The Kingdom of God is Within You

The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894) by Leo Tolstoy

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Count Leo Tolstoy is best known as the Russian author of such masterpieces as War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. But of all the many books he wrote, the one which had most influence on the conduct of world affairs was without question not a novel but a work of non-fiction, The Kingdom of God is Within You. This was the output of a troubled man who a suffered a ‘dark night of the soul’ when he was at the height of his popularity and fame.  Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, so he was brought up by relatives who must have despaired of his louche behaviour. At school his teachers described him as ‘both unable and unwilling to learn.’  For a while he went to university to study law, but then decided to quit while only half way through the course and travel to Moscow where he continued his self-indulgent ways and ran up heavy gambling debts. For a while he joined the army, where he began to take an interest in writing. On a visit to Paris he witnessed a public execution, a determining moment which was to shape his future life. As he wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens … Henceforth I shall never serve any government anywhere.’  From then onwards he became what has been described as a Christian anarchist.

Tolstoy was a man beset with guilt. While he enjoyed the benefits brought by his inherited wealth, his conscience made him aware that in an ideal world there should be no gap between rich and poor. He admired men who’d relinquished their inherited properties on the grounds ‘that a man can only justly consume what he has gained by his own labour.’ His conscience told him he didn’t merit his unearned wealth, a concern which motivated him to improve the lot of his workers. After a meeting with Proudhon, the French socialist philosopher who espoused the cause of mass education, he returned to his family estate where he founded thirteen schools for the benefit of his serfs’ children. These were soon closed by the Tsarist police, who objected to the democratic messages the schools taught. Nevertheless, while he sought to improve the lot of the poor he had no had no compunction about exercising his aristocratic droit de seigneur, having relationships with his female staff which resulted in the birth of at least one illegitimate son.

Fortunately, as he aged, he managed to live far closer to his moral principles. This change was fuelled by his abhorrence of hypocrisy, based on his fervent love of truth. When he saw the horrors of war at first hand, as a junior officer in the Crimean War, his pacifist ideas were strengthened. Even as a young man he’d sought to find the meaning of life. When he was twenty-seven, he wrote in his diary that he wanted to launch a new religion founded on a return to the pure teaching of Christ. Stripped of all dogma and mystery, this would be based largely on the Sermon on the Mount and would pave the way to earthly bliss rather than happiness in the life hereafter.  He published this doctrine in books like What I believe, and was greatly disappointed when his views were not adopted by the church authorities and largely ignored by the general public.

When he reached the age of fifty Tolstoy suffered a soul searching spiritual crisis. Dissatisfied with the way he was conducting his life, he set out to renew his commitment to Christianity, taking as his key text the pacifist commandment: ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’  Soon after he began to put his thoughts on paper, and after two years of intensive work produced what is without doubt the magnum opus of his non-fiction writing. The Kingdom of God is within you’  is both a pacifist tract and an appeal for minimal government. He makes anarchy praiseworthy, which strikes at the very heart of authoritarian government, claiming that there are more advantages to be gained by not submitting to the demands of the state than by submitting to them.  Christianity, he argues, is incompatible with government. ‘How can people kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: ‘Thou shall not murder?’  If you kill one man you’re a criminal, if you kill a hundred men in the service of your country you’re a hero. In Tolstoy’s eyes, governments which wage war are an affront to Christian thinking. He opposes compulsory military service on the grounds that it forces peace-loving men to kill, since they’re forced to abide by Article 87 of the Russian Military Code which says they must carry out exactly and without comment the order of a superior officer irrespective of whether it is good or bad.

Not surprisingly the book was banned in Russia, but was soon published in many other languages and has been in print ever since. It’s influence has been immense, being an inspiration to civil rights campaigners such as Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi who named his second ashram in South Africa ‘Tolstoy Colony’ and said that the book was one of the most important influences in his life. The two men kept up a regular correspondence, and it was to his friend Gandhi that Tolstoy wrote his final letter. Despite his occasional moments of despair, Tolstoy was an optimist, and truly believed that the world was at a tipping point and would soon come to find the Kingdom of God within. Then peace and harmony would reign supreme as

people followed the humanitarian precepts which form the conclusion of his book: ‘Share all you have with others, do not heap up riches, do not steal, do not cause suffering, do not kill, do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.’

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