University Essays: Lesson 12, Reading 3
by Leo Tolstoy
This letter by Leo Tolstoy dramatizes the frequent fact that what is past is prologue. Written in 1899 to a desperate young candidate for conscription, Tolstoy’s words will seem to some to bear a relevance to America.
Count Tolstoy’s letter was addressed to a young Hessian, named Ernst Schramm, whose earlier correspondence with the great writer has been lost; Schramm evidently wrote a second time in an effort to evade Tolstoy’s argument that he refuse conscription. The letter printed here is Tolstoy’s response to Shramm’s second letter, and it seems to have terminated the exchange. In reading Tolstoy’s words against killing, one should bear in mind that both parties understood that the Hessian army in 1899 was a peacetime army, but that the penalty for evading conscription was death. Tolstoy addressed the letter to Schramm in Darmstadt, and the Hessian post office forwarded it to Aschaffenburg in Bavaria, leaving us to infer that Schramm decided not to join up but to change countries instead.
In my last letter, I answered your question as well as I could. It is not only Christians but all just people who must refuse to become soldiers — that is, to be ready on another’s command (for this is what a soldier’s duty actually consists of) to kill all those one is ordered to kill. The question as you state it — which is more useful, to become a good teacher or to suffer for rejecting conscription? — is falsely stated. The question is falsely stated because it is wrong for us to determine our actions according to their results,
to view actions merely as useful or destructive. In the choice of our actions, we can be led by their advantages or disadvantages only when the actions themselves are not opposed to the demands of morality.
We can stay home, go abroad or concern ourselves with farming or science according to what we find useful for ourselves or others; for neither in domestic life, foreign travel, farming nor science is there anything immoral. But under no circumstance can we inflict violence on people, torture, or kill them because we think such acts could be of use to us or to others. We cannot and may not do such things, especially because we can never be sure of the results of our actions. Often, actions which seem the most advantageous of all, turn out in fact to be destructive; and the reverse is also true.
The question should not be stated: Which is more useful, to be a good teacher or to go to jail for refusing conscription? But rather: What should a man do who has been called
upon for military service — that is, called upon to kill or to prepare himself to kill? And to this question, for a person who understands the true meaning of military service
and who wants to be moral, there is only one clear and incontrovertible answer: such a person must refuse to take part in military service no matter what consequences this refusal may have. It may seem to us that this refusal could be futile or even harmful, and that it would be a far more useful thing, after serving one’s time, to become a good village teacher. But, in the same way, Christ could have judged it more useful for himself to be a good carpenter and submit to all the principles of the Pharisees than to die in obscurity as he did, repudiated and forgotten by everyone.
Moral acts are distinguished from all other acts by the fact that they operate independently of any predictable advantage to ourselves or to others. No matter how dangerous the situation may be of a man who finds himself in the power of robbers who demand that he take part in plundering, murder, and rape, a moral person cannot take part. Is not military service the same thing? Is one not required to agree to the deaths of all those one is commanded to kill?
But how can one refuse to do what everyone does, what everyone finds unavoidable and necessary? Or must one do what no one does and what everyone considers unnecessary or even stupid and bad? No matter how strange it sounds, this strange argument is the main one offered against those moral acts which in our times face you and every other person called up for military service. But this argument is even more incorrect than the one which would make a moral action dependent upon considerations of advantage.
If I, finding myself in a crowd of running people, run with the crowd without knowing where, it is obvious that I have given myself up to mass hysteria; but if by chance I should push my way to the front, or be gifted with sharper sight than the others or receive information that this crowd was racing to attack human beings and toward its own corruption, would I really not stop and tell the people what might rescue them? Would I go on running and do these things which I knew to be bad and corrupt? This
is the situation of every individual called up for military service, if he knows what military service means.
I can well understand that you, a young man full of life, loving and loved by your mother, friends, perhaps a young woman, think with a natural terror about what awaits you if you refuse conscription; and perhaps you will not feel strong enough to bear the consequences of refusal, and knowing your weakness, will submit and become a soldier. I understand completely, and I do not for a moment allow myself to blame you, knowing very well that in your place I might perhaps do the same thing. Only do not say
that you did it because it was useful or because everyone does it. If you did it, know that you did wrong.
In every person’s life there are moments in which he can know himself, tell himself who he is, whether he is a man who values his human dignity above his life, or a weak creature who does not know his dignity and is concerned merely with being useful (chiefly to himself). This is the situation of a man who goes out to defend his honor in a duel or a soldier who goes into battle (although here the concepts of life are wrong). It is the situation of a doctor or a priest called to someone sick with plague, of a man in a burning house or a sinking ship who must decide whether to let the weaker go first or shove them aside and save himself. It is the situation of a man in poverty who accepts or rejects a bribe. And in our times, it is the situation of a man called to military service. For a man who knows its significance, the call to the army is perhaps the only opportunity for him to behave as a morally free creature and fulfill the highest requirement of his life — or else merely to keep his advantage in sight, like an animal and thus remain slavishly submissive and servile until humanity becomes degraded and stupid.
For these reasons, I answered your question whether one has to refuse to do military service with a categorical “yes” — if you understand the meaning of military service (and
if YOU did not understand it then, you do now) and if you want to behave as a moral person living in our times must. Please excuse me if these words are harsh. The subject is so important that one cannot be careful enough in expressing oneself so as to avoid false interpretation.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372