Leo Tolstoy spent the second half of his life expounding a doctrine of Christian pacifism and renunciation of all things worldly. He used his literary talents to argue against the lifestyle of the bourgeois (as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich), against the cruelties of military service and the luxuries of the aristocracy (“After the Ball”), and against the avaricious wealthy landowners of his period (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”). His infatuation with a simple, pacific lifestyle led him to condemn what he saw as excesses in the Russian Orthodox Church, including the ornate cathedrals, iconography, worship rituals, and even its most central doctrines. While remaining a strong adherent to the ethical teachings of Jesus, for example, he denied his divinity, stating “I believe that the will of God is most clearly and intelligibly expressed in the teaching of the man Jesus, whom to consider as God, and pray to, I esteem the greatest blasphemy.”1 Ultimately, in denying any utility or necessity for grandeur or majesty to man as a whole, he found it necessary to deny it also to the single man whom he ostensibly respected most, Jesus, and therefore stripped him of his divinity.
The great error of Tolstoy, the recognition of which might have saved him from allowing his laudable focus on spiritual poverty to degrade into a sickly and feeble pseudo-Christianity, was in his insistence that human nature is monolithic and stagnant rather than pluriform and dynamic. G.K. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, insightfully revealed this error of “the Tolstoyans” as the belief “that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.”2 One can see Tolstoy’s insistence, for example, through the words of the character Ivan in “After the Ball,” that the punishment a military leader inflicts on a soldier caught deserting is irredeemably evil because it involves one human being harming another. One might justifiably wonder just what Tolstoy thought should be done with such a soldier, whose actions had compromised the integrity of his unit and the safety of his entire nation? Lions are as necessary as lambs, to use Chesterton’s terminology, borrowed, in turn, from the Prophet Isaiah, as it is the lions who must protect the lambs. Chesterton goes on to identify “the real problem,” which is not that one nature should swallow up and replace the other, but “can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.”3
Indeed, it is a miracle that was achieved in the Russian Orthodox Church itself more than 300 years before Tolstoy’s life. In the early 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was faced with a conflict between two groups, the Possessors and the Non-Possessors, whose argument began with a conflict, as the names of the respective groups indicate, over whether monastic establishments should possess land and the serfs attached to the land. The issues at stake, however, were much wider. The Possessors, led by Joseph of Volokolamsk, favored a close relationship between the Church and the State as well as society as a whole. They believed that it was necessary for the Church, including the monasteries, to own lands, serfs, and other sources of wealth so that it could beautify its churches and provide services such as hospitals and soup kitchens. The Non-Possessors, led by Nil Sorsky, argued that the Church, and especially the monasteries, should instead possess no wealth whatsoever and should remove itself from secular affairs entirely.
Interestingly, the original issue which caused the division between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors, namely the ownership of land, was also taken up by Tolstoy in his “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” There, he tells a morality tale in which a landowner causes his own death in his avaricious acquisition of larger and larger landholdings. The moral of the story is that one should be content with a small plot of land which provides just enough food to provide for oneself and one’s family and should not go beyond this. While his condemnation of avarice, one of the most overlooked but most insidiously destructive sins, reflects some insight on Tolstoy’s part, his apparent condemnation of all desire to acquire something greater than one currently possesses goes too far.
This was precisely the decision the Russian Orthodox Church reached when considering these issues during the controversy between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors. The Church would eventually attempt to adopt a middle course between the two in a recognition that both sides had their benefits and their errors. While the Possessors ran the risk of allowing the Church to become too worldly through entanglements in economic and social affairs, the Non-Possessors, many of whose arguments often sound like those of Tolstoy, put the Church at risk of becoming alienated from the life of the average person. A life of absolute poverty and renunciation, whether for a single individual such as Tolstoy or entire monastic communities like the Non-Possessors, is a life that separates those who adopt it from the bulk of mankind and makes him or them unable to serve their needs. To insist that all people adopt this lifestyle, as did Tolstoy, is nothing more than tyranny, even if it is the tyranny of the lamb. Instead, the Russian Orthodox Church accomplished its Chestertonian miraculous reconciliation between the lion and the lamb by canonizing both Joseph of Volokolamsk and Nil Sorsky as saints. It also allowed both of their ideologies to influence the Church’s practices, as the Church extended its blessing to both the poor hermits in their small sketes in the countryside as well as to the large and ornamented cathedrals of Moscow with their elaborate services.
In his denial, for example in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that there is anything finally redemptive or meaningful in an unexceptional middle class life, Tolstoy extended his tyranny of the lamb even to his fellow lambs. He insisted that human life must be monolithic. In Tolstoy’s “After the Ball,” the character Ivan admits that perhaps those who approved of the cruelty he witnessed being inflicted on a military deserter “must have known something I didn’t” but that he was perpetually unable to discern or understand what this might be.4 The heart of Tolstoy’s great error is here, in his inability to appreciate the fact that others might want to live their own lives differently from how he chose to live his. Centuries before its excommunication of Tolstoy and his vitriolic response, the Russian Orthodox Church had prepared its answer to those who would insist that there is only one way to live a human life by placing its great seal of approval on a diverse variety of lives rightly lived, from that of Joseph of Volokolamsk to that of Nil Sorsky, and from that of the warrior and prince Alexander Nevsky to the brothers Boris and Gleb whose pacifism led them to renounce their positions in government. It had already reconciled the lions and the lambs, without either swallowing up the other.
2 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 6.
4 Leo Tolstoy, “After the Ball.”