Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu, which I read again this week, is a homily on the Perennial Philosophy. For Tolstoy, the Law of Love is the point of living. The old saint of nineteenth century Russia struggled with learning how to live. There are people in every age who struggle with a moral crisis in their lives. Some of them find answers. Tolstoy argued that among those who did were the founders of the Great Religions. And the conclusion shared by most is the Law of Love
The Law of Love and Virtue
Thoreau said that only a few people are ever truly virtuous. But the majority will honor virtue. Shaw claimed in Saint Joan that sometimes, long after the virtuous person dies, people will honor the virtuous. What amazes me is how that is done so unconsciously. Martin Luther King is honored for his approach to social change by means of nonviolence. He borrowed the concept of “Soul Force” from Gandhi who reprinted Tolstoy’s letter in his own journal. Gandhi also read Thoreau.
Why the Law of Love? Tolstoy contrasted the results of Love with the Law of Violence. The latter never truly corrects an evil. If anything it compounds the evil. Yet, a nonviolent approach takes too long for some people. It is true to claim “justice delayed is justice denied.” The lex talonis laws, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and life for a life,” are meant to restrain the temptation to commit violence in the name of immediate justice. Is it right to take a life for an injury? What if there is a history of injuries? Is it justifiable to take another person’s life to make up for accumulated losses?
Ultimately, there is no virtue in the Law of Violence. Many of us understand this to be true, intellectually. But we are afraid of the struggle and the suffering that following the Law of Love could exact. That fear requires more courage than many people possess.
The Courage Required
Tolstoy used the phrase “nonresistance to evil.” It can be confusing for twenty-first century English speakers. The nearly medieval upbringing of the Russian nobility included some archaic ideas regarding honor and, well, nobility. The Count understood the world from this point of view until he realized how unjust his position was in relation to the serfs and peasant classes.
Tolstoy intended to free the serfs on his estate but could not accomplish it until the law freeing them was passed. It is similar to Jefferson’s desire to free his slaves. He lacked the moral courage to make the other commitments required to do it. Tolstoy developed the understanding of ancient wisdom such as Ecclesiastes “whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might” or St. Paul’s counsel “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.” (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:10 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11)
The Law of Love is about intention. But it is more about learning how to practice it. What are the limits imposed by circumstances? What are the limits of one’s abilities? These questions should be answered before asking what people living the Law of Love should impose on themselves.
Learning The Law of Love
The key to teaching the Law of Love is to teach self-confidence. This is different from teaching self-reliance even though there are apparent connections. Teaching a person to be self-reliant implies shame for failure. Teaching a person self-confidence means that person can ask for assistance without feeling like a failure.
When people learn to trust themselves and others, moral development is possible, Cesar Chavez’s motto, “yes, we can,” sums up the ability. Can we learn this? Of course, we have known it in the past and know people who know it now.
Here is where the ideas of self-reliance and self-confidence reflect one another. People must learn to live. Our present society teaches people to exist. Very few learn to live. Learning to care for self and others is learning to live. Nothing in this is about self-reliance or (God help us) self-actualization. Can people use tools for whatever task is available? There was once a belief that tool usage defined human beings. We now know that is not true. But still it is a part of being human. We can learn and teach others. People can be helpful to one another. This is what it means to live. The Law of Love motivates us into living with others.