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Special Corner - Richard Rowley Book review - The Law of Violence and the Law of Love by Leo Tolstoy January 16, 2010

A Review Article by Richard Rowley

"The Law of Violence and the Law of Love," By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Vladimir Tchertkoff. Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press. 1983. 87 pp.

Most of us who have lived through a large part of the 20th century, let alone the 21st, must by now be "weary of everything except to understand," as Virgil once wrote. The Ancient Wisdom, through whatever medium it comes down to us, is one means of directing us to the source of inner peace. Paramahansa Yogananda, a compatriot and friend of Mahatma Gandhi, in a speech delivered in California in 1938 not long before the Second World War, said:
      "We in India reverence Jesus and his teachings, perhaps more than you do. In order to love Christ, you must live what he taught, you must follow the example of his life. Jesus said: ‘...whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' India has practiced this teaching more than any other nation. Many who call themselves Christian do not ever apply it; they say that it is a beautiful philosophy, but if you were to slap them they would return twelve slaps, a kick and maybe a bullet! Anyone who so retaliates is not a true Christian, or lover of Christ, for that is not the spirit of the all-forgiving Jesus."
Thirty years earlier, Tolstoy had prophetically made the same statement a few years before the First World War in his "Law of Violence and the Law of Love," showing that the 20th century, with its proliferating technology, had the potential of becoming the most violent and destructive of all ages if the law of love did not quickly supercede the old law of violence. From a dualistic point of view, violence, which belongs to Satan, has been defeating God's law of love for centuries.
      Tolstoy's essay dealt primarily with the political, social and ecclesiastical situation in his own country in the midst of revolutionary upheavals which led to the triumph of Communism for 72 years. But it still rivets our attention as a discussion of the contemporary human condition. Together with his earlier treatise of 1893, "The Kingdom of God is Within You,' which is also worthy of a reprint, we have an indictment of western society which is nominally Christian but which in its judicial, economic, commercial, political and military affairs does not live up to Christ's original teachings, and which we might add, has until recently ignored the Ancient Wisdom from which much of the Christian teaching was drawn.
      For a church that for the most part has lost its direct contact with the world of spirit, and its original belief in karma and reincarnation, it cannot be easy to turn the other cheek, to become pacifist like the Quakers, for example, when one has to defend one's country against the evils of the Nazis and other hate groups, anarchists, terrorists and radical nationalists. To fight and sacrifice one's life in defense of one's family and country makes sense in any religious context. But to fight and compete for more for oneself rather than cooperate to survive is no longer defensible, especially when nuclear weapons and ecological disasters could wipe us all out.
      A survey of violent incidents on the North American domestic scene alone over recent years shows a horrific number of examples of human beings unable to live at peace amongst one another. Between this moment in time and that of Tolstoy's writing there have been two world wars, and several no less terrifying minor ones, costing the human race hundreds of millions of untimely deaths in willful killing. This is not to mention accidents, disease and other natural disasters which have been just as costly in terms of human life, and which metaphysicians believe to have also been caused by the violence of human thought.
Mahatma Gandhi lived up to non-violent ideals, yet none the less in India and Pakistan, there have been massacres, injustices, cruelties, and death by starvation and disaster of millions of his own countrymen. Also, in his own family, as in Tolstoy's violence was done in imposing ideals and lifestyles and spiritual practices not generally in vogue.
      Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi in 1910, the year of his death; and the letter is included in this volume. Gandhi was no doubt influenced by Tolstoy's writing, and the strength of his conviction on non-violence and the discipline over his self was his source of power in influencing the Indian nation in its struggle for independence.
      However, one man cannot change the world overnight. Neither Christ nor Gandhi could put all to right within one human lifetime. They belong to a line of saviors or witnesses that includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Buddha, Pythagoras, Krishna, Muhammad, Luther King and Mother Teresa, who walk the path of love. With such love in our hearts we could not go to the emerging nations to exploit, dominate or enslave for profit, nor supply them with weapons of destruction, or bomb them mercilessly, as occurred for example in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. One would have thought that the mass bombings on both sides in World War Two had taught humanity a lesson.
      The opposite of the violent and destructive military way of dealing with aggression is to go to the emerging nations to listen, to help, to respect and also to accept what can be given to us in return. This kind of sharing is the basis of Love. This is the divine universal law of Love and not the law of Violence of one faction against the other. This is the true LAW, just, eternal and harmonious, the Law of Love, and it is vital for all of us to observe it.
      Living in the material world and yet trying to observe the Law of Love is a hard task. Jesus, through his own life, demonstrated how it could be done. He was not a priest. He had no church. He taught the Ancient Wisdom of his country and of the East, and he lived and realized it. Basically, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and "As you sow, so shall you reap."
      Tolstoy is arguing in his treatise that very few people have followed this advice - particularly the Christian church, which after organizing itself along Christ's teachings, within a few hundred years had distorted and cut out some of the original ideas for political reasons, using the doctrines to justify "defending the faith" and then crusading against infidels and heretics, such as the Cathars, who were non-violent healers as Christ had been. The Christians, however, are not the only people to distort their leader's teachings: Muslim extremists are not following their Prophet's original teachings; and how many different Buddhist sects are there?
      In a world of missiles, guns, bombs, land mines, reprisals and genocidal competition, not to mention violent sports and entertainment, how would Christ start to bring love and non-violence back into realistic focus, if he were alive today? To live in the contemporary world and remain without the conscience of a Mother Teresa would be a sign of supreme indifference. Life is not worth living if it is at the expense of others. The law of the jungle has been with us since "the Fall", but at no time is it so clear than today, when life is on the brink of extinction. "The Law of Violence and the Law of Love" is relevant to our world situation today. It is pessimistically prophetic of all that has happened in the 20th century and the 21st century so far.
Yet, to quote Paul Brunton, "All that is evil and bestial in man will slowly be burnt out, whereas all that is benign and angelic will slowly be developed...only the worst in his nature shall die, as it ought to die." The 20th century has seen the worst, but glimpses of enlightenment are breaking through these clouds, showing that the Law of Love must indeed be practiced if this planet is to survive. Humanity has traveled a long way since 1908, and suffered much. We have far to go. However, in his last message to us, Tolstoy set us on the right path:
      "Only understand who you are, and how insignificant, on the one hand, is that which you mistakenly call "yourself" (believing your body to be yourself) and, on the other hand, how boundlessly great is that which you recognize as your real self - your spiritual being! Only understand this, and begin, each hour of your life, to live not for external aims, but for the fulfillment of that real calling of your life, revealed to you both by the wisdom of the whole world, by Christ's teaching, and by your own consciousness. Begin to live, seeing the aim and welfare of your life in the dail greater and greater liberation of your soul from the deceptions of the flesh, and (which is essentially one and the same thing) the ever-increasing perfection of yourself in love ... Remember that what is here offered you is not invented by me, but is the fruit of the spiritual efforts of all the highest and best minds and hearts of humanity, and that in this alone lies the sole means of deliverance from your misery, and of gaining the highest good within the reach of men in this life.
      "This is what I wish to say to my brother men, before I die."