Leo Tolstoy and Wendell Berry: Pacifists and Critics of Modern Life

tolstoy-farming-350For earlier writings on Tolstoy or Berry, see here.

Although living a century apart in two different countries, Russia’s Leo Tolstoy and Kentucky farmer/writer Wendell Berry have much in common. Tolstoy’s large estate at Yasnaya Polyana was the center of his existence, just as Berry’s Land’s Landing farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, has been for him. Their works, both fiction and non-fiction, emphasize the importance of the land, nature, love, community, and peace. Alike too is their emphasis on the family and respect for commoners and traditional rural values. Their attitude toward religion is also similar, reflecting a strong admiration of Jesus Christ, tolerance of other religious approaches, and criticism of much of the past behavior of organized religions, partly for their justifications of serfdom or slavery. Perhaps most importantly, both their fiction and non-fiction is full of criticism, implicitly or explicitly, of modern industrial life and modern ideas of progress.

Such criticism seems old-fogyish to some, but today’s threats of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, global warming, and other environmental catastrophes suggest that we should not be so sanguine about modern technological “progress.” Perhaps there is much to be said for many traditional values. Perhaps the usual linking of progress with new technological developments has been a mistake. Perhaps it would be more progressive to ask if the quality of our lives, our common good, has gotten better.

Berry’s affinity with Tolstoy is clearly indicated in about a half dozen pages that come near the end of his late 1960s book on racism, The Hidden Wound. In these pages, Berry discusses two of Tolstoy’s characters who most reflect his (Tolstoy’s) own thinking in his two great novels, Pierre in War and Peace and Levin in Anna Karenina. He treats Tolstoy’s two fictional characters as examples of upper-class men who learned much from peasants, just as Berry believes upper-class whites can learn much from blacks and some white farmers.

While a prisoner taken after the French captured Moscow in 1812, Pierre meets another prisoner who is a wise peasant soldier named Platon Karataev. Berry writes that he “is simple and saintly, wise not in his own intelligence but in the intelligence of the peasant culture that he inherits. He is enduring, adequate to the demands of the worst that can happen to him. He is yet another master of the customs of necessity, the minute strategies of endurance and joy.” About Platon, he quotes Tolstoy (Berry uses the Maude translation):

He could do everything, not very well but not badly. He baked, cooked, sewed, planed, and mended boots. He was always busy, and only at night allowed himself conversation—of which he was fond—and songs. He did not sing like a trained singer who knows he is listened to, but like the birds, evidently giving vent to the sounds in the same way that one stretches oneself or walks about to get rid of stiffness. . . .

Karataev had no attachments, friendships, or loves, as Pierre understood them, but loved and lived affectionately with everything life brought him in contact with, particularly with man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and Pierre who was his neighbor, but Pierre felt that in spite of Karataev’s affectionate tenderness for him (by which he unconsciously gave Pierre’s spiritual life its due) he would not have grieved for a moment at parting from him. And Pierre began to feel in the same way toward Karataev.

Berry then adds, “Until he has made spiritual contact with the wisdom of his homeland and its indigenous people, the peasants, all of Pierre’s European learning is for nothing.”

In a dream, Pierre then comes to realize the truth of Karataev’s vision about the oneness of being.

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings, in innocent sufferings.

In 1895, Tolstoy wrote in his journal: “Life is the enlargement of love, the widening of its borders, and this widening is going on in various lives. In the present life, this widening appears to me in the form of love. This widening is necessary for my inner life and it is also necessary for the life of this world.”

In that same decade, he stated: “All progress in human life . . . has consisted only in men and other living beings, previously divided from and hostile to one another, becoming more and more united and bound together. . . . Tradition shows him that all the wise men of the world have taught that mankind must pass from separation to union.”

Berry’s feelings about the interconnectedness of all and the centrality of love are similar. In his short novel Remembering he describes a “mysterious pattern of . . . harmony. From every tree and leaf, grass blade, stone, bird, and beast, it is answered and again answers. The creatures sing back their names. . . . They sing their being. The world sings. The sky sings back. It is one song, the song of the many members of one love, the whole song sung and to be sung, resounding, in each of its moments. And it is light.”

In another novel, Jayber Crow, in a chapter entitled “The Way of Love,” Jayber thinks: “Young lovers see a vision of the world redeemed by love. That is the truest thing they ever see, for without it life is death.” Another of his characters who stresses love is Hannah in Hannah Coulter. She believes that “love is what carries you, for it is always there. . . . [It] is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts.”

In The Hidden Wound Berry points to what the nobleman Levin in Anna Karenina learns when he goes out to work with peasants. Berry writes, “From the old peasant’s mind Levin gets a sense of the intricacy and beauty of the life of the meadow”:

The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments [Berry uses the Garnett translation].

berry plowingTolstoy and Berry both enjoyed mowing with a scythe, and Berry once wrote about it in an essay entitled A Good Scythe.

The stress that both writers placed on love and the unity of all being fits in well with their criticism of men killing one another. In 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Tolstoy wrote a letter to the new tsar, Alexander III, asking him to pardon his father’s assassins. Tolstoy was then in the midst of translating and unifying the four Gospels into one chronological account; and he had concluded that one of themes was “Resist not him that is evil.” Thus, he advised the new tsar: “Love your enemies. . . .Resist not evil. . . . This and only this needs to be done; this is the will of God. . . . Give them [the assassins] money and send them away somewhere . . . and write a manifesto starting with the words: ‘but I say to you, love your enemies.’. . . from these words, like a flood, goodness and love would pour forth over Russia.”

For the next three decades, Tolstoy was probably the most famous pacifist in the world. He frequently wrote against killing and wars. In 1900, for example, after the assassination of Italy’s King Humbert, he wrote an essay, Thou Shalt Not Kill,” in which he criticized such killings, but even more he faulted monarchs for being responsible for far more “murders” in various wars and executions.

Tolstoy’s influence on future pacifists like America’s Jane Addams and India’s Mohandas Gandhi was great. She once visited him at his Yasnaya Polyana estate, and Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy and considered himself as a “humble follower” of the Russian writer.

Like Tolstoy, Berry also emphasized the pacifistic message of the Gospels. His “The Burden of the Gospels” is an introductory essay in his book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ’s Teachings About Love, Compassion and Forgiveness (2005), which consists mainly of excerpts relating to peace from the writers of the four gospels. Berry asserts “that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships that are acceptable to God.” And he writes that the gospel “passages gathered here deny the acceptability of the usual justifications for violence, official or otherwise.”

Since I have already written two essays on Berry’s pacifism (see here and here), only a few words of his about capital punishment are needed here. In his 1999 essay “The Failure of War” he avers that

capital punishment sinks us all to the same level of primal belligerence. . . . Violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in “justice” or in affirmation of “rights” or in defense of “peace” do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation. . . . The most dangerous superstition of the parties of violence is the idea that sanctioned violence can prevent or control unsanctioned violence. But if violence is “just” in one instance as determined by the state, why might it not also be “just” in another instance, as determined by an individual? How can a society that justifies capital punishment and warfare prevent its justifications from being extended to assassination and terrorism?

Both Tolstoy and Berry believed that the Industrial Revolution begun in England in the 18th century had increased people’s ability to kill larger numbers of their fellow human beings. And they both bemoaned many of the consequences of industrialization, including the urbanization that sucked people out of the countryside and left peasants or small farmers worse off.

Tolstoy’s description of his hero Levin in Anna Karenina (Maude translation) could almost have been a description of Berry a century later.

They had just come back from Moscow . . . . He was sitting at the writing table in his study, writing.  She [his wife, Kitty] . . . was sitting on the sofa . . . which had always stood in the study in Levin’s father’s and grandfather’s days. . . .

His work, both on the land and on the book, in which the principles of the new land system were to be laid down, had not been abandoned. . . . Taking up his manuscript. . . . he was writing now a new chapter on the causes of the present disastrous condition of agriculture. . . . facilities of communication, as railways, leading to centralization in towns, the development of luxury, and the consequent development of manufactures, credit and its accompaniment of speculation— all to the detriment of agriculture. It seemed to him that in a normal development of wealth in a state all these phenomena would arise only when a considerable amount of labor had been put into agriculture, when it had come under regular, or at least definite, conditions. . . . In the general development of wealth in Russia, credit, facilities of communication, manufacturing activity . . . . had with us only done harm, by throwing into the background the chief question calling for settlement— the question of the organization of agriculture.

For Moscow, substitute New York; for Russia, the United States; and you almost describe Berry’s activities after he left a teaching position at New York University in 1964 and he and his wife returned to his home state of Kentucky and the next year bought a farm. It was in the same Port Royal area where his father, grandparents, and earlier ancestors had lived.  Although he wrote much fiction and non-fiction (as well as poetry) in the decades which followed, the poor condition of U.S. agriculture, with agribusinesses, urban sprawl, and government policies hurting small farmers, remained a main focus.

Both Tolstoy and Berry connected the poor plight of peasants or small farmers with modern industrialization. And both men criticized consumer capitalism and mass urbanization.

Here is Tolstoy, writing in the first decade of the twentieth century:

As there is no end to the caprices of men when they are met not by their own labour but by that of others, industry is more and more diverted to the production of the most unnecessary, stupid, depraving products, and draws people more and more from reasonable work; and no end can be foreseen to these inventions and preparations for the amusement of idle people, especially as the stupider and more depraving an invention is—such as the use of motors in place of animals or of one’s own legs, railways to go up mountains, or armored automobiles armed with quick-firing guns—the more pleased and proud of them are both their inventors and their possessors. . . .

To produce all these objects, an ever-increasing number of working men are drawn away from agriculture, and have their capacities directed to the production of pleasing trifles used by the rich, or even to some extent by the workers themselves. So there springs up a class of town workers so situated as to be in complete dependence on the wealthy classes.

For Tolstoy the growth of cities and most consumer products were either regressive developments or not worth the cost of destroying forests and individuals’ sense of simplicity and moderation. He also bemoaned the setting up of “factories in towns for the production of chemical foods” and that “townsmen generally regard agriculture as one of the lowest occupations to which man can devote himself. Yet, the enormous majority of the population of the whole world are engaged in agriculture [still true in the early 20th century], and on it the possibility of existence for all the rest of the human race depends.” Although the percentage of the world’s farming population dropped greatly in the last century, Berry has made similar points about the importance of agriculture, the problems with “chemical foods,” and the low regard that many urbanites have for farmers.

Although perhaps not quite as radical as Tolstoy in his rejection of most modern technology, Berry still shuns much of it and is a scathing critic of the effects of industrialization and our consumer culture. He has expressed admiration for the Amish, who reject much of modern technology. His 1987 essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” caused a considerable stir. About him a 2005 article stated that “as a farmer, he has shunned the use of tractors and plowed his land with a team of horses.”

In the late 1960s he wrote that we should “learn to need less, to waste less, to make things last, to give up meaningless luxuries, to understand and resist the language of salesmen and public relations experts, to see through attractive packages, to refuse to purchase fashion or glamour or prestige. . . . to refuse meaningless pleasure and to resist meaningless work, and to give up the moral comfort and the excuses of the mentality of specialization.”

In a 1991 essay, he stated: “This society is making life extremely difficult for the unwealthy and the unpowerful: children, old people, women (especially wives and mothers), country people, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. . . . Our highways, shopping malls, nursing homes, and day-care centers are full; the homeless are everywhere in our streets; our homes are empty. . . . We are addicted to drugs, to TV, and to gasoline. Violence is literally everywhere.”

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he equated  “our present industrial system” with “pillage and indifference,” and “permanent ecological and cultural damage.” He added:

Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. . . . Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it . . . ever has given precedence to the common good. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it . . . can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils . . . whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle . . . thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

In addition to their criticism of industrialization’s consequences, they also found fault with most modern ideas of progress. But since I have touched on that topic previously, I’ll add no more here.

Nor will we explore in any detail their complex attitudes on politics and social issues like feminist rights. We shall only observe that in his final decades Tolstoy was a non-violent anarchist who thought existing centralized governments were unjust, helping the rich exploit the poor, and therefore should cease to exist; Berry, although also wary of centralized government power and critical of it when it sided with the rich, does believe that some of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies were needed and that “government exists to do for people what they can’t do for themselves.” In regard to sexuality, marriage, and the role of women, both men were traditionalists in many ways, opposing, for example, abortion, but yet empathetically creating great fictional female characters such as Anna Karenina and Hannah Coulter.

Besides the many similarities of Tolstoy and Berry, there are, of course, differences, both in their lives and thinking. In his late seventies now, Berry, for example, seems much happier in his marriage than Tolstoy was at a similar age. And Tolstoy became a vegetarian, while Berry has not. But for two individuals separated by a whole century and by two countries as different as Russia and the United States, there are an amazing number of likenesses. In 1968, during the height of the Cold War, Berry wrote a poem to another Russian, expressing his friendly feeling. In the spirit of this Kentucky writer who so greatly values imagination—“Only imagination . . . can give our home landscape and community a presence in our minds that is a story of vision at once geographical and historical, practical and protective, affectionate and hopeful”—I imagine Berry writing the words of his poem to a timeless Tolstoy, his fellow pacifist and social critic:

walter moss

Walter Moss

Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?


Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you, or visit in your house . . . .

And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
gladly talk and visit and work with me.

Walter G. Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on December 26, 2013
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm