Tolstoy’s “Religion and Morality”

In a post responding to the firestorm or criticism in the America media regarding Kirk Cameron’s understanding of homosexuality, I offered a critique of the media’s simplistic response, but focused on a critique ofteenage hearthrob Cameron. I argued, specifically, that he was confusing being American and being Christian, and making ethical and moral choices based on a foundation other than the Bible.

In a class at the University of Prince Edward Island, “Skepticism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Belief,” I encourage students to critique not just my views, but the views of all the thinkers we deal with throughout the semester. One student actually offered an intelligent critique of my Kirk Cameron blog, and noted that my thesis was predicted partly by Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th century Russian storyteller. Tolstoy was also an essayist, and I’ve included here an excerpt of his essay, “Religion and Morality.” If you’ll notice, Tolstoy makes my argument, but better, and without having to refer to 80s pop idols.

All ancient history, and in part that of the Middle Ages, and of the modern era, is full of the exploits of this family, social, and state morality. And, at the present time, most men only imagine they profess Christianity and hold the Christian morality, but in reality they follow this family-state morality of heathendom. And this morality they elevate into an ideal in the education of the young.

From the third conception of man’s relation to the universe namely, the acknowledgment by man of his existence as an instrument of the Supreme Will for the accomplishment of its designs proceeds the morality corresponding to this conception, which explains the dependence of man on the Supreme Will, and deter- mines the demands of this Will. From this conception proceed the loftiest moral teachings known to man the Pythagorean, Stoic, Buddhist, Brahman, and Taoist, in their best aspects, and the Christian teaching in its real sense, which demands the

Leo Tolstoy

renunciation of the individual will, and of the welfare, not only of the individual, but of family, society, and state, in the name of the fulfilment of the will of Him who sent us into life and made it known to us through our consciousness.

From the second or third of these perceptions of man’s relationship to the infinite universe or its first cause, proceeds the true, sincere morality of every man, in spite of what he nominally professes or preaches as morality, or what he desires to appear. So that a man who acknowledges that the essence of his relation to the universe consists in the acquirement of the greatest welfare for himself, however much he may prate of the morality of living for family, society, state, humanity, or the accomplishment of the will of God (though he may be clever enough by feigning to deceive his fellows), the real motive of his activity will always be his own welfare ; so that, when necessity for choice arises, he will sacrifice, not himself for his family, nation, or the accomplishment of God’s will, but everything for himself, because his conception of existence being centered in his own welfare, he cannot act otherwise till the conception of his relation to the universe undergoes a change.

In the same way, however much a man, whose conception of his relation to the universe consists in the service of his family (as is the case with most women), tribe, country, or nation (as those of oppressed nationalities, or political agents in times of contention), may say that he is a Christian, his morality will always remain a family, national, or state morality, not a Christian ; and when the necessity arises for choosing between the welfare of family or of society and that of himself, or between social welfare and the accomplishment of God’s will, he will inevitably choose to serve the welfare of that association of his fellows for which he, according to his conception of life, exists because only in such service does he discover the meaning of his existence.

And, similarly, however much you may assure a man, who considers that his relation to the universe consists in the accomplishment of the will of Him that sent him, that he must, in the interest of person, family, state, nation, or humanity, do that which contradicts this superior will, of which he is conscious through the reason and love with which he is equipped, he will always sacrifice person, family, country, or humanity rather than be unfaithful to the will of Him that sent him, because only by the accomplishment of this will does he realize his conception of life.

Morality cannot be independent of religion, because, not only is it the outcome of religion, that is, of that conception by man of his relation to the universe, but because it is already implied by religion. All religion is a reply to the question, What is my conception of life? And the religious answer always includes a certain moral demand, which may sometimes follow the explanation of this conception, sometimes precede it. The question may be answered thus: The conception of life is the welfare of the individual, therefore profit by every advantage accessible to thee ; or, The conception of life is the welfare of an association, serve therefore that association with all thy power; or, The conception of life is the fulfilment of the will of Him that sent thee, therefore try, with all thy power, to learn that will and to do it. And the same question may be answered thus : The conception of life is thy personal pleasure, in that is the true destiny of man ; or, The conception of life is the service of that association of which thou considerest thyself a member, for that is thy destiny ; or, The conception of life is the service of God, since for that thou hast been made.

Morality is included in the explanation of life that religion offers us, and therefore cannot possibly be divorced from it. This truth is especially prominent in those attempts of non-Christian philosophers to deduce the inculcation of the loftiest morality from their philosophy. These teachers see that Christian morality is indispensable; that existence without it is impossible ; more, they see that such a morality does exist, and they desire in some manner to attach it to their non-Christian philosophy, and even so to represent things that it may appear as if Christian morality were the natural outcome of their heathen or social philosophy. And they make the attempt, but their very efforts exhibit more clearly than anything else, not only the independence of Christian morality, but its complete contradiction of the philosophy of individual welfare, of escape from personal suffering, of the welfare of society.

Christian ethics, that system of which we become conscious by a religious conception of life, demand not only the sacrifice of personality to society, but of one’s own person and any aggregation of persons to the service of God. Whereas heathen philosophy, investigating the means by which the welfare of the individual or of an association of individuals may be achieved, inevitably contradicts the Christian ideal. Heathen philosophy has but one method for concealing this discrepancy: it heaps up abstract conditional ideas, one upon the other, and refuses to emerge from the misty region of metaphysics. Chiefly after this manner was the behavior of the philosophers of the Renaissance, and to this circumstance namely, the impossibility of reconciling the demands of Christian morality already recognized as existing, with philosophy upon a heathen basis one must attribute that dreary abstraction, incomprehensibility, estrangement from life, and want of charity of the new philosophy. With the exception of Spinoza, whose philosophy proceeded from a religious and truly Christian basis, although he is not commonly reckoned a Christian, and of Kant, a

Immanuel Kant

gifted genius who resolutely conducted his ethics independently of his metaphysics; with these two exceptions, every other philosopher, even the brilliant Schopenhauer, manifestly devised artificial connections between their ethics and their metaphysics.

One feels that the system of Christian ethics has an original and firmly established standpoint independent of philosophy, and needing not at all the fictitious props placed beneath it, and that philosophy invents such statements not only to avoid an appearance of contradiction, but apparently to involve a natural connection and outcome.

But all these statements seem to justify Christian ethics only while they are considered in the abstract. The moment they are fitted to questions of practical existence, then not only does their disagreement become visible in all its force, but the contradiction between the philosophical basis and that which we regard as morality is made manifest. The unhappy Nietzsche, who has lately become so celebrated, is especially noticeable as an example of this contradiction. He is irrefutable when he says that all rules of morality, from the standpoint of the existent non-Christian philosophy, are nothing but falsehood and hypocrisy, and that it is much more advantageous, pleasant, and reasonable for a man to be a member of

Friedrich Nietzsche

the society of Uebermenschen, than to be one of a crowd which must serve as a scaffold for that society. No combinations of a philosophy which proceeds from the heathen-religious conception of life can prove to a man that it will be more advantageous and more reasonable for him to live, not for his own desired, attainable, and conceivable welfare, or for the welfare of his family and society, but for another’s welfare, which, as far as he is concerned, may be undesirable, inconceivable, and unattainable by insufficient human means. That philosophy which is founded on man’s welfare as the ideal of existence can never prove to reasoning beings, with the ever-present consciousness of death, that it is fitting for him to renounce his own desirable, conceivable, and certain welfare, not for the certain welfare of others for he can never know the results of his sacrifice but merely because it is right that he should do so; that it is the categorical imperative.

It is impossible to prove this from the heathen-philosophical standpoint. In order to prove that men are all equal, that it is better for a man to sacrifice his own life in the service of others, than to make his fellows serve him, trampling upon their lives, it is necessary for a man to determine his relation to the universe in some other way; it must be shown that the position of a man is such that he is left no other course, because the meaning of his life is to be found only in the accomplishment of the will of Him that sent him, and that the will of Him that sent him is that he should give his life to the service of mankind. And such a modification in man’s perception of his relation to the universe is wrought only by religion.

So, too, is it with the attempt to deduce Christian morality from, and to harmonize it with, the fundamental propositions of heathen science. No sophisms or mental subterfuges will destroy the simple and clear proposition, that the law of evolution, laid as the basis of all the science of our time, is founded upon a general, unchangeable, and eternal law, that of the struggle for existence, and of the survival of the ” fit-test,” – and that, therefore, every man, for the attainment of his own welfare, or of that of his society, must be this fittest, or make his society the fittest in order that neither he nor his society should perish, but an- other less fit. However much some naturalists, alarmed by the logical inferences of this law, and by its adaptation to human existence, may strive to extinguish it with words and talk it down, its irrefutability becomes only the more manifest by their efforts, and its control over the life of the entire organic world, and hence over that of man, regarded as an animal.

While I am writing this, the Russian translation of an article by Professor Huxley has been published, consisting of an address which he delivered not long ago before a certain English society on evolution and ethics.

In this article the learned professor as did some years ago, too, our eminent Professor Beketof as unsuccessfully as his predecessors tries to prove that the struggle for existence does not violate morality, and that, alongside the acceptance of the law of this struggle for existence, as the fundamental law of life, morality may not only exist, but may improve. Mr. Huxley’s article is full of all kinds of jokes, verses, and general views upon the religion and philosophy of the ancients, and therefore is so shock-headed and entangled that only with great pains can one arrive at the fundamental idea.

This, however, is as follows: The law of evolution is contrary to the law of morality ; this was known to the ancient world of Greece and India. And the philosophy and religion of both nations led them to the teaching of self-abnegation. This teaching, according to the author’s opinion, is not correct; but the right one is the following : a law exists, termed by the author “the cosmic law,” according to which all creatures struggle amongst themselves, and only the fittest survives. Man is subordinate to this law, and, thanks to it, has become what he now is. But this law is contrary to morality. How, then, are we to reconcile morality with this law? Thus: Social progress exists which tends to suspend the cosmic process, and to replace it by another an ethical one, the object of which is

Thomas Huxley

no longer the survival of the ” fittest,” but of the best” in the ethical sense.

Whence this ethical process came Mr. Huxley does not explain, but in Note 19 he says that the basis of this process consists in the fact that men, as well as animals, prefer, on the one hand, to live in a society, and there- fore smother within themselves such propensities as are pernicious to societies, and, on the other hand, the members of societies crush by force such actions as are prejudicial to the welfare of the society. Mr. Huxley thinks that this process, which compels men to control their passions for the preservation of that association to which they belong, and the fear of punishment should they break the rules of that association, compose that very ethical law the existence of which it behooves him to prove.

It evidently appears to Mr. Huxley, in the innocence of his mind, that in English society of our time, with its Irish destitution, its insane luxury of the rich, its trade in opium and spirits, its executions, its sanguinary wars, its extermination of entire nations for the sake of commerce and policy, its secret vice and hypocrisy it appears to him that a man who does not overstep police regulations is a moral man, and that such a man is guided by an ethical process. Mr. Huxley seems to forget that those personal qualities which may be needful to prevent the destruction of that society in which its member lives, may be of service to the society itself : and that the personal qualities of the members of a band of brigands are also useful to the band; as, also, in our society, we find a use for hang- men, jailers, judges, soldiers, false-pastors, etc., but that the qualities of these men have nothing in common with morality.

Morality is an affair of constant development and growth, and hence the preservation of the instituted orders of a certain society, by means of the rope and scaffold, to which as instruments of morality Mr. Huxley alludes, will be not only not the confirmation, but the infraction of morality. And on the contrary, every infringement of existing canons, such as was the violation by Christ and His disciples of the ordinances of a Roman province, such as would be the defiance of existing regulations by a man who refuses to take part in judgments at law, military service, and payment of taxes to be used for military preparations, will be not only not contrary to morality, but the indispensable condition of its manifestation. Every cannibal who ceases to eat his own kind acts in the same manner and transgresses the ordinances of his society. Hence, though actions which infringe the regulations of society may be immoral, without doubt, also, every truly moral action which advances the cause of morality is always achieved by transgressing some ordinance of society.

And, therefore, if there has ever appeared in a society a law which demands the sacrifice of personal advantage to preserve the unity of the whole social fabric, that law is not an ethical statute, but for the most part, on the contrary (being opposed to all ethics), is that same law of struggle for existence in a latent and concealed form. It is the same struggle, but transferred from units to their agglomerations. It is not the cessation of strife, but the swinging backward of the arm to hit the harder.

If the law of the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest is the eternal law of all life (and one must perforce regard it as such with reference to man considered as an animal), then such misty arguments as to social progress and an ethical law supposed to proceed from it, like a deus ex machina, coming none knows whence, to assist us in our need cannot break that law down.

If social progress, as Mr. Huxley assures us, collects men into groups, then the same struggle and the same survival will exist between families, races, and states, and this struggle will be, not only not more moral, but more cruel and immoral than that between individuals, as, indeed, we find it in reality.

Even if we admit the impossible that all humanity, solely by social progress, will in a thousand years achieve a single unity and will constitute one state and nation, even then, not to mention that the struggle sup- pressed between states and nations will be altered to one between humanity and the animal world, and that that struggle will always remain a struggle, that is, an activity absolutely excluding the possibility of Christian morality as professed by us, not to speak of this, even then the struggle between the individuals which compose this unity, and between the associations of families, races, nationalities will not in the least be diminished, but will continue the same, only in another form, as we may observe in all associations of men in families, races, and states. Those of one family quarrel and fight among themselves, just as strangers do and often even more cruelly. So also in a state, the same struggle continues between those within it, as between them and those without, only in other forms. In one case men kill one another with arrows and knives, in another by starvation. And if the feeblest are sometimes preserved in the family or state, it is in no wise thanks to the state association, but because self-abnegation and tenderness exist among people joined in families and states.

If, of two orphan children, only the fittest survives, whereas both might live with the help of a good mother, this fact will not be in consequence of family unification, but because a certain mother is gifted with tenderness and self-denial. And neither of these gifts can proceed from social progress. To assert that social progress produces morality is equivalent to saying that the erection of stoves produces heat. Heat proceeds from the sun; and stoves produce heat only when fuel the work of the sun is kindled in them; so morality proceeds from religion, and social forms of life produce morality only when into these forms are put the results of religious influence on humanity that is, morality. Stoves may be kindled, and so may impart heat, or may be left fireless and so remain cold.

So, too, social forms may include morality, and in that case morally influence society, or may not include morality, and thus remain without influence. Christian morality cannot be founded on the heathen or social conception of life, nor can it be deduced either from non-Christian philosophy or science cannot only not be deduced, but cannot be reconciled with them. So has it always been understood by every serious, consistent philosophy and science.

“Do our propositions disagree with morality? Well, then, so much the worse for morality,” said such a philosophy and science with perfect correctness, and continued their investigations.

Ethical treatises, not founded on religion, and even lay catechisms, are written and used, and men may believe that humanity is guided by them; but it only seems to be so, because people in reality are guided, not by these treatises and catechisms, but by the religion which they have always had and have; whereas the treatises and catechisms are only counterfeits, bearing the seal of religion.

Ordinances of lay morality not founded upon religious teaching are similar to the actions of a man who, being ignorant of music, should take the conductor’s seat before the orchestra, and begin to wave his arms before the musicians who are performing. The music might continue a little while by its own momentum, and from the previous knowledge of the players; but it is evident that the mere waving of a stick by a man who is ignorant of music would be not only useless, but would inevitably confuse the musicians and in the end disorganize the orchestra. The same disorder is beginning to take place in the minds of the men of our time, in consequence of the attempts of leading men to teach people morality, not founded on that loftiest religion which is in process of adoption, and is in part adopted by Christian humanity. It would be, indeed, desirable to have a moral teaching unmixed with superstition, but the fact is that moral teaching is only the result of a certain perceived relation of man to the universe, or to God. If the perception of such a relation is expressed in forms which seem to us superstitious, then, in order to prevent this, we should try to express this relation more clearly, reasonably, and accurately, and even to destroy the former perception of man’s relationship which has become insufficient, and to put in its place one loftier, clearer, and more reasonable; but by no means to invent a so-called lay, irreligious morality, founded on sophisms or upon nothing at all.

The attempts to inculcate morality independent of religion are like the actions of children when, wishing to move a plant which pleases them, they tear off the root which does not please, and seems unnecessary to them, and plant it in the earth without the root. Without a religious foundation there can be no true, sincere morality, as without a root there can be no true plant.

Thus, in reply to your two questions, I say religion is the conception by man of his relationship to the infinite universe, or to its source. And morality is the everpresent guide of life proceeding only from this relationship.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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