“The Law of Violence and The Law of Love”

On T.V. news, we’ve been seeing marchers spouting hate in the U.S.    It’s beyond shocking.     But finding scapegoats is nothing new.

One of the world’s greatest writers, Leo Tolstoy, (1828-1910) known for his fiction, including War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, also wrote insightful and wise  non-fiction.


Leo Tolstoy – Getty image

An example of such wisdom are two of my favorite quotations from Tolstoy:

– Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
– If you want to be happy, be.
Tolstoy’s book The Law of Violence and The Law of Love offers us clarity of thought.  
Law of V and Law of L-1

Image from Barnes & Noble

The following excerpts from his book can apply to us today:

“The error at the root of all the political doctrines (the most Conservative, as well as the most advance) which has brought men [and women] to their present wretched condition, is always one and the same.  It is that people considered, and still consider, it possible so to unite men [and women] by force that they should all unresistingly submit to one and the same scheme of life, and to the guidance for conduct flowing therefrom.

It is intelligible that men, yielding to passion, may by force oblige others who do not agree with them, to do what they wish.  One can by force push a man out here and drag him in there, where he does not wish to go.   (Both animals and men, under the influence of passion, always behave in this way.) And this is comprehensible.  But what is not as all comprehensible, is the argument that violence can be a means of inducing people to behave as we want them to behave.

All violence consists in men [and women], by the threat of inflicting suffering or death coercing others to do what the coerced ones do not wish to do.  And therefore the victims do what they dislike doing, only so  long as they are weaker than their oppressors, and cannot avoid the evil which threatens them if they do not fulfill what is demanded of them.  As soon as they become stronger, they naturally not only leave off doing what they did not wish to do, but, irritated by the struggle with their oppressors and by all they have suffered at their hands, they, after freeing themselves from their oppressors, in their turn force those they disagree with, to do what they (the stronger) consider good and necessary for themselves.  So it seems clear that the struggle between oppressors and oppressed cannot possibly unite people, but on the contrary can only divide them the more the longer it lasts (16) . . .

The teaching of Christ in its true meaning consists in the acceptance of love as the supreme law of life, and therefore does not admit any exceptions.


Christianity (that is, the doctrine of the law of love) that permits occasional violence in obedience to other laws, is a contradiction in nature similar to cold fire or hot ice.

It seems evident that, if some men, for the sake of certain desirable results in the future, though they acknowledge the beneficence of love, may allow the necessity of tormenting or killing certain people, then, by just the same right, others, also acknowledging the beneficence of love, may allow the necessity (also for the sake of some future good) of tormenting and killing other people.   So that it seems evident that the admission of any kind of exception to the command to fulfill the law of love, destroys the whole meaning, the whole significance, the whole beneficence of that law, which lies at the root of every religious teaching and of all moral teaching.  This appears so evident that one is ashamed to argue it; but yet people of the Christian world, professed believers, as well as men calling themselves non-believers but yet acknowledging a moral law — regard the teaching of love, which rejects all violence (and especially the doctrine of not repaying evil by evil, which flows from that teaching) as something fantastical, impossible, and quite inapplicable to life.

It is understandable that those in power may say that without violence there can be no order or good life, meaning by the word “order’, a system under which the few can enjoy to excess the fruits of the labour of others, and meaning by the words ‘good life’, the non-interference with such a life.  However unjust what they say may be, it is comprehensible that they should talk like that, for the abolition of violence would not only deprive them of the possibility of living as they do, but would expose the whole long-standing injustice and cruelty of their life.

But at any rate one would think the working people do not need the violence they (strange to say) so carefully inflict on themselves, and from which they suffer so much. For the violence the rulers do to the subjected is not the direct, personal violence of strong men to weak men, or of the many to the few: of, say, a hundred towards a score, etc.  The violence of the rulers is upheld, as the violence of a minority towards the majority can only be upheld, by the fraud long ago devised by shrewd and cunning men, which causes people, for the sake of a small present and evident gain, to deprive themselves not only of the greatest advantages, but even to sacrifice their freedom and undergo most cruel sufferings (29-30) . . .

[N]ot only during the first three centuries of Christianity, during the time of persecution, but at first even after the triumph of Christianity over paganism, when Christianity was recognized as the dominant, State religion, the conviction still maintained itself among Christians that war is incompatible with Christianity.  Ferrucius expressed this definitely and decidedly, and was executed for so doing: ‘Christians are not allowed to shed blood, even in a just war and at the command of Christian Emperors.’  In the fourth century Lucifer, Bishop of Caliris, preached that even the blessing most precious to a Christian — his faith — must be defended, ‘not by killing others, but by one’s own death’.

Thus it was during the four first centuries of Christianity.  Under Constantine, however, the cross already appeared on the standards of the Roman legions.  . . .

From that time, during nearly fifteen centuries, the simple, indubitable and evident truth, that the profession of Christianity is incompatible with readiness to commit every kind of violence and even to kill at the will of other people, was hidden from men to such a degree — and to such a degree was real Christian feeling weakened–that from generation to generation, men, nominally professing Christianity, lived and died sanctioning murder, participating in it, committing it, and profiting by it”(41-42). . . .

The State law, in its demand of military service: that is, of readiness to slay at the will of others, cannot but be contrary to all religious-moral law, which is always founded on love to one’s neighbour, like all religious teachings, not only Christian, but also Mohammedan, Buddhist, Brahminist, and Confucian (45-46). . . .

Fifteen years before his The Law of Violence and The Law of Love, Tolstoy wrote, “A terrible weight of evil is hanging over the people of the earth, and presses upon them.  Those standing under this weight, and more and more crushed by it, seek ways to rid themselves of it.

“They know that with their united strength they could lift the weight and throw it off, but they cannot agree to undertake it all together, and each one stoops lower and lower, to let the weight rest on the shoulders of the others. So the weight presses down more and more, and would have long since crushed them, were it not for those who are guided in their actions not by considerations of the external results of their actions, but only by an inner accord between their conduct and the voice of conscience.  Such men [and women] have existed and still exist — Christians– for, in place of an eternal aim (for the attainment of which the consent of everybody is required), to set oneself an inward purpose (to attain which no one’s consent is needed) is the essence of true Christianity.  And therefore deliverance from the slavery in which people are living, impossible for ordinary people, has come, and is coming only through Christianity — only by exchanging the law of violence for the law of love. ”

To a Christian who has recognized the demands of the law of love, all the demands of the law of violence not only cease to be binding, but present themselves as human errors which must be exposed and abolished (50-52) . . .

. . .  we cannot help knowing and seeing that the people of the Christian world can no longer seriously play at conquests, at meetings between monarchs, at diplomatic cunning, at Constitutions, with their House of Parliament and Dumas, at being Socialist-Revolutionaries, at democratic or anarchist parties and at Revolutions; and above all, cannot do all these things basing them on violence (60). . . .

Human life as a whole moves, and cannot help moving, toward the eternal ideal of perfection, only by each separate individual advancing towards his own personal and equally unlimited perfection.

What a dreadful, pernicious superstition is that under the influence of which men — neglecting the inward work upon themselves, which is the only thing really needed for their own and society’s welfare, and also the one thing in which man was full power — direct all their strength towards arranging the life of others, which is beyond their power, and, for the attainment of this impossible aim, employ violent means, certainly evil and injurious to themselves and to others, and more surely than anything else removing them both from their personal and from the general perfection!” (65).

It’s love that will make the changes.  And it comes from within each of us.

Aloha, Renée

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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

2 responses to ““The Law of Violence and The Law of Love””

  1. Rosita says :

    awesome post! da terrorism in Barcelona made meh – and most of us, humans – upset. I wonder y would someone make war and terrorism instead of something constructive. I really wonder y do such stuff happens.. God is sad by witnessing wha’ we, humans, are doing with each other in dat frail planet we call home, y haven’t we learnt to love with animals. I wonder y do such evil stuff still happens, in XXI century. Don’t we all?
    Amo vocês,

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Rosita: I agree with you and most of what Tolstoy wrote. It may be the greed for power that lead governments into war. But killing others is not what our religions say to do. We do need to learn to love deeply – humans, even those who are different from us, and – our fragile Earth and all its beings. Aloha, Renée

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