When Life Starts to Improve

Leo Tolstoy, Spiritual Writings, edited by Charles E. Moore

Prophetic witness consists of human deeds of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. It calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery and highlights personal and institutional evil, including the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil. The especial aim of prophetic utterance is to shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the suffering of others and to expose the clever forms of evasion and escape we devise in order to hide and conceal injustice. The prophetic goal is to stir up in us the courage to care and empower us to change our lives and our historical circumstances. 
–Cornel West, Democracy Matters

In the late 1990s I read Tolstoy’s masterpieces, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Hadji Murad.  But it has only been recently that I’ve become acquainted with the prophetic Tolstoy who emerged after a wrenching existential crisis of despair in his fifties. Charles E. Moore has compiled a fine introduction to this Tolstoy in the series by  Orbis Books of “spiritual writings.” I offer the following sample of what I found challenging and inspiring…   

We are all brothers–and yet every morning a brother or a sister must empty the bedroom slops for me. We are all brothers, but every morning I must have a cigar, a sweetmeat, an ice, and such things, which my brothers and sisters have been wasting their health in manufacturing, and I enjoy these things and demand them. We are all brothers, yet I live by working in a bank, or mercantile house, or shop at making all goods dearer for my brothers. We are all brothers, but I live on a salary paid me for prosecuting, judging, and condemning the thief or the prostitute whose existence the whole tenor of my life tends to bring about, and who I know ought not to be punished but reformed. We are all brothers and sisters, but i live on a salary paid to me by a government than collects taxes from those who can’t afford to pay them, whole those who can don’t. We are all brothers and sisters, but I take a salary for preaching Christianity, which I do not  myself even believe in, and which only serves to hinder people form understanding what Christ really wills.  We are all brothers and sisters, but I will not give the poor the benefit of my educational, medical, or literary labors except for money.  We are all brothers and sisters, yet I take a salary for being ready to kill, for teaching others to kill, or for making instruments of death. [This reminded me of Ernesto Cardenal’s poem, Cell Phone.]

Millions of people go to rack and ruin physically and morally in the slavery of factories around the world, which produce useless items for people who already have too much. It does not require a great deal of intelligence to see that in our day it is just the same, and our age is fecund with horrors, and that  these, in the eyes of succeeding generations, will seem just as unbelievable in their cruelty and stupidity. The disease of the past continues into the present; it’s just that it is not felt by those of us who profit by it. [I remember a SLU student of mine who studied sweatshops at her Catholic high school, and was later horrified to find our her favorite uncle’s business in Central America was actually a sweatshop.]

Everything Jesus said somehow was explained away.  [Tolstoy spent years debunking the Church and extolling  the Sermon on the Mount.]

A single execution carried out by prosperous educated men uninfluenced by passion, with the approbation and assistance of Christian ministers, and represented as something necessary and even just, is infinitely more corrupting and brutalizing to people than thousands of murders committed by uneducated working people under the influence of passion. [The following is from  the conclusion of my book on Elie Wiesel:  In recent decades, Wiesel  has often raised his own voice to speak out against the politics of hatred and fanaticism, phenomena that have shown no sign of dissipating, from the reciprocal violence in the Balkans to the genocide in Rwanda.  He claims, “I have been fighting against [fanaticism] for years, wherever it appears. Be it religious or political, fanaticism is the real danger threatening the twenty-first century. Those who sow it today are provoking tomorrow’s catastrophes.” Wiesel has done a public service in speaking and writing about the evils of hatred, but there are other “real dangers” worth attending to that do not involve frightening outbursts of murderous hatred. It is the case that much avoidable human suffering takes place not because of fanaticism but because of the predictable consequences of rational policies devised and carried out by individuals devoted to the aims of their corporations, organizations, and governments. One glaring example is the case of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who have died as a result of U.S.-U.N.-backed sanctions since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  The U.S. government had supported Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s, even when he was gassing Kurds in 1988.  But when Hussein dared to invade Kuwait in August 1990, he became a veritable demon and was seen as a successor to Hitler.  After the U.S.-led  Gulf War pulverized Iraq, the U.S. insisted on keeping economic sanctions which have wreaked havoc on the Iraqi people and have done nothing to dislodge Hussein from power.  Approximately 5,000 children die each month as a result of these sanctions.  When  challenged about this suffering of the innocent Iraqis on a national television program, Secretary of State Madeline Albright  noted that the policy “was a very hard choice.”  Nevertheless, she went on to affirm “but the price — we think the price is worth it.”]

The simplest and shortest rule of morality consists in compelling as little service as possible from others, and serving others as much as possible. It involves demanding as little as possible from others, and in giving others as much as possible. [See  Tolstoy’s “Three Questions” posed by a certain emperor.]

It appears to us that their sufferings are one thing, and our lives another, and that we, living as we do, are only living the way everyone else would, including the poor, if they had the chance. And yet when we read about history books about how the Romans lived, we gasp at the inhumanity of the heartless aristocracy, who gorged themselves with fine dishes and delicious wines while people went starving We shake our heads and wonder at the barbarism of our forefathers, who proceeded themselves  with orchestras and theaters while enslaving whole peoples to keep up their plantations and gardens. From the height of our greatness, we are dumbfounded at their inhumanity. Why aren’t we dumbfounded by our own?  [An anarchist line from the 1980s goes, “no revolution has gone far enough.”  In light of Tolstoy,  contemporary wokeness is in a deep slumber.]

 We live badly, because we are bad. Therefore, if we want life to stop being bad, we have to turn bad people into good people. How do we do that? You cannot transform anyone but yourself. At first it seems that by doing that you will not change anything. Who am I compared to so many? But we all complain about how bad life has become. If we grasped that bad people are what creates this bad life and that we cannot change other people but can only work on changing ourselves, then life would start to improve. [If enacted en masse, this  could signal the demise of the Twitter wars.]

We torture ourselves with the past and in our worry spoil the future because we do not pay sufficient attention to the present. The past is gone. The future does not exist. There is only now. [Dipa Ma: “Thoughts of the past and future spoil your time.”  Thank you, Pierre Hadot!—Goethe:  “Die Gegenwart allein ist unser Glück.”]

It is far easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put a single precept into practice. [From Annie Cohen-Solal’s biography of Jean-Paul Sartre: At that time of my life, all sorts of changes were taking place, and in particular  I came to the realization that ever since I had first begun to write I had been living a real neurosis.  My neurosis — which wasn’t all that different  from the one Flaubert suffered in his day — was basically that I firmly believed that nothing was more beautiful than writing, nothing greater, that to write was to create lasting works, and that the writer’s life ought to be understood through his work.  And then in 1953, I came to the realization that that was a completely bourgeois viewpoint, that there was a great deal more to life than writing.  All of which meant that I had to rethink the value I placed on the written word, which I now felt was on a whole other level than where I had previously placed it.  From that point of view, I was, somewhere 1953-54, cured almost immediately of my neurosis … And so I wrote The Words … Had I been more honest with myself, I would still  have written Nausea.  Then, I still lacked a sense of reality.  I have changed since.  I have served a slow apprenticeship … I have seen children die of hunger.  In front of a dying child, Nausea has no weight.]  

“Donkey Boys,” Haiti, photo by Mev Puleo

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *