Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


June, 1890.

This is a strong title, and it requires a justification. We have to plead that nothing else would serve our purpose. But is our purpose a sound one? That will appear in the course of this article. Let the reader finish what we have to say before he forms a judgment.

We purpose to criticise the view of Christianity recently put forth by the greatest writer in Russia. Count Leo Tolstoi enjoys an European fame. He is one of the classics of modern fiction. His work in imaginative literature, as well as his work in religion, said the late Matthew Arnold, is "more than sufficient to signalise him as one of the most marking, interesting, and sympathy-inspiring men of our time." Whatever such a man writes deserves the closest attention. Not, indeed, that this needs to be bespoken for him. He has the qualities that compel it. There is the stamp of power on all his productions. We pause at them involuntarily, as we turn to look at a physical king of men who passes us in the street.

For some years Count Tolstoi discontinued his work as a novelist. His mind became occupied with social and religious problems. He ceased to be a man of the world and became a Christian; and his being a most sincere nature, endowed with a certain large simplicity which is characteristic of the Russian mind, he did not rest in ecclesiastical Christianity. He embraced the religion of Christ, and began working it out to legitimate issues. To him the Sermon on the Mount is divine teaching, not in a metaphorical sense, but in its literal significance. Accordingly he tells the Christian world, in such volumes as My Religion and My Confession, that it is all astray from the religion of Christ. He points to what its Savior said, takes his words in their honest meaning, and brands as un-Christian the whole framework of Christian society, with its armies, its police, its law courts, its wealth, and its institution of property. The Bishop of Peterborough and Count Tolstoi are at one in believing that if the Sermon on the Mount were carried out the State would go to ruin; only the Bishop of Peterborough shrinks from this, and jesuitically narrows the scope of Christ's teaching, while Count Tolstoi accepts it loyally and calls on Christians to square their practice with their profession.

Mirabeau said of Robespierre, "He is in earnest, he will go far." This is what we felt with respect to Count Tolstoi. Sooner or later he was certain to follow Jesus to the bitter end. After property comes the institution of marriage, upon which the teaching of Jesus may be found in the gospels. Count Tolstoi now insists on this teaching being practised. He has written a novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, to show the evils, not only of marriage, but of all sexual relations. Since then he has written a sober article to justify the sentiments of the hero, or the protagonist, of that terrible story. It is no longer possible to say that Pozdnischeff's ideas are those of a person in a drama. Count Tolstoi accepts the full responsibility of them, and presses them still further. He is now the un-blenching apostle of real Christianity—not the Christianity of the Churches, but the Christianity of Christ; and his new evangel will alarm the growing army of "advanced Christians," who are always canting, in their sentimental way, the very phrase which he develops in all its terrific meaning. To be a Christian, he tells them, is to crucify the body, to kill the animal passions, to live the pure life of the spirit, and, in short, to practise every austerity of asceticism.

Tolstoi did not jump to this conclusion. Writing on his novels, Mr. W. E. Henley called him "the great optimist." The Kreutzer Sonata is the work of a profound pessimist. Concluding What To Do, Tolstoi wrote a noble passage on the sacredness of motherhood. Now all that is changed. Motherhood must go too. It will take time, for the old Adam is strong in us. But go it must, and when we have all brought our bodies under, no more children will be born. The race will expire, having perfected its imitation of Christ, and the animals that remain will hold the world in undisputed possession; unless, indeed, they catch the contagion, and wind up the whole terrestrial business.

Before we treat Tolstoi's evangel in detail we must remark that he does not explain the "primeval command" of Jehovah to Adam and Eve—"Be ye fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth." This is very inconsistent with the gospel of absolute chastity. Jehovah says, "Get as many children as you can." Christ says, "Get none at all." If it was the same God who gave both orders he changed his mind completely, and having changed it once he may change it again. In that case the Koran will succeed the New Testament, and the Imitation of Christ give place to the Arabian Nights.

Revenons a nos moutons. The Kreutzer Sonata is a terrible story, but like all novels with a purpose, it is inartistic. Othello kills Desdemona without moralising on the sinfulness of marriage, and Pozdnischeff stabs his wife from sheer jealousy. All the preaching is by the way. It might be cut out without affecting the work, and that is its condemnation. When the preacher steps forward the artist retires. And as we are dealing with Tolstoi the preacher we shall go straight to his article in the Universal Review.

Tolstoi admits that what he now teaches is incompatible with what he taught before. When writing the Kreutzer Sonata, he says: "I had not the faintest presentiment that the train of thought I had started would lead me whither it did. I was terrified by my own conclusion, and was at first disposed to reject it; but it was impossible not to hearken to the voice of my reason and my conscience." This is the language of earnest sincerity.

The conclusion is this—"Even to contract marriage is, from a Christian point of view, not a progress but a fall. Love and all the states that accompany and follow it, however we may try in prose and verse to prove the contrary, never do and never can facilitate the attainment of an aim worthy of men, but always make it more difficult."

This is sufficiently dogmatic. Chapman thought otherwise.

    Without love
All beauties bred in women are in vain,
All virtues born in men lie buried;
For love informs them as the sun doth colors:
And as the sun, reflecting his warm beams
Against the earth, begets all fruits and flowers,
So love, fair shining in the inward man,
Brings forth in him the honorable fruits
Of valor, wit, virtue, and haughty thoughts,
Brave resolution and divine discourse.

Thus the great Elizabethan. Now for the laureate of the Victorian age.

For indeed I knew of no more subtle master under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man.

Chapman's strain is higher than Tennyson's, but they harmonise. Tolstoi's is a harsher note. He vilifies the flesh to exalt the spirit, as though the two never mingled. He would abolish the springs of life to purify its stream! He bids us see in our passions "foes to be conquered rather than friends to be encouraged." Why not try to establish a just harmony between them? Is there no medium? Must the passions be kings or slaves, in prison or on the throne? "It is thought an injury to reason," wrote Diderot, "to say a word in favor of her rivals; yet it is only the passions, and strong passions, that can lift the soul to great things; without them there is nothing sublime, whether in conduct or in productions—art becomes childish and virtue trivial."

But let us hear Tolstoi simply as a follower of Christ. We cannot do better than reproduce some of his sentences in extenso.

"Christ not only never instituted marriage, but, if we search for formal precept on the subject, we find that he rather disapproved it than otherwise. ('And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.' Matthew xix. 29, Mark x. 29, 30, Luke xviii. 29,30). He only impressed upon married and unmarried alike the necessity of striving after perfection, which includes chastity in marriage and out of it."

"There is not and cannot be such an institution as Christian marriage.... This is what was always taught and believed by true Christians of the first and following centuries.... In the eyes of a Christian, sexual relations in marriage not only do not constitute a lawful, right, and happy state, as our society and our churches maintain, but, on the contrary, are always a fall, a weakness, a sin."

"Such a thing as Christian marriage never was and never could be. Christ did not marry, nor did he establish marriage; neither did his disciples marry."

"A Christian, I say, cannot view sexual intercourse otherwise than as a deviation from the doctrine of Christ—as a sin. This is clearly laid down in Matt. v. 28, and the ceremony called Christian marriage does not alter its character one jot. A Christian will never, therefore, desire marriage, but will always avoid it."

"In the Gospel it is laid down so clearly as to make it impossible to explain it away, that he who is already married when he discovers and accepts the truth, must abide with her with whom he has been living, i.e., must not change his wife, and must live more chastely than before (Matt. v. 32, xix. 8-12), that he who is single should remain unmarried and continue to live chastely (Matt. xix. 10, 12), and that both the one and the other, in their yearning and striving after perfect chastity, are guilty of sin if they look on a woman as an object of pleasure (Matt. v. 28, 29)."

Pozdnischeff, at the close of the Kreutzer Sonata, clinches all this by saying—"People should understand the true significance of the words of St. Matthew as to looking upon a woman with the eye of desire; for the words apply to woman in her sisterly character—not only to another man's wife, but also, and above all, to one's own."

If this view of marriage prevailed, and perfect chastity obtained, the human race would come to an end. Tolstoi says he cannot help that. Carnal love perpetuates the race, and spiritual love will extinguish it. But what if it does? It is a familiar religious dogma that the world will have an end, and science tells us that the sun is losing its heat, the result of which must in time be the extinction of the human race.

The great Russian does not shrink from the logic of Christ's teaching. He follows Christ as St Paul did; as St. Peter did, who forsook his wife; as the Fathers did in crying up virginity and running down marriage; as the monks and nuns did who severed themselves from the world and the flesh, though they often fell into the hands of the Devil. Still there is another step for Count Tolstoi to take. He has not pressed one important saying of Christ, and it is this—

"For there are some eunuchs, which were born so from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. xix. 12).

The great Origen followed this advice and emasculated himself. Nor was he alone in the practice. All the disciples of his contemporary, Valens of Barathis, made themselves eunuchs. Mantegazza considers them the spiritual fathers of the Skopskis, a Russian sect dating from the eleventh century. They have been persecuted, but they number nearly six thousand, and regard themselves as the real Christians, the only true followers of Christ. They castrate themselves, and sometimes amputate the genitals entirely; the women even mutilate their breasts as a mark of their sex.

Will Count Tolstoi take the final step? It seems logically necessary even without the text on eunuchs, for the only certain way to avoid sexual intercourse is to make it impossible. In any case we are very much obliged to him for holding up the real Christianity, as far as he sees it, to the purblind and hypocritical mob of professed Christians. It will fortify Freethinkers in their scepticism, and warn the healthy manhood and womanhood of Europe against this oriental asceticism which pretends to be a divine message to the robust Occident. When Tolstoi goes the one step farther, and embraces the teaching of Jesus in its entirety, he will be the most powerful enemy of Christianity in the world. By demonstrating it to be a religion for eunuchs he will array against it the deepest instincts of mankind.

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