‘What is religion?’ is a collection of articles and letters written by the mature Tolstoy of 1901 and 1902. Published originally by the Free Age Press, it features all his trademark clarity and insight.
Contained here is a wide variety of subject matter, including a look at the causes of social inequality, various attacks on the church and reflections on a recent political assassination.
‘How shall we escape?’ opens with a brilliant rural vignette exposing the absurd inequalities of the social order. Tolstoy believes that ultimately it’s the government who is to blame for such inequity; but instead of choosing the path of the revolutionary, he encourages people to look inwardly at themselves, where the power of violence and evil lie.
In ‘My reply to the synod’ Tolstoy responds to the church’s Edict of Excommunication, in which they accuse Tolstoy of being seduced by the pride of his intellect. In his reply, Tolstoy quotes Coleridge approvingly: ‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than the Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end up by loving himself better than all.’ Tolstoy claims to love Truth above all things.
‘Thou shalt not kill’ explores how the masses have been hypnotised into believing that killing is not only acceptable, but desirable. For Tolstoy, this is the old order of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, which Jesus’ teaching had cancelled.
The title piece, ‘What is religion?’ is the most substantial. Here Tolstoy explores the idea of religion and provides the following definition: ‘True religion is the establishment by man of a relation to the infinite life around him; as long as in connecting his life with this infinitude and directing his conduct, there is also
About the author
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, ‘War And Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written.
He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling, and losing, in St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the army in 1851.
He began writing whilst in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, ‘Sevastopol Sketches’, discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work.
A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed ‘Les Miserables’, which had a marked influence on ‘War And Peace’, would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots.
‘War And Peace’, published in 1869, and ‘Anna Karenina’, published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression.
He published ‘A Confession’ in 1882 which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent novels, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ and ‘What Then Must We Do?’, further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church.
The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within you’ which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy’s main point derived from Jesus’ teachings to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ’s message which can be found in the Gospels and the ‘Sermon On The Mount’ in particular. This theory of ‘non-violence’ that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man whilst living in South Africa.
In 1908 Tolstoy wrote ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within You’ and ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ solidified Gandhi’s non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published July 2010
Size: 140 x 216 mm