The Russian writer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy — known better as Leo Tolstoy — was influenced by the nonviolence of Christ, and he in turn would influence Mohandas Gandhi's thoughts on civil resistance, but Tolstoy (1828–1910) is surely better known for his timeless literary classics, especially War and Peace.
Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis at the age of fifty. Such was his despair that he contemplated suicide. He found solace and hope in the notion that societies ought to be — and could be — constructed on Christian principles. Tolstoy read the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus' statement that we shouldn't resist evil persons but should “turn the other cheek,” and decided social Christianity was a distinct possibility. All that had to be done was to apply Christ's philosophy of love, tolerance, and nonviolence to concrete situations.
War is immoral, since by Tolstoy's interpretation, “Thou shalt not murder” opposes all sorts of killing. He takes the title of his work, “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” from Luke 17:21, but it could be argued that The Sermon on the Mount shaped Tolstoy's understanding most of all. From that open-air sermon, Jesus delivered the “Beatitudes” — the word means “blessedness” — suggesting that those not wealthy or powerful or even favored on Earth will nonetheless experience the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. The sermon also instructs listeners to “resist not evil,” but to do good to one's enemies.
To the charge leveled by those who thought that a nonviolent society is utopian and that the implementation of such a society would be worse than before, Tolstoy replied that only those that prosper as a result of the present arrangement wanted to keep up the status quo. Tolstoy wrote, “That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organization were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organization, while those who suffer from it — and they are ten times as numerous — think and say quite the contrary.”
Tolstoy counters his detractors' objections in his second chapter, “Criticisms of the Doctrine of Nonresistance to Evil by Force on the Part of Believers and of Unbelievers.” He deals first with criticisms of those believers who often make up the hierarchy of the church. “The first and crudest form of reply consists in the bold assertion that the use of force is not opposed by the teaching of Christ; that it is permitted, and even enjoined, on the Christian by the Old and New Testaments.”
Tolstoy embraced pacifism and thought nonviolence could solve nationalist divisions. Gandhi's idea of satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, is derivative of Tolstoy. They were similar in other ways, too. “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi advised, echoing one of Tolstoy's most poignant sentiments: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
According to Tolstoy, such arguments proceed by authority merely, being made by men who have “attained the highest ranks in the governing or ecclesiastical hierarchy, and who are perfectly assured that no one will dare to contradict their assertion, and that if anyone does contradict it they will hear nothing of the contradiction.”
In his ninth chapter, entitled “The Acceptance of the Christian Conception of Life Will Emancipate Men from the Miseries of our Pagan Life,” Tolstoy maintains that Christians are to heed only a “divine law of life.” This divine law is “implanted in the soul of every man, and brought before his consciousness by Christ, as the soul guide of his life and other men's also.” What does this entail for daily living?
The Christian is independent of every human authority. And though he “may be subjected to external violence, he may be deprived of bodily freedom, he may be in bondage to his passions (he who commits sin is the slave of sin), but he cannot be in bondage in the sense of being forced by any danger or by any threat of external harm to perform an act which is against his conscience.”
A life of civil disobedience must follow from this duty to conscience. This is because “For a Christian the oath of allegiance to any government whatever — the very act which is regarded as the foundation of the existence of a state — is a direct renunciation of Christianity. For the man who promises unconditional obedience in the future to laws, made or to be made, by that very promise is in the most, positive manner renouncing Christianity, which means obeying in every circumstance of life only the divine law of love he recognizes within him.” Tolstoy then puts in bold relief the contradiction of heeding conscience on the one hand and temporal authority on the other: “For a Christian to promise obedience to me, or the laws of men, is just as though a workman bound to one employer should also promise to carry out every order that might be given him by outsiders. One cannot serve two masters.”