Chesterton on Tolstoy

This emergence of Tolstoy, with his awful and simple ethics, is important in more ways than one. Among other things it is a very interesting commentary on an attitude which has been taken up for the matter of half a century by all the avowed opponents of religion. The secularist and the sceptic have denounced Christianity first and foremost, because of its encouragement of fanaticism; because religious excitement led men to burn their neighbours and to dance naked down the street. How queer it all sounds now. Religion can be swept out of the matter altogether, and still there are philosophical and ethical theories which can produce fanaticism enough to fill the world. Fanaticism has nothing at all to do with religion. There are grave scientific theories which, if carried out logically, would result in the same fires in the market-place and the same nakedness in the street. There are modern esthetes who would expose themselves like the Adamites if they could do it in elegant attitudes. There are modern scientific moralists who would burn their opponents alive, and would be quite contented if they were burnt by some new chemical process. And if any one doubts this proposition--that fanaticism has nothing to do with religion, but has only to do with human nature--let him take this case of Tolstoy and the Doukhabors. A sect of men start with no theology at all, but with the simple doctrine that we ought to love our neighbour and use no force against him, and they end in thinking it wicked to carry a leather handbag, or to ride in a cart. A great modern writer who erases theology altogether, denies the validity of the Scriptures and the Churches alike, forms a purely ethical theory that love should be the instrument of reform, and ends by maintaining that we have no right to strike a man if he is torturing a child before our eyes. He goes on, he develops a theory of the mind and the emotions, which might be held by the most rigid atheist, and he ends by maintaining that the sexual relation out of which all humanity has come, is not only not moral, but is positively not natural. This is fanaticism as it has been and as it will always be. Destroy the last copy of he Bible, and persecution and insane orgies will be founded on Mr. Herbert Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy." Some of the broadest thinkers of the Middle Ages believed in faggots, and some of the broadest thinkers in the nineteenth century believe in dynamite.

The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisrn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism-the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.