of the basis of their negation, I clearly saw that unbelievers had the same false idea, that life is not what it is, but what it seems to be; and that this idea has the same basis as the idea of believers. Men who call themselves ‘unbelievers’ do not, it is true, believe in God, in Christ, or in Adam; but they believe in the fundamental false assumption of the right of man to a life of perfect bliss, just as firmly as theologians do.
However privileged science, with her philosophy, may boast of being the judge and the guide of intellect, she is, in reality, not its guide, but its slave. The view taken of the world is always prepared for her by religion; and science only works in the path assigned her by religion. Religion reveals the meaning of life, and science applies this meaning to the various phases of life. And, therefore, if religion gives a false meaning to life, science, reared in this religious creed, will apply this false meaning to the life of man.
The teaching of the church gave, as the basis of life, the right of man to perfect bliss – bliss that is to be attained, not by the individual efforts of man, but by something beyond his own control; and this view of human life became the basis of our European science and philosophy.
Religion, science, and public opinion all unanimously tell us that the life we lead is a bad one, but that the doctrine, which teaches us to endeavor to improve, and thus make our life itself better, is impracticable.
The doctrine of Christ, as an improvement of human life by the rational efforts of man, is impracticable because Adam sinned and the world is full of evil, says religion.
Philosophy says that Christ’s doctrine is impracticable because certain laws, which are independent of the will of man, govern human life. Philosophy and science say, in other words, exactly the same as religion does in its dogmas of original sin and redemption.
In the doctrine of redemption there are two fundamental theses on which all is grounded: (1) man has a right to perfect bliss, but the life of this world is a bad one and cannot be amended by the efforts of man, and (2) we can only be saved by faith.
These two theses have become first truths, both for the believers and the unbelievers of our so-called Christian Society. Out of the second thesis arose the Church, with its institutions. Out of the first arose our social opinions, and our philosophical and political theories.
All the political and philosophical theories that justify existing order, Hegelism and its offspring, are based on this thesis.
Pessimism, which expects of life what it cannot give, and therefore denies life, is but the result of the same thesis.
Materialism, with its strange enthusiastic assertion that man is but a process, is the lawful child of this teaching, which acknowledges that the life here below is a fallen life.
Spiritism, with its learned partisans, is the best proof that scientific and philosophical views are not free, but are based on the principle, inculcated by religion, that a blissful eternal life is natural to man.
This erroneous idea of the meaning of life has perverted the whole activity of man. The dogma of the fall and of the redemption of man has closed the most important and lawful domain of man’s activity to him, and has excluded from the whole sphere of human knowledge the knowledge of what man must do to be happier and better. Science and philosophy fancy themselves the adversaries of so-called Christianity, and pride themselves upon the fact, while they, in reality, work for it. Science and philosophy address everything except the one important point: how man is to improve his condition and lead a better life. The teaching of morality, called ethics, has quite disappeared from our so-called Christian society.
Neither believers nor unbelievers ask themselves how we ought to live, and how we must use the reason that is given to us; but they ask themselves, ‘Why is our life here not such as we fancied it to be, and when will it be such as we wish it to be?’
It is only through the influence of this false doctrine that we can explain how it is that man has forgotten that his whole history is but an endeavor to solve the contradictions between his rational and animal nature.
The religious and philosophical teachings of all nations (except the philosophical teachings of the so-called Christian world), Judaism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, the teaching of Confucius, and of the sages of ancient Greece have but one purpose in view – the regulation of life, and the solution of the problem of how man must strive to improve his condition and lead a better life. The teaching of Confucius deals with personal improvement; Judaism consists of man’s following the covenant made with God, and Buddhism teaches each how to escape the evils of life. Socrates taught personal improvement in the name of reason. The Stoics acknowledge rational liberty as the sole basis of the true life.
The rational activity of man has always lain in enlightening, by reason, his striving after good. Free will, says philosophy, is an illusion; and it prides itself on the audacity of the assertion. But free will is not only an illusion; it is a word that has really no meaning. It is a word invented by theologians and legislators; and to try to disprove its existence is but wrestling with a windmill.
Reason, which enlightens our life and forces us to modify our actions, is not an illusion, and cannot possibly be explained away. The following after reason in order to attain happiness was a doctrine taught to mankind by all true teachers, and in it lies the whole doctrine of Christ.
The doctrine of Christ concerns the son of man, and is applicable to all men, i.e., it concerns the striving of all men after good; and it concerns human reason, which enlightens man in his search. (To prove that ‘the Son of Man’ signifies the son of man is superfluous. In order to consider the words, ‘the Son of Man’ as having any other meaning, it would be necessary to prove that Christ purposely used words that have another meaning to express what He wished to say. But even if, according to the positive teaching of the Church, the words, ‘the Son of Man,’ signify ‘the Son of God,’ the words, ‘the Son of Man,’ still signify man, for Christ calls all men ‘the sons of God.’)
The doctrine of Christ concerning the son of man, the Son of God, which is the basis of the whole gospel, is expressed in the clearest manner in His conversation with Nicodemus. ‘Every man,’ He says, ‘in addition to his consciousness of an individual life, through his human parents, must admit that His birth is from above’ (John 3:5-7). That which man acknowledges in himself as being free, is just what is born of the Eternal Being, of Him Whom we call God. This Son of God in man, born of God, is what we must exalt in ourselves in order to obtain the true life. The son of man is of the same nature as God (not begotten of God). He who exalts in himself the Son of God over all the rest that is in him, he who believes that life is in himself alone, will not find himself in contradiction with life. The contradiction only results from men not believing in the light that is in them; the light of which John the Evangelist speaks when he says, ‘In him is life, and the life is the light of men.’
Christ teaches us to exalt above all else the son of man, who is the Son of God and the light of men. He says, ‘When you lift up the son of man, you will know that I do not speak of myself’ (John 8:28). The Hebrews do not understand His words, and they ask, ‘The son of man must be lifted up. Who is this son of man?’ (John 12:34). He answers thus (John 12:35): ‘Yet a little while is the light in you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you; for he who walks in darkness does not know where he goes.’ On being questioned what the words, ‘Lift up the son of man’ signify, Christ answers, ‘To live according to the light that is in man.’
The son of man, according to the answer given by Christ, is the light in which man must walk while the light is in them. Luke 11:35: ‘Take heed that the light that is in you is not darkness.’ Matt. 6:23: ‘If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness?’ Christ speaks thus to all men.
Both before Christ and after Him men have said the same: that there lives in man a divine light, sent down from heaven, and that light is ‘reason,’ and each must follow that light alone, seeking for good by its aid alone. This has been said by the Brahmin teachers, by the Hebrew prophets, by Confucius, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and by all truly wise men who were not compilers of philosophical theories, but who sought the truth for their own good and that of all men.
And now, according to the dogma of the redemption, we find that it is altogether unnecessary to think or speak of that light in man. Believers say it is necessary to consider the nature of each person of the Trinity, and which of the sacraments must be observed; for the salvation of man will come, not of his own efforts, but through the Trinity, and by a regular observance of the sacraments. We must consider, say unbelievers, by what laws the infinitesimal particle of substance moves in the endless expanse of endless time; but it is not necessary to consider what reason requires of man for his own good, because the improvement of his state will not proceed from his own efforts, but from the general laws that we shall discover.
I am persuaded that, in a few centuries, the history of the so-called scientific activity in Europe during these latter ages will form an inexhaustible subject of laughter and pity for still later generations, who will report somewhat in this style: ‘During several centuries the learned men of the small Western part of the great hemisphere were in a state of epidemic insanity, fancying that a life of eternal bliss was to be theirs; and were plunged in laborious studies of all kinds as to how, and according to what laws, that life was to begin for them, meanwhile doing nothing themselves, and never thinking of improving themselves.’ And still more touching will this seem to the future historian when he finds that these men had a teacher who clearly and definitely explained to them what they were to do in order to be happier, but that the teacher’s words were taken by some to mean that He would come in a cloud to set all right, while others said that the words of the Teacher were perfect, but impracticable; for human life was not such as they wished it to be, and was not worth caring about; that human intellect was to be directed toward a study of the laws of this life, without any reference to the good of man.
The Church says that the doctrine of Christ is impracticable, because life here is but a suggestion of the true life; it cannot be good – it is all evil. The best way to live this life is to despise it, and to live by faith, i.e., by fancy, in a future life of eternal bliss. Philosophy, science, and public opinion say that the doctrine of Christ is impracticable because the life of man does not depend on the light of reason, but on general laws; and that there is no need to enlighten life by our reason or to seek to be guided by reason, for we must live as we can, firmly believing that, according to the laws of historical and sociological progress, after we have lived badly for a very long time, our life will grow very good of itself.
Men come to a farm, and find all they want there; a house with all necessary utensils, barns full of corn, cellars full of all kinds of provisions; in the yard are implements of husbandry, tools, harnesses, horses, cows, and sheep – in a word, all that is necessary for living contentedly. Men crowd in and begin to use what they find, each mindful of himself alone, never thinking of leaving anything either for those who are with him in the house, or for those who are to come after him. Each wishes to have all for himself. Each hastens to take as much as he can, and consequent destruction of everything ensues; all are struggling, fighting to possess the property themselves; milk cows and unshorn sheep about to kid are killed for meat; the ovens are heated with benches and carts; the men fight for milk and for corn; and thus spill, spoil, and waste more than they use. Not one of them can eat a morsel in peace, each is snarling at his neighbor; a stronger man comes and takes possession of all, and he is despoiled in his turn.
At last these men, all bruised and exhausted with fighting and hunger, leave the farm. The master again makes the farm ready so that men may live there in peace. Again plenty fills the yard, and again passers-by come in, and the struggling and fighting are renewed; all is wasted once more, and the worn-out, bruised, and angry men again leave the farm, abusing and hating their companions and the master too, for having so sparingly and so poorly provided for them. Once again the good master gets the farm ready, and the struggling returns over and over again. Now, one day, among the new comers there appears a teacher who says, ‘Brethren, we are all wrong. See what plenty there is here; see how carefully all is provided. There will be enough, not only for us, but also for those who come after us, if we simply live wisely. Let us not despoil, but rather let us help each other. Let us sow, plough, and breed cattle, and it will be well for us all.’ And it happened that some understood what the Teacher said, and they followed His advice; they ceased fighting and robbing each other, and they set to work. But some had not heard the Teacher’s words, and others had heard, but did not believe Him, and they did not do what He enjoined, but continued to fight as before, and, after wasting the master’s property, they too left the farm. Those who obeyed the Teacher said, ‘Do not fight, do not waste the master’s property; it will be better for you if you do not act thus. Do as our Teacher bids us.’ But there were many who had not heard, or would not believe, and things went on in the old way. But it is said that the time came when all in the farm heard the Teacher’s words, and not only understood them, but knew that God Himself spoke to them through the Teacher; that the Teacher was God; and all believed each word the Teacher said to be a true and sacred word. Yet it is reported that even after this, instead of all living according to the words of the Teacher, it came to pass that none turned away from violence; they all fell to struggling and fighting again. ‘We are sure, now,’ they said, ‘that it must be so, that it cannot be otherwise.’
What could that mean? Even beasts know in what manner to eat their food without trampling it underfoot; and men who knew how to live better, who believed that God Himself had taught them how they were to live, lived worse, because, as they said, they could not live otherwise. These men must have fallen into some delusion. What could those men in the farm have imagined, to induce them to lead their former lives, despoiling each other, wasting their master’s property, and ruining themselves while believing in the words of the Teacher? It was this: the Teacher had said to them, ‘The life you lead here is a bad one, improve it and you shall be happy.’ They fancied that the Teacher condemned their life in the farm, and promised them another and better life, in some other place, and not in that farm. Whereupon they concluded that the farm was but an inn, and that it was not worth while trying to live well in it; and that the only thing necessary was to endeavor not to lose the good life promised to them elsewhere. It is only thus that the strange conduct can be explained; for both those who believed that the Teacher was God, and those who acknowledged him to be a clever man and His words to be just, continued to live contrary to His instructions.
If men would but keep from ruining their own lives, and keep from expecting someone from outside to come and help them – either Christ on the clouds, with the flourish of trumpets, or some historical law, or the law of the differentiation and integration of power! No one will help them, if they do not help themselves. And that is easily done. Let them expect nothing, either from heaven or earth, and simply cease from ruining their own lives.
 In all translations adopted by the Church, the passage has been purposely translated incorrectly; instead of ‘in you’ (εν υμιν) ‘with you.’
 Marcus Aurelius says, ‘Respect what is more powerful in the world – what turns all to profit and governs all. Respect what is powerful in you likewise. It is like the first, because it profits by what is in you and rules your life.’ Epictetus says, ‘God has sowed his seed not only in my father and grandfather, but in all beings who live on earth, particularly in rational beings, because they enter into communication with God through reason, by which they are united to him.’ In the book of Confucius it is said, ‘The law of the great science lies in developing and raising the principle of the light of reason, which we have received from heaven.’ This thesis is repeated several times, and is the basis of the teaching of Confucius.