Written in 1883, The Gospel in Brief is Tolstoy’s harmonization of the four Gospels into one. So now we have Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Tolstoy. It is, he says, ‘an examination of Christian teaching not according to the church’s interpretations, but solely according to what has come down to us of Christ’s teaching, as ascribed to him in the gospels.’
That which Tolstoy retains from the originals, and that which he leaves out, tells us much about what he regards as essential Christianity. So here we find Tolstoy not concerned with events, but with the teaching; for it is the teaching that gives meaning to life. In his version, there is no place for the famous birth story; the healing miracles or Christ’s resurrection. In Tolstoy’s view, these were put there to persuade people of Christ’s divinity, and are therefore superfluous. We should not be focusing on Christ the Son of God, but on Christ the teacher; and to this end, Tolstoy always refers to Jesus’ disciples as ‘pupils’. He also never misses a chance to place the Orthodox Church firmly with Christ’s opponents. He calls the scribes ‘Orthodox professors’ and refers to the teachers of the law, simply as ‘Orthodox.’
We also find expressed clearly here the five commands Tolstoy regarded as the essence of the gospel:
Do not be angry, but live at peace with all men.
Do not indulge yourself in sexual gratification.
Do not promise anything on oath to anyone.
Do not resist evil, do not judge and do not go to law.
Make no distinction of nationality, but love foreigners as your own people.
Will the church like this version? Tolstoy doubts it, and expects a response: ‘If they will not disavow their lies, only one thing remains for them: to persecute me – for which I, completing what I have written, prepare myself with joy and with fear of my own weakness.’ But Tolstoy was both too aristocratic and too famous to be seriously harmed.
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 while 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 this book 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 wrote 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 while 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 January 2010