In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy’s letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download | public library).
The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy’s death — a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein’s correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.
Tolstoy’s letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance — he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love — something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.
Gandhi’s introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy “one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers,” offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:
One need not accept all that Tolstoy says … to realize the central truth of his indictment.
There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.
Tolstoy opens each “chapter” of his missive — for the letter’s length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive — by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:
The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same — whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether … the oppressors are of a different nation.
The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called “civilization.”
It’s worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy’s notion of “religious teaching” is perhaps best regarded as “spiritual direction,” for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:
In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love… The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.
He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:
This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society… The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth — that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man — this truth, in order to force a way to man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.
The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers … foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued — regardless of all that leads man forward — to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.
He distills this idea to one “old and simple truth”:
It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.
In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism — something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning to break down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical “stuff.” Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance — the danger of, as he puts it, “scientific superstition replacing the religious one”:
But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable… The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.
(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be “dazzled by the pomp” of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism — something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions — over clarity and rigor.)
He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance:
Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.
Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how “a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions” and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact “the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.” He writes:
As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence — as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.
Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that “eternal law,” Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:
What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.
When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived — not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.
But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.
To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.
Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that “in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity.” World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity’s grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned — which is why Tolstoy’s closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:
What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art — but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions — the truth that for our life one law is valid — the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.
(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than “childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities” in art in his sublime essay on the “emotional infectiousness” of art.)
Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 — eight weeks before he took his final breath — Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:
The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts… Any employment of force is incompatible with love.
A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it’s available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore’s 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.