Ph.D. Octopus

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Tolstoy and American Abolitionists

with 3 comments

By Wiz

Excuse my lackluster posting. I suppose I can blame some combination of a surprisingly labor-intensive TA assignment and distractions created by the warm weather in Prospect Park. Also, sucking up my spare time has been a re-reading of War and Peace, this time the fancy new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Sidenote: is the translation all that its cracked up to be? I’m not sure. I can’t say it’s affected me any more than when I read the Maude translation, but I’m a translation skeptic myself. To me, fancy new translations of classic books are like organic vegetables, I can’t really tell if they’re any better, but I can definitely tell that its an excuse to charge me more.)

But, re-reading this reminded me of a topic that I wanted to write about: the influence that American abolitionists had on Leo Tolstoy. This always make me a bit happy, as it combines my academic interests with the more personal. I’ve come to think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalists/Abolitionists whom he appreciates were disturbed by the the new importance of role-playing in the modern market economy, and sought ways to restore people to some sort of unitary moral vision.

The backstory, as Tolstoy himself writes, in The Kingdom of God is Within You, is that a copy of his Confession, got in the hands of one of William Lloyd Garrison’s sons, who sent Tolstoy some of Garrison’s old writings. Tolstoy found them a “powerful and eloquent … expression of a confession of faith.” Intrigued he looked around and found Adin Ballou, an old Garrisonian and Non-Resistant, who was still alive and faithful to the original Christian anarchist strand of Garrison’s thought, and began a correspondence. Unfortunately, as Lewis Perry writes, by the end of his life, Ballou was “bitter and argumentative,” and Tolstoy didn’t learn much. But his reading of Garrison profoundly influenced Tolstoy, who also wrote to Vladimir Tchertkoff of the “spiritual joy” that he found in Garrison’s writing.

Eventually, he wrote to Edward Garnett, that “it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I should like to thank them for the great help I have received from their writers who flourished about the [Eighteen] fifties. I would mention [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Theodore] Parker, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, [Adin] Ballou, and [Henry David] Thoreau, not as the greatest, but as those who, I think, specially influence me. Other names are [William Ellery?] Channing, [John Greenleaf] Whittier, [James Russell] Lowell, Walt Whitman—a bright constellation, such as is rarely to be found in the literatures of the world. And I should like to ask the American people why they do not pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.”

William Lloyd Garrison

So what explains the affinity? Obviously there is Christian Anarchism, the belief that Christianity specifically forbids the use of force, and as governments are premised on force and violence, no Christian can pledge alliance to a worldly government. Garrison had proclaimed this in the 1830s, and it became central to Tolstoy’s political philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Lewis Perry interpreted the relationship as being about a shared appreciation for religious anarchism.

But this hardly explains some of the Transcendentalists whom Tolstoy celebrates: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Whitman were hardly good Christians.* And Parker, for instance, was one of the “Secret Six” which funded John Brown, whom Emerson and Thoreau also praised, hardly the actions of a good non-resistant. (One more side-note, one sincerely wishes that the misogynistic and sexually repressed Tolstoy of The Kruezter Sonata could have paid more attention to Walt Whitman).

Perhaps Tolstoy simply didn’t have access to enough of their writings or was reading what he wanted. And to be fair, Tolstoy was hardly an orthodox Christian either, so perhaps he was drawn to the rebellious religious vision of the abolitionists.

From my reading of these guys, though, I think there is another, perhaps more abstract level at which Tolstoy and the Transcendentalists/Abolitionists connect. Both, I think, were deeply concerned with the ways that modern life, and especially the social roles that we gravitate towards, tend to limit our vision, and make us forget about our ultimate moral duty. Consider the following . Here is Tolstoy’s description of Napoleon during the battle of Borodino:

A personal, human feeling for a brief moment got the better of the artificial phantasm of life he had served so long. He felt in his own person the sufferings and death he had witnessed on the battlefield. The heaviness of his head and chest reminded him of the possibility of suffering and death for himself. At that moment he did not desire Moscow, or victory, or glory (what need had he for any more glory?). The one thing he wished for was rest, tranquility, and freedom…. Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.

Napoleon, as Tolstoy draws him, is not the all-powerful Emperor of Europe, but rather a man driven by forces he doesn’t comprehend, stuck performing tasks thrust upon him by circumstance and by his position as leader. Unable to rise above this, he sets him own fate by invading Russia and by fighting battles because this is what is expected of him, not because it serves any ulimate end worth fighting for. Tolstoy’s “Notes on Soldiers” has a similar theme: the contrast between the official duty of the soldier, which is to murder, rape, and steal; and the duty of the Christian which is to love and heal.

Now consider Emerson on the problem of social roles:

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

And Theodore Parker arguing for why Bostonians, even those who are policemen or judges, should disobey the Fugitive Slave Law and hinder its application:

“My official business as clergyman, fisherman, or statesman, is always beneath my personal duty as man. In case of any conflict between the two, the natural duty ought to prevail and carry the day before the official business; for the natural duty represents the permanent law of God, the absolute right, justice, the balance-point of all interests; while the official business represents only the transient conventions of men, some partial interest; and besides, the man who owes the personal duty is immortal, while the officer who performs the official business is but for a time.”

In this light, then, I think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalist/abolitionists were interested in responding to the rise of a market economy in which old and stable life roles were no longer guides for action. As the industrial revolution expanded the division of labor, and new managerial positions developed around the economy, the old republican ideal of the whole man declined. One no longer could look to traditions and parents for a sense of how they should act. “Nothing is solid,” Emerson wrote, “everything tilts and rocks.” People began playing at roles—a wheat merchant in the morning, a father in the evening, a Christian on Sunday, etc…. No longer were people stuck in a handful of relatively old and stable classes, but instead had the freedom to move in and out of life roles. We so train ourselves to act in these roles– as good soldiers, or good merchants, or good 19th century historians– that our own self and moral center seems to dissolve away, only intelligible in terms of the roles we fulfill.

Tolstoy, I think, and the American thinkers he liked, responded to this problem by celebrating a particularly strict set of ethical duties that should precede the more particular roles that individuals took on. They both constantly asked that we question whether the particular traits that make us a good soldier or a good textile manufacturer might prevent us from becoming a good and moral person.

Speaking personally, I still find this vision meaningful and important. I prefer the more secularized language of Thoreau rather than the overtly Christian language of Tolstoy.

*Yes Parker was a Unitarian minister, but on the far left of the spectrum, such that its arguable whether he was a Christian, depending on how you define the term. He did not, for instance, believe in the special divinity of Christ, but, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that Christ only breathed of the same divinity that was open to all of us, if only we were ready for it.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 17, 2011 at 22:42

3 Responses

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  1. Also: Check out this article by my friend and comrade Daniel Cohen on Tolstoy’s influence over Gandhi:


    April 17, 2011 at 23:23

  2. the dilemma of self-authorization after the old foundations have died out: “We so train ourselves to act in these roles– as good soldiers, or good merchants, or good 19th century historians– that our own self and moral center seems to dissolve away, only intelligible in terms of the roles we fulfill.” one of my favorite themes. nice post.


    April 18, 2011 at 16:54

  3. You ignore the Bible, which was the one, single inspiration for Garrison, and later Tolstoy. In particular, JC’s admonition in Matthew to “resist not evil with evil.” This became the reasoning behind the non-violent resistance to slavery, and for Tolstoy, serfdom. A Methodist minister in South Africa, attempting to convert a Hindu worker, gave him a copy of the outlawed “Kingdom of God,” which had been spirited out of Russia and translated into English. Ghandi loved it, and adopted the idea of non-violent protest against the British. I find it ironic that the concept of non-violence began with Jesus, was interpreted by Garrison, embraced by Tolstoy, and put into action by Ghandi, to free a nation of Hindus from a nation of Christians.

    Larry Elin

    November 30, 2012 at 17:26

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