Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom Of God Is Within You is one of the most provocative anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian pieces of literature ever written. In it, the author of War and Peace - the most famous war novel of all time - sets forth his final and definitive understanding of the cause and cure for all human strife. Here also, in the context of a sincere and scathing account of what is living and dead in modern Christianity, Tolstoy presents a view of history and society in times of both war and peace that overcomes widely recognized theoretical contradictions implicit in his monumental early novel. At the focal point of the weighty themes treated in The Kingdom Of God Is Within You is the doctrine of radical non-violence that Tolstoy understands Jesus to have articulated in the Sermon on the Mount's injunction against responding to evil with evil. Though the treatise was banned upon completion in 1893 by the highly repressive Russian regime governing Tolstoy's homeland, this quickly translated and widely disseminated work was destined to become the most powerful and influential of his major late period writings - inspiring Gandhi's belief in the power of non-violence as a political tactic and thereby catalyzing the people's movement that decisively terminated the era of great colonial empires.
Tolstoy was born into Russian nobility in 1828, and as a youth he was not at all religiously inclined. While following his brother to frontier military adventures in the Caucasus, he began writing and publishing lengthy autobiographical essays. These were quickly recognized as the work of a formidable literary talent by such venerable eldercontemporaries as Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev. Tolstoy soon gained further notoriety as the author of vivid and moving articles based on his experiences in the Crimean War. In 1862, he married and settled into a period of domestic tranquility and splendor on his beautiful family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which was highly conducive to the blossoming of his literary potential. During the next fifteen years he wrote what are generally acknowledged as two of the world's greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But the living-legend status which these works earned him did little to satisfy Tolstoy's perpetually agitated soul. Following a religious awakening described in his Confession, the focus of his intellectual energies became public opposition to the brutality and repression of the czar and the Russian ruling class. This expressed itself in a stream of incendiary letters, articles, essays, and books that emphasized the incompatibility of Russia's hierarchical church, state, and social apparatus with the ideal of a truly religious and moral life. Tolstoy battled against the state, the church, his family, and himself in a thirty-year effort to bring them all into line with the religious and moral teachings that he expounded with vigor and venom. Untouchable by the state because of his enormous popularity, he was punished vicariously through the persecution of his friends, associates, and followers. He was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901, but this ironically further elevated his popular standing and brought outrage upon the church. Toward the end of his long and productive life he corresponded directly with Gandhi and thus had personal contact with the man who would carry his torch from the pages of suppressed Russian literature to the front lines of the growing global battle against imperialism and institutionalized discrimination. He died, famously, at the Astapova train station in 1910, only days after gathering the nerve to abandon his family and wealth and take up the path of a wandering ascetic - a path that he had agonized over not pursuing for decades. His death signified to many contemporaries the end of both a literary and a historical era. In less than a decade, World War I and the Russian Revolution would vindicate Tolstoy's direst predictions for mankind while marking an irreparable breach with the reality to which he had belonged.
Much has been written about Tolstoy's life and works, the great majority of attention understandably falling upon the two monumental novels that preceded his religious period. But what is often insufficiently emphasized is that Tolstoy's great early fiction and his later religious non-fiction are both animated by his obsession with the same fundamental themes: the nature of history, the causes of war, and the meaning of human life and suffering. In his first epic novel, War and Peace, his train of thought on these topics is evolving along a path that does not reach its conclusion until his later writings - a conclusion that is perhaps nowhere more clearly articulated than in the present book, The Kingdom Of God Is Within You. In this brief introduction it will be useful to provide some background information on the intellectual struggle that led Tolstoy to the position set forth in this book and to indicate how that position addresses a central tension in his earlier thought and work.
Commentators and critics have often pointed out that in spite of its unquestioned greatness as a work of epic literature, War and Peace is riven by an ambiguous, contradictory, and perhaps even incoherent theory of how history functions. Lengthy theoretical discussions of the nature of history are incorporated into the novel itself, and Tolstoy, sensitive to criticism of the tension between his theory of history and his actual portrayal of the events surrounding Napoleon's failed 1812 invasion of Russia, later appended further discussions of history to the work. But what is rightly pointed out as a tension at the heart of War and Peace is perhaps not so much a sign of flaws in Tolstoy's thought as it is an indication that he is grappling with one of the most important and intractable dilemmas of human history: the problem of the cause of war. For Tolstoy, this problem is ultimately inseparable from the perennial philosophical and religious problem of free will. Is the responsibility for war and all its concomitant horrors to be laid at the feet of the human beings who promote and participate in it? Or is war in reality an uncontrollable and unavoidable accompaniment to human existence, breaking out and receding with a rhythm all its own? Before Tolstoy's religious awakening, he wants to answer both these questions affirmatively. In War and Peace he ridicules the generals who believe they have an influence over the mysteriously self-unfolding chaos of the battlefield - something with which he was personally well acquainted. Yet he also strives to portray those in authority as culpable for the evils that their actions bring upon the societies involved. And, though mutually incompatible, these are both natural ways to want to understand war and allocate responsibility for it. No one could doubt that there are infinite numbers of minuscule events in the life of each person engaged in a war - events which may as easily lead him to one place on the battlefield or another, to one place at the negotiating table or another, to one state of mind in a decisive moment or another. On such unseen, unimagined, and therefore uncontrollable events the course of history obviously often turns. Yet it is impossible not to want to hold monsters atop the political hierarchy responsible for seeking their own glorification in the opportunity to bring a reign of death and destruction down upon their nation's soldiers and civilians. In War and Peace there is a masterful intertwining of macro and micro perspectives on human history as it unfolds in a world historical war, but the deep conflict between the belief in free will and the belief in some form of predetermination of all human events seems incompletely acknowledged by Tolstoy.
In The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, however, this conflict is fully recognized and Tolstoy's definitive solution is clearly articulated. To follow Tolstoy's thinking here we must note that he has stepped back from his position in War and Peace and evolved a theory on the workings of human history that is more abstract and all-encompassing than his earlier one. Under this theory, war and peace are simply alternating manifestations of a single constellation of social, political, and cultural forces. It could be said that for the later Tolstoy, given the dynamic underlying forces at work in contemporary societies, men and nations are always in a state of war with one another: Sometimes this conflict happens to be openly declared and to involve widespread-physical violence (what we commonly term "war") and sometimes it is undeclared and involves coercion, intimidation, and only isolated instances of physical violence (a condition misleadingly labeled "peace"). This is all the consequence of individuals in a society acting primarily in pursuit of selfish material gratification - what Tolstoy, implicitly invoking St. Paul's contrast between fleshly and spiritual aspects of human nature, calls the life of the "flesh" or of the "animal." In pursuit of satisfaction of the desires of the flesh, each man always seeks advantage over his fellows, each state always seeks advantage over its neighbors. And if an individual or nation seeks as much as it can physically secure and another seeks the same, conflict is inevitable, and ultimately the victor will be decided on the basis of actual or perceived superiority of physical force. For Tolstoy, all modern societies are governed by the universal pursuit of materialistic objectives, and thus, according to him, physical force turns out to be the ultimate basis of order in the entire world.
Furthermore, all modern societies, in Tolstoy's view, contain social hierarchies in which wealth and power are blatantly inequitably distributed and injustice is rampant. This is as much the case in republican France and America as it is in Imperial Russia. What legitimates the power of the few over the many differs from one country to another and legitimating ideologies change over time, but the basic condition - the fact that the threat of force backs up institutionalized inequality and injustice across the so-called "civilized" world - remains always the same. Regardless of whether they live under monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies, people obey the laws, according to Tolstoy, not out of respect for them, but out of fear of being punished for disobeying them. Thus he sees social-contract theories such as those promoted by Locke and Rousseau as disingenuous charades - like the earlier theory of the divine right of kings - that rationalize an immoral and unjust status quo while disguising the fact that it is truly maintained by force alone.
Under the spell of material desire, every individual unknowingly supports the combative and inequitable status quo and therefore is instrumental to his or her own domination. Tolstoy sees this situation most clearly expressed in the phenomenon of universal military service which was enacted in Russia during his lifetime. If everyone serves in and supports the army - the power of which is always implicitly behind the police and government - then everyone becomes complicit in the actions of the army and in the social dynamic that it protects. It is this situation that makes the masses so prone to nationalism, which is likewise rooted in the logic of abject surrender to physical needs and earthly seductions. This logic, for Tolstoy, is also the logic of a world governed by ironclad laws of cause and effect. The ambiguity of his position in War and Peace on the problem of free will versus predetermination is now dispelled: In a world governed by man's darker tendencies, it is fate that reigns supreme. Like automatons, everyone claws after his or her selfish advantage, and neighbor inevitably clashes with neighbor. Through this struggle, each citizen unwittingly and unavoidably conspires to produce the horrors of war and the injustices of peace, and so shares responsibility for them with the dictator and the general.
It is a grim picture of modern societies that Tolstoy paints in The Kingdom Of God Is Within You. Moreover, it is one that few people are likely to understand because members of the classes that benefit from the current situation devote enormous resources to suppressing the idea that their society could function in any other way. This is done particularly effectively through state-sponsored education and lifelong church indoctrination into a status quo supporting perversion of Christianity. Nonetheless, Tolstoy believes that mere awareness of an alternative way of life - the life of the spirit - provides the opportunity for free will and moral improvement to enter into the human equation. He is convinced that the individual, simply by listening to his conscience, can overcome the "hypnotized" and "stupefied" mindset that church and state brainwashing imposes upon him. Tolstoy claims that everyone already knows that today's societies are violent and immoral, but because the obstacles to altering those societies seem so overwhelming, people adjust to living in denial of the contradiction between their consciences and their lives. Under Tolstoy's interpretation of the Gospels, however, Jesus taught a simple and clear path to life in the truth, "divine" rather than "animal" life. And everyone who has been exposed to the Gospels has some familiarity with this teaching, though it has long been obscured by worldly oriented accretions.
The teaching of Jesus that Tolstoy singles out for most attention is the prohibition against responding to evil with evil (Matthew 5:39). It is the temptation to use force against those whom one perceives as evil that pulls virtually every human being from the path to spiritual perfection into the pit of perpetual aggression. Though flawed human beings lack the ability to achieve complete success in their struggles against this temptation, they have the freedom, even in the pit, to recognize the truth of Jesus' teaching on non-violence. And this recognition conveys the power to exercise free will in order to turn away from the life of the flesh and toward the life of the spirit - the life governed not by a universal aspiration for power over others but by the love and compassion felt by each for all. Thus, for the later Tolstoy, free will is possible, but only if one uses one's freedom to think and act in accordance with God's truth and His vision of how men should treat one another.
Such behavior on the part of one individual may not seem likely to change an entire society, but it has more power than most people suspect. Accordingly, it is greatly feared by those in authority. Gandhi's success in implementing Tolstoy's theory of non-violence demonstrates that such fear is warranted. If enough individuals took the inner path to spiritual awakening to the truth of Jesus' message of non-violence and then acted upon it by withdrawing their support from the reigning system of domination, according to Tolstoy, that system would crumble and the Kingdom of God that each person has the capacity to find in the divine spark in his or her soul would break forth upon the earth.
Whether Jesus really taught the doctrine of non-violence - or ever even existed - is a matter of no importance to Tolstoy, for what he holds to be of religious significance in Christianity is solely the truth of what Jesus is reported to have taught. This teaching does not derive its authority from the divinity of its teacher. Rather, it has inherent religious authority because it is the truth, and if one lives one's life in accordance with it, one knows it to be true because one experiences a genuinely religious life. It is as though, for Tolstoy, the doctrine of non-violence opens a doorway to an archetypal worldview that under the right circumstances may be discovered by anyone and that, once consciously discovered and deeply experienced, cannot be denied.
There is great meaning in the ideas of The Kingdom Of God Is Within You for mankind at the present moment. Our societies are riddled with violence and suffering, the globe is littered with wars and war-ravaged countries. Like the Tolstoy of War and Peace, we tend to view such things as beyond our control, the responsibility of presidents, generals, armies, or fate. But the later Tolstoy found this way of thinking to be a defense mechanism and a form of denial, shielding each and every one of us from recognition of our own essential complicity in the horrors of a world order that we perpetuate through our continued participation in it. Leaders and elites may be to blame for a great deal of what is inhumane in the modern world, but that is a matter for them to resolve with their own consciences. Tolstoy's late philosophy can make us uncomfortable because it points a finger in the direction of each of us and asks: "Do you recognize and accept your own responsibility for the current evils of your society and your world? Are you now prepared to do what your heart knows is required in order to begin putting an end to man's inhumanity to man?" If, knowing the truth, you fail to do what it requires of you, responsibility for the continuing inhumanity of the world is also yours. For, as Tolstoy's final quotation from the Bible emphasizes, the coming of the kingdom of God is not primarily a historical event to be awaited, it is an inward obligation to be fulfilled:
"The kingdom of God cometh not with outward show; neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 20, 21.)
David Taffel is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science and managing editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.