Review of two books by William W C Scott © 29th September 2023
War and Peace, I first read when I was about 13 in three days and nights. I have read it again since several times. The best edition now is the Oxford. Get the hardback edited by Amy Mandelkar, a little known and probably very young American Associate Professor, for this edition is markedly different from the early one: Tolstoy had been changing it in very surprising ways, his right, as the author. This edition has the translation of all the French on the same page which occupies about 2% of the whole book. The editor would be carefully chosen: a very able scholar. But the book I am most interested in here is different: The Gospel in Brief by Tolstoy, his very short book about the Gospels, written by him because he believed that the Gospels (as provided, after years of interference by enthusiasts down the centuries that followed the crucifixion) had led to the presentation of religion and the church as very different from what Jesus wanted. What was it Jesus actually taught? Tolstoy asked himself. That is what Christianity is truly about, what matters most, not the rules, regulations, habits and customs acquired by the texts over centuries. Tolstoy thought that Paul had not understood the teachings of Jesus and thus every addition to the biblical record made after the death of Jesus was mistaken. Only the reports made by the apostles up to that time should count.
Tolstoy (born 1828) was taught in French, German and Russian at home, in Yasnaya Polyana, near Borodino, studied oriental languages and law at the University of Kazan, 1843-47, where he probably did not shine until he became an autodidact, developed by the effort of writing War and Peace. He would probably have been conversant in Latin and Greek. Turkish he found difficult in Kazan but almost certainly he would later teach himself Aramaic and Hebrew for he needed to work on the documents relating to the bible in earliest times. Of course he would have some knowledge of English from his aristocratic upbringing alone, his father being Count Tolstoy. He travelled widely as a young man while writing his first books. His work on the Gospels began in the 1880s and would have lasted years. At that time, the idea of the steady state theory had not materialised; not until the meeting at Hermann Bondi's flat in Trinity St. Cambridge between Bondi, Fred Hoyle and Samuel Gold c1947. This is probably the reason why Tolstoy never conceived, as a possibility, the idea that the universe could have any other source than God [no source at all, as the steady state men believed: the universe always existed, they believed]. In his little book on the Gospels, Tolstoy is 'aware' that Jesus is descended ultimately from the source of the universe, which he takes to be God, almost without examination.
The message of Jesus was simple: everyone should love everyone else. There was no room at all for traditions, rules and regulations or even buildings like churches and temples - these were all artificial things, added long after the period when Jesus lived. It was a mistake made in every country, in every age thereafter, to set anything above the aim of universal love. All the rules of religion - 'the legislation' - was added later and detracted from the core message. The very existence of a Roman Catholic Cathedral, with its walls of stained glass, gold leaf and sparkling cleanliness would have angered and revolted Jesus. That was Tolstoy's belief. That Jesus would tear down the temple, as he nearly did in life. Nothing for Jesus was above the performance of acts of goodness. Sabbath observance was a trifle in comparison, not worth discussion. Why should one cease to perform acts of goodness because it is the sabbath? These acts are what matter most.
Another book is of interest here: The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh, a biography of the lives of the family who lived in a palace in Vienna (where people like Brahms performed), since demolished, in what is now Argentinerstrasse, the home of Karl Wittgenstein, a brilliant Austrian industrialist, rival of Krupp, home to three girls and five boys, three of whom committed suicide. The youngest, Ludwig, was sent to England to learn aeronautics and left to read philosophy at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1914, he left to fight on the Austrian side against the British where, in the trenches on the Italian front, he completed his doctoral thesis: The Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Without an undergraduate degree, there was little chance of a doctorate. G.E. Moore (of Principia Ethica: which I read every night in three months: it made me a philosopher) said of it 'Since it is a work of genius, it deserves a degree from the University of Cambridge.' Ludwig, after a career as a primary school teacher in three villages in Austria (Trattenbach and Ottertal among them), became a professor of philosophy at Cambridge and published many books.
What Alexander Waugh tells us is that when young Ludwig proposed to a woman, asking her as he did so to agree to no sexual relations. She turned him down. His manner of life, as known, reveals what is probably a distaste for sex. He makes friends with a few young men, even invites them to join him occasionally, one at a time, in his bolthole in Norway but there is no sign of actual transgression. Waugh tells us that Ludwig had accepted Tolstoy's Gospels in brief and tried to follow the kind of life Tolstoy advocated. This is remarkable: that a genius of Wittgenstein's depth should be content to follow Tolstoy's view of religion.
As a professor, he exercised great influence: students would adopt the same mannerisms, clothes and spartan lifestyle. They tried to be like him; and yet he was not much liked, for he could easily respond explosively to innocent statements, as if a colossal blunder had been made: He was excessively sensitive to certain kinds of error; not as kindly as most of the fellows; a dominating figure, bristling with intensity and questioning intelligence. At a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club where Sir Karl Popper was lecturing, Wittgenstein seated beside the fireplace, poker in hand, asked for an example of a certain kind of sentence. Popper replied: 'Not to frighten visiting lecturers with pokers.' For sure, until then, Ludwig was unlikely to be challenged by anyone.
Ludwig gave away his inheritance to three of his siblings. Millions of Swiss francs are involved. His brother, Paul, (a one-handed concert pianist: an amputee in WWI) retired to New York with, in today's money, 9 million dollars.
Wittgenstein is thought by most philosophers to be about sixth in the pantheon beginning with Plato, then Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hume and then Wittgenstein. In WWII, he was employed on the British side as a technician in a hospital, devising original, useful equipment. He lived in Ireland for a time, writing On Certainty, his last book, and then went to the USA where he lived for a year or two, gave up eating, got cancer and died in a doctor's house in Cambridge in 1951, aged 61.
A full century has passed since Tolstoy wrote The Gospels in Brief, yet I have never read it or heard of it till now. It is important for the brilliant insight that The Gospels as we know them today (in the Oxford Bible, say) have been composed by the addition of many creations and inventions in the years since the death of Jesus (who was beset and ultimately put to death because of the actions of Caiaphas and others, who 'knew the rules' and saw that he was breaking them all (ie. Universal love was not the important thing to them, it was the legislation governing the Jews that mattered most.)
Believing that St Paul had not understood the teaching of Jesus, a source then of some of the accretions acquired over the centuries, Tolstoy spent years exercising his linguistic skills to reduce the Gospels to their original state as delivered by Jesus. In which case, the book ought to contain only the Gospels stripped bare of everything extraneous, with the addition of a few pages by St John the evangelist. However, there are other chapters by Tolstoy (twelve, not four). These convey the distinction between 'the flesh' and 'the spirit', the defining condition of admission to the Kingdom of God. The listeners, students, whoever, are required to give up all the 'legislation' added later, such as Sabbath observance, church meetings, (Jesus needed nothing but a mountain) or even prayer (God knows what you want: you don't have to ask), still less churches and cathedrals. The important sine qua non is 'the spirit': you have to live a life of the spirit. Only those who are successful will be in the Kingdom of God. Obeying the rules and customs of the church was not wanted by Jesus: acts of goodness, and universal love, these were the aim, the criterion for entry.
Therein lies the difficulty that mars the whole enterprise: You have to give away all your possessions, leave yourself without food, clothing, a home, a fire or the use of them for your dependents. Very few people would think that adequate, hearing it from Jesus on a cold mountainside, high up.
Another genius, of physics, was Freeman Dyson who spent most of fifty years at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton. His parents were both Christians. After Winchester, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, reading mathematics with Besicovitch, leaving without a Phd for Cornell. He followed his parents' way of life but without believing in the details of the Creed. Like Wittgenstein, who, in WWI received a chestful of medals for valour.
How important now is Tolstoy's version of the Gospels? That we might now know what Jesus' teaching was is excellent, yet it jars. Tolstoy in Ch 6 p63 says: 'And therefore, in order to receive true life, Man must renounce the false mortal life on earth and live by the spirit. On Earth As it is in Heaven… 'For the life of the spirit there can be no difference between family and strangers.' Jesus says that his mother and brothers mean nothing to him as family, but that only those who do the will of the common father are close to him…. Concerns about family and domestic duties cannot disturb the life of the spirit… p65 'if you wanted to fulfil the father's will, you would have no possessions…. People assume that without possessions it would be impossible to live; but I say to you that true life consists of giving what is yours to others.'
Wittgenstein did give away his riches because he felt corrupted by them. P66 line 3 'Jesus says Our whole life must be a sustained act of fulfilling the father's will.'
Ch 10 And therefore, in order to not fall into temptation, one should be united with the father every hour of one's life.
p125 Then Jesus said, 'To exult the son of man means to be as good as the father is, not merely to those that love us, but to all people, including those who do evil to us. Do as I have been doing and as you have just seen me do, I give you one commandment: love people. That is my whole teaching, always love people until the end.'
p149 'Whoever loves his mortal life will lose his true life, but whoever neglects his mortal life preserves it in eternal life. Whoever wants to work for my teaching , let him do it as I do. And whoever does as I do will be rewarded by my father.'
p129 And Jesus said, From now on the world of people is condemned to death. From now on the thing that controls this world will be destroyed. And when the son of man is glorified above earthly life, then he will unite all people as one. [He does not seem to have achieved this so far, at least]
p133. Then Jesus said to the students (apostles). 'Previously I did not need anything and you did not need anything. You travelled without a bag and without extra footwear, and I had commanded you to do so . But now, if they have found me to be a lawbreaker, it has become impossible to continue that way, so we must store up everything and gather knives so that we are not destroyed in vain.' [a remarkable turn around from universal love!]
p145 Ch 12 And therefore, there can be no evil for the man within the father's will, who lives a life in common with others and not his own individual life. The death of the flesh is unification with the father..
p146.The bishop, Caiaphus, (sic) commands , 'Tell me, are you the Christ, the son of God?' Jesus says, 'Yes, I am a man, the son of God, and now when you torment me, you will see that a man can be equal with God. The bishop is overjoyed with these words because they proved Jesus's guilt. The judges condemn him to death. And all the people throw themselves at Jesus and beat him, spitting in his face and swearing at him. He is silent.'
In brief, the demand of God and Jesus, the son of man and God, is that those who will be given eternal life must give away all their possessions and treat their families as they treat everyone else. It is expected that many people, hearing the teaching of Jesus, choose not to obey this commandment. Those who do, will form the people in the Kingdom of God. All the others will wither and die.
The reason why little is known about this book is that the teaching of Jesus is too demanding. If we wonder who, since then, has got to the Kingdom of God, we are unlikely to find any list. If there were, we would at least be able to study it, investigate it and judge who among them have rightly reached their goal. However, the existence of the Community of The Transfiguration, who lived at Roslin for half a century, has the hall marks of the Kingdom: the people had few possessions, clothes, little food. Two of them did take jobs to supply enough money for the community to be able to pay their taxes and feed themselves and others who came to seek their help.
Tolstoy gives three groups of commandments at various stages in the book, the last one, the simplest: the object of life is universal love. Some are particular to him, though he gives references to all passages. Thus, he believes one should not hold a grudge and gives detailed instructions of how to deal with it. He also thinks that evil should be met by silence ie in case greater evil is the outcome of resisting evil. The human race has resisted evil on many occasions: the Holocaust is one. It was resisted and that was deemed necessary because 6 million Jews were murdered. The perpetrators were mostly discovered, tried and executed for their crimes. Eichmann was one. There have since been many massacres, many cases of 'ethical' cleansing and it has often, but not always, been resisted. My own view in life has been that anyone who notices evil should do his best to combat it. Many have not the education or the courage. Thus, those who have, are doubly required to come to their aid, no matter the cost. I was required to swear an oath (to speak up and fight against anything wrong) on entering the Order of Crusader Knighthood at the age of about eleven and a half. I followed this all my life. Tolstoy does not agree, nor Jesus, it seems.
Tolstoy never questions the idea of God. In other works he believes in the God within Man, which is at least different from 'the spirit', available one presumes, everywhere. There is little discussion, if any, of God as creator of the universe. Even if the Kingdom of God is within you, the passage from St John the evangelist hints at the continued mortal life we are capable of leading, for the spirit is available to us after experience of that kind. So this suggests that the disavowal of the mortal life is not to be expected all the time, even though Tolstoy's translation suggests otherwise. St John's view is as good as any. This makes it just possible to believe that the wholesale destruction, as it seems, of the mortal life is not, after all, inevitable, as a precursor to the achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That Tolstoy did not rid himself of his estate probably means that he was too attached to it and his thousands of serfs and his way of life there, to take such a radical step. He also gave to his wife copyrights of works, like Karenina, he disliked. He did give up his title of 'count'.
Ch 2 p13 The Sabbath is an institution of man. A living man is more important in his spirit than all external rituals… if the Sabbath is preventing the doing of a good deed, then that means the Sabbath is a lie. p14 A temple is not necessary… all external worship is unnecessary and should be thrown out. Man is the son of God in spirit, and therefore he should serve the father in spirit.
p16 'Understand what God's words mean: I want love not sacrifice.'
p20 'If they pray to God, then they pray to that which they do not know, but if they pray to the father, then they pray to someone who is impossible not to know.'
p21 'God is the spirit within man.'
p23 'It is impossible to combine external worship with acts of love. It is impossible to combine the old teaching of external worship with my teaching of performing acts of love toward one's neighbour. To combine my teaching with the old one is the same as tearing a piece of fabric from a new garment and sewing it onto an old one. So you tear apart the new one and fail to repair the old one. One must accept mine in its entirety or the old one in its entirety. And having accepted my teaching, it is impossible to hold onto the old one of purification, fasts and Sabbaths. Likewise, it is impossible to pour new wine into old skins, because the skins will burst and the new wine will leak out. But new wine must be poured into new skins, and both the one and the other will remain whole.'
p29 'each person is conceived in both flesh and spirit and that therefore the kingdom of heaven can exist within him.'
p30 'whoever lives in truth moves toward the light, therefore his actions are in the light and he has life and unites himself with God.
First list of commandments Ch 4 p33.
Second list of commandments of the eternal law. Ch 4 p38.
These might look like Tolstoy's own ideas. Not so: the index of the Gospels shows where they come from. All the commandments are direct consequences of the fundamental necessity and importance of universal love. Yet Tolstoy tells us Jesus did not wash his hands before eating, which is surprising, given the obvious desirability..
Is the core idea of Jesus, universal love, a viable doctrine? And if it is, why has it failed to dominate our world? Why should God want universal love to be the human condition? What would be achieved by it if it were? People would not kill each other or harm each other. The Kingdom of God would be a place where every human was if and only if the life of the spirit had been acquired.
What would God gain by its success? By The Kingdom of God being replete with people who have abandoned mortal life for the spirit? If man need not pray or obey the Sabbath because God knows what man wants and what man is, what could God learn that he did not know already? What would it be for? What advantage to God?
This shows us that the idea of universal love could not be the be-all-and-end-all of God's wish. Even, that there is no God or, at least, not one who could be satisfied with a single achievement (universal love) as the entry qualification to God's Kingdom. God would know what the outcome would be, at any stage, because he is omniscient: knows everything.
© William W. C. Scott