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Chapter 7

Why is it that men have not done as Jesus commanded them, and thus secured the greatest happiness within their reach, the happiness they have always longed for and still desire? The reply to this inquiry is always the same, although expressed in different ways. The doctrine of Jesus (we are told) is admirable, and it is true that if we practised it, we should see the kingdom of God established upon earth; but to practise it is difficult, and consequently this doctrine is impracticable. The doctrine of Jesus, which teaches men how they should live, is admirable, is divine; it brings true happiness, but it is difficult to practise. We repeat this, and hear it repeated so many, many times, that we do not observe the contradiction contained in these words.

It is natural to each human being to do what seems to him best. Any doctrine teaching men how they should live instructs them only as to what is best for each. If we show men what they have to do to attain what is best for each, how can they say that they would like to do it, but that it is impossible of attainment? According to the law of their nature they cannot do what is worse for each, and yet they declare that they cannot do what is best.

The reasonable activity of man, from his earliest existence, has been applied to the search for what is best among the contradictions that envelop human life. Men struggled for the soil, for objects which are necessary to them; then they arrived at the division of goods, and called this property; finding that this arrangement, although difficult to establish, was best, they maintained ownership. Men fought with one another for the possession of women, they abandoned their children; then they found it was best that each should have his own family; and although it was difficult to sustain a family, they maintained the family, as they did ownership and many other things. As soon as they discover that a thing is best, however difficult of attainment, men do it. What, then, is the meaning of the saying that the doctrine of Jesus is admirable, that a life according to the doctrine of Jesus would be better than the life which men now lead, but that men cannot lead this better life because it is difficult?

If the word "difficult," used in this way, is to be understood in the sense that it is difficult to renounce the fleeting satisfaction of sensual desires that we may obtain a greater good, why do we not say that it is difficult to labor for bread, difficult to plant a tree that we may enjoy the fruit? Every being endowed with even the most rudimentary reason knows that he must endure difficulties to procure any good, superior to that which he has enjoyed before. And yet we say that the doctrine of Jesus is admirable, but impossible of practice, because it is difficult! Now it is difficult, because in following it we are obliged to deprive ourselves of many things that we have hitherto enjoyed. Have we never heard that it is far more to our advantage to endure difficulties and privations than to satisfy all our desires? Man may fall to the level of the beasts, but he ought not to make use of his reason to devise an apology for his bestiality. From the moment that he begins to reason, he is conscious of being endowed with reason, and this consciousness stimulates him to distinguish between the reasonable and the unreasonable. Reason does not proscribe; it enlightens.

Suppose that I am shut into a dark room, and in searching for the door I continually bruise myself against the walls. Some one brings me a light, and I see the door. I ought no longer to bruise myself when I see the door; much less ought I to affirm that, although it is best to go out through the door, it is difficult to do so, and that, consequently, I prefer to bruise myself against the walls.

In this marvellous argument that the doctrine of Jesus is admirable, and that its practice would give the world true happiness, but that men are weak and sinful, that they would do the best and do the worst, and so cannot do the best,—in this strange plea there is an evident misapprehension; there is something else besides defective reasoning; there is also a chimerical idea. Only a chimerical idea, mistaking reality for what does not exist, and taking the non-existent for reality, could lead men to deny the possibility of practising that which by their own avowal would be for their true welfare.

The chimerical idea which has reduced men to this condition is that of the dogmatic Christian religion, as it is taught through the various catechisms, to all who profess the Christianity of the Church. This religion, according to the definition of it given by its followers, consists in accepting as real that which does not exist—these are Paul's words,[11] and they are repeated in all the theologies and catechisms as the best definition of faith. It is this faith in the reality of what does not exist that leads men to make the strange affirmation that the doctrine of Jesus is excellent for all men, but is worth nothing as a guide to their way of living. Here is an exact summary of what this religion teaches:—

A personal God, who is from all eternity—one of three persons—decided to create a world of spirits. This God of goodness created the world of spirits for their own happiness, but it so happened that one of the spirits became spontaneously wicked. Time passed, and God created a material world, created man for man's own happiness, created man happy, immortal, and without sin. The felicity of man consisted in the enjoyment of life without toil; his immortality was due to the promise that this life should last forever; his innocence was due to the fact that he had no conception of evil.

Man was beguiled in paradise by one of the spirits of the first creation, who had become spontaneously wicked. From this dates the fall of man, who engendered other men fallen like himself, and from this time men have endured toil, sickness, suffering, death, the physical and moral struggle for existence; that is to say, the fantastic being preceding the fall became real, as we know him to be, as we have no right or reason to imagine him not to be. The state of man who toils, who suffers, who chooses what is for his own welfare and rejects what would be injurious to him, who dies,—this state, which is the real and only conceivable state, is not, according to the doctrine of this religion, the normal state of man, but a state which is unnatural and temporary.

Although this state, according to the doctrine, has lasted for all humanity since the expulsion of Adam from paradise, that is, from the commencement of the world until the birth of Jesus, and has continued since the birth of Jesus under exactly the same conditions, the faithful are asked to believe that this is an abnormal and temporary state. According to this doctrine, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who was himself God, was sent by God into the world in the garb of humanity to rescue men from this temporary and abnormal state; to deliver them from the pains with which they had been stricken by this same God because of Adam's sin; and to restore them to their former normal state of felicity,—that is to immortality, innocence, and idleness. The second person of the Trinity (according to this doctrine), by suffering death at the hands of man, atoned for Adam's sin, and put an end to that abnormal state which had lasted from the commencement of the world. And from that time onward, the men who have had faith in Jesus have returned to the state of the first man in paradise; that is, have become immortal, innocent, and idle.

The doctrine does not concern itself too closely with the practical result of the redemption, in virtue of which the earth after Jesus' coming ought to have become once more, at least for believers, everywhere fertile, without need of human toil; sickness ought to have ceased, and mothers have borne children without pain;—since it is difficult to assure even believers who are worn by excessive labor and broken down by suffering, that toil is light, and suffering easy to endure.

But that portion of the doctrine which proclaims the abrogation of death and of sin, is affirmed with redoubled emphasis. It is asserted that the dead continue to live. And as the dead cannot bear witness that they are dead or prove that they are living (just as a stone is unable to affirm either that it can or cannot speak), this absence of denial is admitted as proof, and it is affirmed that dead men are not dead. It is affirmed with still more solemnity and assurance that, since the coming of Jesus, the man who has faith in him is free from sin; that is, that since the coming of Jesus, it is no longer necessary that man should guide his life by reason, and choose what is best for himself. He has only to believe that Jesus has redeemed his sins and he then becomes infallible, that is, perfect. According to this doctrine, men ought to believe that reason is powerless, and that for this cause they are without sin, that is, cannot err. A faithful believer ought to be convinced that since the coming of Jesus, the earth brings forth without labor, that childbirth no longer entails suffering, that diseases no longer exist, and that death and sin, that is, error, are destroyed; in a word, that what is, is not, and what is not, is.

Such is the rigorously logical theory of Christian theology. This doctrine, by itself, seems to be innocent. But deviations from truth are never inoffensive, and the significance of their consequences is in proportion to the importance of the subject to which these errors are applied. And here the subject at issue is the whole life of man. What this doctrine calls the true life, is a life of personal happiness, without sin, and eternal; that is, a life that no one has ever known, and which does not exist. But the life that is, the only life that we know, the life that we live and that all humanity lives and has lived, is, according to this doctrine, a degraded and evil existence, a mere phantasmagoria of the happy life which is our due.

Of the struggle between animal instincts and reason, which is the essence of human life, this doctrine takes no account. The struggle that Adam underwent in paradise, in deciding whether to eat or not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, is, according to this doctrine, no longer within the range of human experience. The question was decided, once for all, by Adam in paradise. Adam sinned for all; in other words, he did wrong, and all men are irretrievably degraded; and all our efforts to live by reason are vain and even impious. This I ought to know, for I am irreparably bad. My salvation does not depend upon living by the light of reason, and, after distinguishing between good and evil, choosing the good; no, Adam, once for all, sinned for me, and Jesus, once for all, has atoned for the wrong committed by Adam; and so I ought, as a looker-on, to mourn over the fall of Adam and rejoice at the redemption through Jesus.

All the love for truth and goodness in the heart of man, all his efforts to illuminate his spiritual life by the light of reason, are not only of slight importance, according to this doctrine; they are a temptation, an incitement to pride. Life as it is upon this earth, with all its joys and its splendors, its struggles of reason with darkness,—the life of all men that have lived before me, my own life with its inner struggles and triumphs,—all this is not the true life; it is the fallen life, a life irretrievably bad. The true life, the life without sin, is only in faith, that is, in imagination, that is, in lunacy.

Let any one break the habit contracted from infancy of believing in all this; let him look boldly at this doctrine as it is; let him endeavor to put himself in the position of a man without prejudice, educated independently of this doctrine—and then let him ask himself if this doctrine would not appear to such a man as a product of absolute insanity.

However strange and shocking all this might appear to me, I was obliged to examine into it, for here alone I found the explanation of the objection, so devoid of logic and common-sense, that I heard everywhere with regard to the impossibility of practising the doctrine of Jesus: It is admirable, and would give true happiness to men, but men are not able to obey it.

Only a conviction that reality does not exist, and that the non-existent is real, could lead men to this surprising contradiction. And this false conviction I found in the pseudo-Christian religion which men had been teaching for fifteen hundred years.

The objection that the doctrine of Jesus is excellent but impracticable, comes not only from believers, but from sceptics, from those who do not believe, or think that they do not believe, in the dogmas of the fall of man and the redemption; from men of science and philosophers who consider themselves free from all prejudice. They believe, or imagine that they believe, in nothing, and so consider themselves as above such a superstition as the dogma of the fall and the redemption. At first it seemed to me that all such persons had serious motives for denying the possibility of practising the doctrine of Jesus. But when I came to look into the source of their negation, I was convinced that the sceptics, in common with the believers, have a false conception of life; to them life is not what it is, but what they imagine it ought to be,—and this conception rests upon the same foundation as does that of the believers. It is true that the sceptics, who pretend to believe in nothing, believe not in God, or in Jesus, or in Adam; but they believe in a fundamental idea which is at the basis of their misconception,—in the rights of man to a life of happiness,—much more firmly than do the theologians.

In vain do science and philosophy pose as the arbiters of the human mind, of which they are in fact only the servants. Religion has provided a conception of life, and science travels in the beaten path. Religion reveals the meaning of life, and science only applies this meaning to the course of circumstances. And so, if religion falsifies the meaning of human life, science, which builds upon the same foundation, can only make manifest the same fantastic ideas.

According to the doctrine of the Church, men have a right to happiness, and this happiness is not the result of their own efforts, but of external causes. This conception has become the base of science and philosophy. Religion, science, and public opinion all unite in telling us that the life we now live is bad, and at the same time they affirm that the doctrine which teaches us how we can succeed in ameliorating life by becoming better, is an impracticable doctrine. Religion says that the doctrine of Jesus, which provides a reasonable method for the improvement of life by our own efforts, is impracticable because Adam fell and the world was plunged into sin. Philosophy says that the doctrine of Jesus is impracticable because human life is developed according to laws that are independent of the human will. In other words, the conclusions of science and philosophy are exactly the same as the conclusion reached by religion in the dogmas of original sin and the redemption.

There are two leading theses at the basis of the doctrine of the redemption: (1) the normal life of man is a life of happiness, but our life on earth is one of misery, and it can never be bettered by our own efforts; (2) our salvation is in faith, which enables us to escape from this life of misery. These two theses are the source of the religious conceptions of the believers and sceptics who make up our pseudo-Christian societies. The second thesis gave birth to the Church and its organization; from the first is derived the received tenets of public opinion and our political and philosophical theories. The germ of all political and philosophical theories that seek to justify the existing order of things—such as Hegelianism and its offshoots—is in this second thesis. Pessimism, which demands of life what it cannot give and then denies its value, has also its origin in the same dogmatic proposition. Materialism, with its strange and enthusiastic affirmation that man is the product of natural forces and nothing more, is the legitimate result of the doctrine that teaches that life on earth is a degraded existence. Spiritism, with its learned adherents, is the best proof we have that the conclusions of philosophy and science are based upon the religious doctrine of that eternal happiness which should be the natural heritage of man.

This false conception of life has had a deplorable influence upon all reasonable human activity. The dogma of the fall and the redemption has debarred man from the most important and legitimate field for the exercise of his powers, and has deprived him entirely of the idea that he can of himself do anything to make his life happier or better. Science and philosophy, proudly believing themselves hostile to pseudo-Christianity, only carry out its decrees. Science and philosophy concern themselves with everything except the theory that man can do anything to make himself better or happier. Ethical and moral instruction have disappeared from our pseudo-Christian society without leaving a trace.

Believers and sceptics who concern themselves so little with the problem how to live, how to make use of the reason with which we are endowed, ask why our earthly life is not what they imagine it ought to be, and when it will become what they wish. This singular phenomenon is due to the false doctrine which has penetrated into the very marrow of humanity. The effects of the knowledge of good and evil, which man so unhappily acquired in paradise, do not seem to have been very lasting; for, neglecting the truth that life is only a solution of the contradictions between animal instincts and reason, he stolidly refrains from applying his reason to the discovery of the historical laws that govern his animal nature.

Excepting the philosophical doctrines of the pseudo-Christian world, all the philosophical and religious doctrines of which we have knowledge—Judaism, the doctrine of Confucius, Buddhism, Brahmanism, the wisdom of the Greeks—all aim to regulate human life, and to enlighten men with regard to what they must do to improve their condition. The doctrine of Confucius teaches the perfecting of the individual; Judaism, personal fidelity to an alliance with God; Buddhism, how to escape from a life governed by animal instincts; Socrates taught the perfecting of the individual through reason; the Stoics recognized the independence of reason as the sole basis of the true life.

The reasonable activity of man has always been—it could not be otherwise—to light by the torch of reason his progress toward beatitude. Philosophy tells us that free-will is an illusion, and then boasts of the boldness of such a declaration. Free-will is not only an illusion; it is an empty word invented by theologians and experts in criminal law; to refute it would be to undertake a battle with a wind-mill. But reason, which illuminates our life and impels us to modify our actions, is not an illusion, and its authority can never be denied. To obey reason in the pursuit of good is the substance of the teachings of all the masters of humanity, and it is the substance of the doctrine of Jesus; it is reason itself, and we cannot deny reason by the use of reason.

Making use of the phrase "son of man," Jesus teaches that all men have a common impulse toward good and toward reason, which leads to good. It is superfluous to attempt to prove that "son of man" means "Son of God." To understand by the words "son of man" anything different from what they signify is to assume that Jesus, to say what he wished to say, intentionally made use of words which have an entirely different meaning. But even if, as the Church says, "son of man" means "Son of God," the phrase "son of man" applies none the less to man, for Jesus himself called all men "the sons of God."

The doctrine of the "son of man" finds its most complete expression in the interview with Nicodemus. Every man, Jesus says, aside from his consciousness of his material, individual life and of his birth in the flesh, has also a consciousness of a spiritual birth (John iii. 5, 6, 7), of an inner liberty, of something within; this comes from on high, from the infinite that we call God (John iii. 14-17); now it is this inner consciousness born of God, the son of God in man, that we must possess and nourish if we would possess true life. The son of man is homogeneous (of the same race) with God.

Whoever lifts up within himself this son of God, whoever identifies his life with the spiritual life, will not deviate from the true way. Men wander from the way because they do not believe in this light which is within them, the light of which John speaks when he says, "In him was life; and the life was the light of men." Jesus tells us to lift up the son of man, who is the son of God, for a light to all men. When we have lifted up the son of man, we shall then know that we can do nothing without his guidance (John viii. 28). Asked, "Who is this son of man?" Jesus answers:—

"Yet a little while is the light in you.[12] Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth." (John xii. 35.)

The son of man is the light in every man that ought to illuminate his life. "Take heed therefore, that the light which is in thee be not darkness," is Jesus' warning to the multitude (Luke xi. 35).

In all the different ages of humanity we find the same thought, that man is the receptacle of the divine light descended from heaven, and that this light is reason, which alone should be the object of our worship, since it alone can show the way to true well-being. This has been said by the Brahmins, by the Hebrew prophets, by Confucius, by Socrates, by Marcus Aurelius, by Epictetus, and by all the true sages,—not by compilers of philosophical theories, but by men who sought goodness for themselves and for others.[13] And yet we declare, in accordance with the dogma of the redemption, that it is entirely superfluous to think of the light that is in us, and that we ought not to speak of it at all!

We must, say the believers, study the three persons of the Trinity; we must know the nature of each of these persons, and what sacraments we ought or ought not to perform, for our salvation depends, not on our own efforts, but on the Trinity and the regular performance of the sacraments. We must, say the sceptics, know the laws by which this infinitesimal particle of matter was evolved in infinite space and infinite time; but it is absurd to believe that by reason alone we can secure true well-being, because the amelioration of man's condition does not depend upon man himself, but upon the laws that we are trying to discover.

I firmly believe that, a few centuries hence, the history of what we call the scientific activity of this age will be a prolific subject for the hilarity and pity of future generations. For a number of centuries, they will say, the scholars of the western portion of a great continent were the victims of epidemic insanity; they imagined themselves to be the possessors of a life of eternal beatitude, and they busied themselves with divers lucubrations in which they sought to determine in what way this life could be realized, without doing anything themselves, or even concerning themselves with what they ought to do to ameliorate the life which they already had. And what to the future historian will seem much more melancholy, it will be found that this group of men had once had a master who had taught them a number of simple and clear rules, pointing out what they must do to render their lives happy,—and that the words of this master had been construed by some to mean that he would come on a cloud to re-organize human society, and by others as admirable doctrine, but impracticable, since human life was not what they conceived it to be, and consequently was not worthy of consideration; as to human reason, it must concern itself with the study of the laws of an imaginary existence, without concerning itself about the welfare of the individual man.

The Church says that the doctrine of Jesus cannot be literally practised here on earth, because this earthly life is naturally evil, since it is only a shadow of the true life. The best way of living is to scorn this earthly existence, to be guided by faith (that is, by imagination) in a happy and eternal life to come, and to continue to live a bad life here and to pray to the good God.

Philosophy, science, and public opinion all say that the doctrine of Jesus is not applicable to human life as it now is, because the life of man does not depend upon the light of reason, but upon general laws; hence it is useless to try to live absolutely conformable to reason; we must live as we can with the firm conviction that according to the laws of historical and sociological progress, after having lived very imperfectly for a very long time, we shall suddenly find that our lives have become very good.

People come to a farm; they find there all that is necessary to sustain life,—a house well furnished, barns filled with grain, cellars and store-rooms well stocked with provisions, implements of husbandry, horses and cattle,—in a word, all that is needed for a life of comfort and ease. Each wishes to profit by this abundance, but each for himself, without thinking of others, or of those who may come after him. Each wants the whole for himself, and begins to seize upon all that he can possibly grasp. Then begins a veritable pillage; they fight for the possession of the spoils; oxen and sheep are slaughtered; wagons and other implements are broken up into firewood; they fight for the milk and grain; they grasp more than they can consume. No one is able to sit down to the tranquil enjoyment of what he has, lest another take away the spoils already secured, to surrender them in turn to some one stronger. All these people leave the farm, bruised and famished. Thereupon the Master puts everything to rights, and arranges matters so that one may live there in peace. The farm is again a treasury of abundance. Then comes another group of seekers, and the same struggle and tumult is repeated, till these in their turn go away bruised and angry, cursing the Master for providing so little and so ill. The good Master is not discouraged; he again provides for all that is needed to sustain life,—and the same incidents are repeated over and over again.

Finally, among those who come to the farm, is one who says to his companions: "Comrades, how foolish we are! see how abundantly everything is supplied, how well everything is arranged! There is enough here for us and for those who will come after us; let us act in a reasonable manner. Instead of robbing each other, let us help one another. Let us work, plant, care for the dumb animals, and every one will be satisfied." Some of the company understand what this wise person says; they cease from fighting and from robbing one another, and begin to work. But others, who have not heard the words of the wise man, or who distrust him, continue their former pillage of the Master's goods. This condition of things lasts for a long time. Those who have followed the counsels of the wise man say to those about them: "Cease from fighting, cease from wasting the Master's goods; you will be better off for doing so; follow the wise man's advice." Nevertheless, a great many do not hear and will not believe, and matters go on very much as they did before.

All this is natural, and will continue as long as people do not believe the wise man's words. But, we are told, a time will come when every one on the farm will listen to and understand the words of the wise man, and will realize that God spoke through his lips, and that the wise man was himself none other than God in person; and all will have faith in his words. Meanwhile, instead of living according to the advice of the wise man, each struggles for his own, and they slay each other without pity, saying, "The struggle for existence is inevitable; we cannot do otherwise."

What does it all mean? Even the beasts graze in the fields without interfering with each other's needs, and men, after having learned the conditions of the true life, and after being convinced that God himself has shown them how to live the true life, follow still their evil ways, saying that it is impossible to live otherwise. What should we think of the people at the farm if, after having heard the words of the wise man, they had continued to live as before, snatching the bread from each other's mouths, fighting, and trying to grasp everything, to their own loss? We should say that they had misunderstood the wise man's words, and imagined things to be different from what they really were. The wise man said to them, "Your life here is bad; amend your ways, and it will become good." And they imagined that the wise man had condemned their life on the farm, and had promised them another and a better life somewhere else. They decided that the farm was only a temporary dwelling-place, and that it was not worth while to try to live well there; the important thing was not to be cheated out of the other life promised them elsewhere. This is the only way in which we can explain the strange conduct of the people on the farm, of whom some believed that the wise man was God, and others that he was a man of wisdom, but all continued to live as before in defiance of the wise man's words. They understood everything but the one significant truth in the wise man's teachings,—that they must work out for themselves their own peace and happiness there on the farm, which they took for a temporary abode thinking all the time of the better life they were to possess elsewhere.

Here is the origin of the strange declaration that the precepts of the wise man were admirable, even divine, but that they were difficult to practise.

Oh, if men would only cease from evil ways while waiting for the Christ to come in his chariot of fire to their aid; if they would only cease to invoke the law of the differentiation or integration of forces, or any historical law whatever! None will come to their aid if they do not aid themselves. And to aid ourselves to a better life, we need expect nothing from heaven or from earth; we need only to cease from ways that result in our own loss.


FOOTNOTES:

[11] Heb. ii. 2. Literally, "Faith is the support of the hoped for, the conviction of the unseen."

[12] In all the translations authorized by the Church, we find here a perhaps intentional error. The words ἐν ὑμῖν, in you, are invariably rendered with you.

[13] Marcus Aurelius says: "Reverence that which is best in the universe; and this is that which makes use of all things and directs all things. And in like manner also reverence that which is best in thyself; and this is of the same kind as that. For in thyself, also, that which makes use of everything else, is this, and thy life is directed by this." (Meditations v. 21.)


Leo Tolstoy

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