7 May 2019

The real Tolstoy – archive, 7 May 1925

Some years ago, when Victorian prosperity still masked many growing evils, Tolstoy’s works were freely translated, read, and commented on in this country. When the evils he foresaw and predicted overwhelmed us little attention was drawn either to him or his teaching. But now the name of Tolstoy is again brought forward, and a new cult seems to be arising in regard to him.

People are not being strenuously advised to read and ponder Tolstoy’s views of life, but rather does this or that person mention Tolstoy’s name in a way well calculated to cloud his opinions. Now if anyone wishes to know what Tolstoy really thought, Tolstoy expressed himself very clearly and had, moreover, unique powers of self-expression – a good deal more than the majority of his commentators. Like most really great men, he meant what he said and said what be meant. His views may from time to time have altered; they may even sometimes appear inconsistent or contradictory; we may not agree or wholly agree with some or all. Still it is worth going to the fountain-head and seeing what these views were.

I have noticed lately – and that without troubling to look for them, so probably there are more – three references to Tolstoy which are perhaps worth attention, for they are made by three such diverse persons as Mr. Aylmer Maude, Mr. C. E. M. Joad, and Dean Inge.

Mr. Aylmer Maude has chiefly become known to his wider public by his admirable translations of Tolstoy’s books and the friendship Tolstoy extended to him. It was, therefore, curious to see his reference to Tolstoy in the opening chapter of his lately published life of Dr. Stopes. From these one might almost have gained an impression that Tolstoy, the greatest man of Mr. Maude’s acquaintance, might, had he lived in our happier days, have received enlightenment on some of the problems which troubled him from the greatest woman of Mr. Maude’s acquaintance – that the greatest man might have derived much consolation, benefit, and illumination from Dr. Slopes as to the relationship of the sexes. 

If, however, one reads Tolstoy on this subject one arrives at an entirely different conclusion. Tolstoy was an uncompromising opponent of artificial birth control, and he might not have liked it any better had he seen it called health, beauty, and enlightened science and, thus labelled, broadcasted among the young. We may not agree with Tolstoy’s views of sex problems – probably biased by his own married life; still, they are worth consideration. Tolstoy spent much of his later life in trying to free the teaching of Christ from the sophistications of the Christian Fathers, which sophistications – continued very generally ever since – have been possibly somewhat detrimental to the progress of Christianity and also to man’s moral progress (1914-18 is but one witness to this). 

Since Tolstoy’s death Mr. Maude almost appears to have undertaken the sophistication of Tolstoy’s own teaching, a somewhat inglorious conclusion, it may be, to the friendship Tolstoy accorded him, and one for which Tolstoy might not have thanked Mr. Maude.

Mr. C. E. M. Joad, for his part, is chiefly conscious of the fact that Tolstoy, who was a supreme artist himself, had too poor an idea of his own, and a good many other people’s artistic work, and a poor and totally inadequate conception of the value of art in human life. Tolstoy’s point seems to me to have escaped Mr. Joad. Personally (if I may venture a personal opinion with all diffidence) I should have said Tolstoy’s opinion of the matter of art was this. Nowhere, amid all the forms of animate life known to us, are poverty and degradation so obvious as in the kingdom of man. Degradation below manhood, womanhood, and even motherhood stares us in the face, and this though man, alone of all creatures on our earth, possesses mighty extraneous aids to life (which certainly suggests there is something very wrong with his way of handling his unique advantage). 

Until man has mastered the art of life, Tolstoy may have thought – and perhaps rightly, – man’s engrossment with, self-satisfaction in, and bickerings over the other lesser arts was a somewhat negligible, foppish dilettantism. Let man see to it that his life is grand and true, and all his arts will die grand and true too. If this were Tolstoy’s view, perhaps there is something to be said for it.

It is, however, naturally Dean Inge who reaches higher levels of criticism. He says in a recent article in the “Morning Post”:–

There are some, of course, who maintain that since all punishment is essentially vindictive, all punishment is essentially immoral. This has been the view of Rousseau, Tolstoy, and revolutionists generally. Sentimentalism of this kind is an early premonitory symptom of homicidal mania. Revolutionists always begin by abolishing capital punishment, and end by trying to kill all those who do not pronounce their shibboleths.

These phrases have a surface smoothness, a ring of almost godlike finality and truth. Unfortunately, however, much of Tolstoy’s writing is directed to voicing his opinion of the futility of revolutionary and personal violence. (If my memory does not mislead me, these opinions are very simply and clearly expressed in his comparatively little known “The Russian Revolution.”) And of capital punishment he says in his “Confessions” (1879), after witnessing an execution in Paris:

When I saw how the head was separated from the body, and as it dropped noisily into the basket, I understood, not with my reason but with my whole being, that no theories of the nationality of modern civilisation and its institutions could justify this act – that if all the people in the world, by whatever theory, had found it necessary, I knew that it was useless, that it was evil.