WHAT I BELIEVE
by Leo Tolstoy
I believe in the doctrine of Christ, and the articles of my belief are as follows.
I believe that true happiness will only be possible when all men begin to follow Christ’s doctrine.
I believe that the fulfillment of this doctrine is easy, possible, and conducive to happiness.
I believe that, even if it is left unfulfilled by all around me, if I have to stand alone among men, I cannot do otherwise than to follow it in order to save my own life from inevitable destruction.
I believe that, while I followed the teaching of the world, my life was a life of suffering, and that it is only by living according to the doctrine of Christ that I can attain the happiness that the Father of life destined me to enjoy in this world.
‘The law is given through Moses; but happiness and truth are given through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). The doctrine of Christ is happiness and truth. When I did not know the truth I did not know true happiness. Thinking that evil was happiness, I fell into evil, and I doubted my right to long for happiness. Now, I have understood and believed that the happiness for which I long is the will of the Father, and is the lawful basis of my life. Christ says to me, ‘Live for your happiness and for that of others, but do not believe in the snares – temptations (σκανδαλος) – that attract you by a semblance of happiness, while they, in reality, deprive you of it and entice you into evil. Your happiness is in your unity with all men. Do not deprive yourself of the happiness given to you.’
Christ has revealed to me that love toward all men is not only a duty that we must all strive after, but that in it lies true happiness – a happiness as natural to men as it is to children, as He says; and it is innate in all men until it is destroyed by deceit, error, and temptation.
Christ has not only revealed this to me, but has enumerated in His commandments all the temptations that draw me away from the state of unity, love, and happiness natural to man, and entice me into the snares of wickedness. The commandments of Christ show me how to escape the temptations that led me away from true happiness.
Happiness was given to me, and I have destroyed it. Christ’s commandments reveal the snares that have destroyed my happiness, and therefore I cannot help endeavoring to avoid them. My creed is in this, and in this alone.
Christ has shown me that the first snare is enmity – anger. I believe this, and can, therefore, no longer harbor a feeling of enmity against any man. I can no longer pride myself upon my anger as I used to do, nor justify it to myself by thinking myself great and clever, and others insignificant and foolish. As soon as I remember that I am giving way to anger I can no longer refuse to acknowledge myself in the wrong, nor can I help seeking to be reconciled to those who are at enmity with me.
Nor is that all. If I know that my anger is unnatural and wicked, I likewise know the snare that led me into it. The snare was my standing aloof from others, acknowledging only a few as my equals, and all the rest of the world as insignificant (racas) or foolish and ignorant (you fool!). I see now that these habits of holding myself aloof from others and considering them as fools (racas) were the chief causes of my enmity toward men. On recalling my past life to mind, I now see that I never once harbored a feeling of enmity toward those whom I considered my superiors, and that I never intentionally wounded their feelings; that, on the contrary, the most trifling circumstances sufficed to excite my anger against a man whom I considered my inferior, and the more I considered myself above him the easier I found it to outrage him. But I know now that he who humbles himself before others and who works for others is the only one who stands above the rest. I understand now that what is highly esteemed by men is abomination in the sight of God, why woe is foretold to the rich and famous, and why beggars and those who are humble are the blessed. My understanding of this has changed my view of all that is good and noble or bad and base in life. All that had formerly seemed good and noble in my eyes – such things as honor, glory, education, riches, all the refinements of life, elegant furniture, good food, fine clothes, etc. – have grown worthless to me. All that had seemed bad and base – such things as obscurity, poverty, uncouth manners, simplicity of furniture, of food, of clothes, etc. – have grown good and noble in my eyes. If, therefore, I now inadvertently give myself up to anger and wound another’s feelings, I dare not, after a moment’s serious reflection, yield to the temptation that deprives me of true happiness, union, and love, any more than a man can set a snare for himself in which he was once caught. I can no longer try to rise above other men and to separate myself from them, nor can I allow either rank or title for others or myself, except the title of ‘man’. I can no longer seek fame or glory, nor can I help trying to get rid of my riches, which separate me from my fellow-creatures. I cannot help seeking in my way of life, in its surroundings, in my food, my clothes, and my manners to draw nearer to the majority of men, and to avoid all that separates me from them.
Christ has shown me that the second snare that destroys my happiness is ‘lasciviousness,’ ‘sensuality.’ Knowing this, I can no longer acknowledge such passions to be natural, and I cannot justify them to myself. No sooner do I feel that I am giving way to my passions than I know myself to be in an unhealthy, unnatural state of mind, and try by all possible means to escape this evil.
And, knowing the sin, I know, too, the snares that led me into it, and I can no longer yield to it. I know now that the chief cause of temptation lies in the separation of men and women from those to whom they were once united. I know now that the forsaking of those to whom men and women have been once united is the ‘divorce’ that Christ forbids, for it brings depravity into the world. On recalling my past life, I see clearly that it was not only the unnatural education I had received that had led me into lasciviousness, by both physically and morally exciting my passions and justifying them by all the refinements of wit, but likewise my having forsaken the woman with whom I had first been united. I understood the full meaning of Christ’s words, and saw that God had created man and woman in order that they might live in couples, and that what God had joined together should never be put asunder. I now see clearly that monogamy is the natural law of mankind and must never be broken. I understand the words that ‘he who divorces his wife,’ that is, the woman to whom he was first united, ‘forces her to commit adultery,’ and brings new evil into the world. My belief in this has changed my former estimate of what is good and noble or bad and base in life. The things that I had formerly prized – a refined, elegant life and the passionate and poetic love extolled by all poets and artists – has become wicked and hideous in my eyes. A hard working, poor, simple life, which masters human passions, alone seems desirable.
It is not our human institution of marriage that makes really lawful the union of man and woman. I consider as sacred and obligatory that union alone which, once and forever, binds a man to the first woman he loves.
I can no longer give way to idleness and an easy life, which always tends to excite inordinate desires, nor can I find pleasure in novel reading, poetry, music, or balls, which I had hitherto regarded, not only as innocent, but even as refined occupations. I cannot forsake my wife, for I now know that my doing so is a snare for others, for her, and for myself; neither can I cooperate in the separation of any husband and wife, whether their union has been associated with church rites or not. Every union between a man and woman I consider to be sacred and binding to the end of their days.
Christ has revealed to me that the third snare that destroys my happiness is the ‘taking of an oath.’ I believe this, and I dare not take any oath. Nor dare I allege, for my justification, that my doing so cannot harm anyone, that all do so, that the State requires it of me, and that my refusing to do so will do no good either to others or myself. I know that this is an evil for all men and me, and I cannot do it.
I know, besides, wherein the temptation lay, which enticed me into this evil, and I dare not yield to it any more. I know that the snare lies in our sanctioning deception. Men swear to submit to the commands of other men, whereas man must submit to God alone. The most awful evils in the world, by the consequences they entail, such as war, imprisonment, executions, and torture, only exist through this snare, by which all responsibility is taken off those who do evil. I now understand the meaning of the words, ‘All that is more than a simple affirmation or negation, yes or no, is evil.’ Every promise is evil. Having understood this, I now see that the taking of an oath is against my own good, as well as the good of others; and the knowledge that it is so has altered my estimate of what is good and noble or bad and base. All that had seemed most good and noble to me before – obligatory allegiance to the government, the extortion of oaths from men, all the deeds conscience condemns that are mostly the result of a man’s having taken an oath – seem bad and base to me now. Therefore, I can no longer set aside the commandment of Christ, which says, ‘Swear not at all.’ I cannot now swear an oath, nor can I insist upon others dong so, nor can I encourage men to consider taking an oath as necessary or even harmless.
Christ has revealed to me that the fourth snare is ‘resisting evil by violence.’ I know that my doing so leads others and me into evil, and cannot therefore justify myself by saying that it is necessary for the protection of others, of my property, or of myself. No sooner do I remember this than I cannot help abstaining from violence of every kind.
And I know, likewise, what the snare is. It is the erroneous idea that my welfare can be secured by defending my property and myself against others. I now know that the greater part of the evil men suffer from arises from this. Instead of working for others, each tries to work as little as possible, and forcibly makes others work for him. And on recalling to mind all the evil done by others and myself, I see that it proceeded, for the most part, from our considering it possible to secure and better our conditions by violence. I now understand the meaning of the words, ‘man is born, not to be ministered to, but to minister to others.’ I now understand the saying, ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire.’ I now believe that my happiness, and that of all men, will only be attained when each labors for others and not for himself, when none refuses to labor for him who is in need of help. My belief in this has altered my estimate of good and evil. All that I had formerly prized – such things as riches, property, honor, and self-dignity – have grown worthless in my eyes; and all I had formerly despised – such things as hard work, poverty, humility, the renunciation of property, and the renunciation of one’s rights – have grown good and noble in my eyes. If I now feel tempted to defend others or myself, the property of others or my own, by violence, I can no longer give way to temptation. I dare not amass riches for myself. I dare not use violence of any kind against my fellow-creatures, except, perhaps, against a child in order to save it from present harm; nor can I now take part in any act of authority, the purpose of which is to protect men’s property by violence. I can neither be a judge, nor take part in judging and condemning.
Christ has revealed to me that the fifth snare is ‘the distinction we make between our own and foreign nations.’ If, therefore, a feeling of enmity arises in my heart against a foreigner, I cannot help acknowledging, after a few moments’ serious reflection, that the feeling is a wicked one; I can no longer justify this feeling to myself by acknowledging the superiority of my own nation over others, or by the cruelty or barbarity of any other nation. I cannot help trying to be kinder and more friendly toward a foreigner than toward my own countrymen, rather than otherwise.
And knowing that the distinction I formerly made between my own and other nations is evil, I see the snare that led me into this evil, and can no longer consciously let myself be drawn into it. It is the erroneous idea that my welfare is linked only with that of my native land, and not with that of all mankind. But I now know that my unity with other men cannot be destroyed by frontiers, barriers, the disposal of kingdoms, or by my belonging to some particular nation. I now know that men are equal everywhere – that all are ‘brethren.’ On recalling to mind all the evil that I did myself and that I suffered from others in consequence of the enmity that so often exists between different nations, it is clear to me that the cause was the gross imposition called ‘patriotism’. I can remember perfectly well that the feeling of enmity toward other nations, the assumption that a difference existed between them and myself, was not a feeling natural to me, but was grafted upon me by the senseless education given to me. But I now understand the meaning of the words, ‘Love your enemies, do good to them.’ You are all the children of one Father, therefore be like the Father; that is, make no distinction between men, treat all as brethren. I now see clearly that I can only attain happiness by being in unity with all my fellow-creatures. I believe in this. And this belief has completely altered my former estimate of what is good and noble or bad and base. All that I formerly prized as something worthy of respect – love for our native land, pride in our country, and our administration in military exploits – now seems not only pitiful but also hideous to me. Cosmopolitanism, which I had formerly despised, now seems a noble thing to me. I can no longer take any part in quarrels between various nations, either in speech or by writing; neither can I take part in any of the various administrations based on the difference of nationality, either in custom-houses, in collecting taxes, in preparing ammunition or fire-arms, or in military service; still less can I take part in war against other nations. And having understood what is conducive to happiness, I can no longer do what deprives me of it.
I believe that I must live thus. I believe that it is only by living thus that I can find a rational purpose in life. I believe that my rational life is the light given to me in order that it should shine before men, not in my words, but in my good deeds, that men may glorify their Father (Matt. 5:6). I believe that my life and my knowledge of the truth are the treasure that has been entrusted to me; that they are a fire that cannot be quenched. I believe that I am a Ninevite in relation to other Jonahs, from whom I have learned the truth, but that I am also Jonah in relation to other Ninevites, to whom it is my duty to reveal the truth. I believe that the only true purpose of my life is ‘to live up to the light that is in me,’ not to conceal it, but to set it high before men, that all should see it; and this belief gives me new strength to fulfill the doctrine of Christ, and destroys all the obstacles that had formerly stood in my way.
All that had undermined my belief in the truth of Christ’s doctrine and had made it seem impracticable; all that had set me against it, such as having to endure privation, suffering, and death at the hands of those who do not know His doctrine, is just what now confirms its truth in my eyes and attracts me toward it.
Christ has said, ‘When you lift up the son of man, all will be drawn up,’ and I felt myself irresistibly drawn to Him. He said, likewise, ‘The truth will set you free,’ and I felt completely free.
I had previously thought that enemies would come to make war or wicked men would assault me, and if I did not defend myself they would despoil me and all my family; they would abuse us, torture and kill me and mine; and this seemed horrible to me. But all that troubled me before has now turned to joy, and confirmed the truth. I know that my enemies, the so-called wicked men of the world – robbers, etc. – are men, and are the ‘sons of men’; that they, like me, bear love for goodness and hatred of evil innate in them; that they live, as I do, on the eve of death, and, like me, can only be saved by fulfilling the doctrine of Christ. If the truth is unknown to them, and they do evil, my knowing the truth makes it my duty to reveal it to those who do not know it. I cannot do so otherwise than by refusing to take any part in evil, and by confessing the truth by my deeds.
You say if enemies, such as Germans, Turks, or savages, come to attack you, and if you do not make war, they will kill you all. This is an error. If there were a society of Christians who did no evil to anybody, and who gave the surplus of their labor to others, no enemies, either Germans, Turks, or savages, would torture or kill them. They would take what these Christians (for whom there would exist no difference between Germans, Turks, or savages) would give up to them. If a Christian is called upon to take part in war, that is the moment for him to testify the truth to those who do not know it. Nor can he testify it in any other way than in deed, by refusing to go to war and doing good to all, whether they are enemies or not.
But if the family of a Christian is assaulted, not by foreign enemies, but by wicked men in his own country, if he does not defend himself, he and his family will be robbed, tortured, and killed. This is an error, again. If all the members of a family were Christians, and gave up their lives to the service of others, not one man would despoil them or kill them. Mikluha Mackli settled among a most brutal tribe of savages and was not murdered by them; they learned to love him, and submitted to him, because he did not require anything of them, but did as much good to them as he could.
If a Christian has to live amidst relations and friends who are not Christians in the full sense of the word, who defend themselves and their property by violence, and who call upon him to take part in their violence, then is the time for him to fulfill the duty for which life was given to him. The knowledge of the truth is only given to a Christian in order that he should make it known to others, and especially to those he is more closely connected with, and to whom he is bound by ties of relationship or friendship; and the Christian can testify to the truth in no other way than by avoiding the errors into which others have fallen, and refusing to take part either in the violence of the aggressors or of those who resist them, by giving all up to others, and by showing that his only desire is to fulfill the will of God and that he fears nothing as much as acting against it.
But the country cannot allow a member to evade fulfilling the duties incumbent on every citizen. The administration of the country requires each man to take his oath of allegiance, to take part in judging and condemning; each man is obliged to enter the military service, and if he refuses he will be exposed to punishment, exile, imprisonment, and even death. And here again the Christian is called upon to fulfill his duty toward God. The Christian knows that all these things are required of him by men who do not know the truth, and therefore he who does know it must testify it to those who do not. The violence, imprisonment, perhaps even death, to which the Christian will then be exposed in consequence of his refusal, will enable him to testify to the truth, not in words, but in deeds. Every act of violence, pillage, execution, and war is the result, not of the irrational force of nature, but of man’s ignorance of the truth. And therefore, the greater the evil these men do, the further they are from the truth, the more desperate is their state, and the more necessary it is that they should be taught the truth. And a Christian can only transmit the knowledge of the truth to others by keeping away from the error they are in, and by returning good for evil. The whole duty of a Christian, the whole purpose of his life, which cannot be destroyed by death, lies in this.
Men linked together by deception form, we might say, a compact body. In the compactness of this body lies all the evil of the world.
Revolutions are only efforts to break this compact body by violence; but its component parts will last until an inward power is communicated to them that can force them asunder.
The chain that fetters them is ‘falsehood,’ ‘deception.’ The power that sets each link of this human chain free is ‘truth.’ The truth is transmitted to men by deeds.
Deeds, which bring the light to each man’s heart, can alone destroy the chain and remove one man after another out of the compact mass fettered by falsehood.
And this has gone on for eighteen hundred years.
The work began when the commandments of Christ were first placed before the world, and it will not end until all is fulfilled as Christ says (Matt. 5:18).
The Church, whose members tried to unite men by persuading them that it was necessary for salvation to blindly believe that the truth was in her, is no more. But the Church, whose followers are not united by promises of reward, but by good deeds, lives, and will live forever. That Church does not consist of men who cry ‘Lord, Lord,’ and live in sin, but of men who hear His words and follow His commandments.
Those who belong to that Church know that their lives will be blessed if they do not break the unity of the ‘Son of Man,’ and that their happiness can only be destroyed by their leaving the commandments of Christ unfulfilled. And therefore they follow them, and teach others to do the same.
It does not matter if these men are few in number or many. They are that Church which shall not be overcome, and which all men will join, sooner or later.
‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’
 Those whom I considered better and nobler than me.