Book Review: The Kingdom of God Is Within You, by Leo Tolstoy (Authorized Translation by Constance Garnett)

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s non-fiction book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is a forceful argument for non-violent resistance — and against organized religion, governments, and the entirety of pagan civilization under which we have lived for thousands of years.

Throw Christianity and several dollops of libertarianism, anarchism, pacifism, and Distributism in a blender, and you’ll get a concoction approximating Tolstoy’s recipe for heaven on earth.

While this recipe and many of the other predictions for mankind sets forth in this volume seem rather far-fetched today, Tolstoy’s ability to describe and explain behavior — of individuals, groups, and social institutions — is profound. And his assessments fit current circumstances just as well as they did in 1894 when the book was first published. His well-argued and rather startling observations include:

  • All governments are equally bad. All governments, regardless of their outward trappings, are based on the threat or actuality of bodily violence.
  • Organized churches (Tolstoy speaks of Christian churches) are based on deception, falsely reconciling the use of violence, expressly condemned by Christ, with the needs of the state to maintain and deploy armies to murder foreign and internal enemies alike.
  • Believers in science rather than Christianity are similarly hypocritical, believing that their efforts to change social structures for the better allow them to be cruel and unjust in their actual behavior.
  • People, regardless of their place in society, participate in this unjust, immoral societal structure, even though they know it is wrong, because they perceive having more to lose if the structure is destroyed than to gain if it is replaced by a just and moral structure the shape of which no one can clearly visualize.

Some thought-provoking excerpts highly relevant in 2022:

“And therefore, in the first place, religion is not, as science imagines, a manifestation which at one time corresponded with the development of humanity, but is afterward outgrown by it. It is a manifestation always inherent in the life of humanity, and it is as indispensable, as inherent in humanity at the present time as at any other. Secondly, religion is always the theory of the practice of the future and not of the past, and therefore it is clear that investigation of past manifestations cannot in any case grasp the essence of religion.

“The essence of every religious teaching lies not in the desire for a symbolic expression of the forces of nature, not in the dread of those forces, nor in the craving for the marvelous,  nor in the external forms in which it is manifested, as men of science imagine; the essence of religion likes in the faculty of men of foreseeing and pointing out the path of life along which humanity must move in the discovery of a new theory of life, as a result of which the whole future conduct of humanity is changed and different from all that has been before.”

“The doctrine of love for humanity alone is based on the social conception of life.”

“The Christian doctrine brings a man to the elementary consciousness of self only not the animal self, but of the divine self, the divine spark, the self as the Son of God, as much God as the Father himself, though confined in an animal husk.”

“The whole existence of modern times is defined by laws.”

“A man cannot but suffer when his whole life is defined beforehand for him by laws, which he must obey under threat of punishment, though he does not believe in their wisdom or justice, and often clearly perceives their injustice, cruelty, and artificiality.”

“… the cultivated men of our day, the leaders of thought, are in reality with their subtle reasoning drawing society back, not to paganism even, but to a state of primitive barbarism.”

“And a government is only a government so long as it can make itself obeyed, and therefore it always strives for that and will never willingly abandon its power.”

“But however power has been gained, those who possess it are in no way different from other men, and therefore no more disposed than others to subordinate their own interests to those of society. On the contrary, having the power to do so at their disposal, they are more disposed than others to subordinate the public interests to their own. Whatever means men have devised for preventing those in authority from overriding public interests for their own benefit, or for entrusting power only to the most faultless people, they have not so far succeeded in either of those aims.”

“In ancient times tyrants got credit for the crimes they committed, but in our day the most atrocious infamies, inconceivable under the Neros, are perpetrated and no one gets blamed for them.”

“It is principally through this false idea of inequality, and the intoxication of power and of servility resulting from it, that men associated in a state organization are enabled to commit acts opposed to their conscience without the least scruple or remorse.”

“Not without good reason was Christ’s only harsh and threatening reproof directed against hypocrites and hypocrisy.”

“The more men are freed from privation; the more telegraphs, telephones, books, papers and journals there are; the more means there will be of diffusing inconsistent lies and hypocrisies, and the more disunited and consequently miserable will men become, which indeed is what we see actually taking place.”

“The condition of men is a result of their disunion. Their disunion results from their not following the truth which is one, but falsehoods which are many.”

Despite the gloom in much of his commentary, Tolstoy sees in his time an inevitable progression to a widespread Christian consciousness that will render governments as we know them obsolete. He relates several stories of people engaged in non-violent resistance; stories of people who put Christ’s teaching of non-violence into action in their own behavior. He believes these examples will be seen and admired and broaden a truly Christian consciousness.

If it was possible then, it is possible now.

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