Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy


Once upon a time, I believed reaching one hundred posts was a momentous occasion, one so memorable that I would want to do something, for myself, to mark it.  The commemoration has become a personal tradition, and so, on this my four hundredth post, I offer you once again my favorite ten quotes from the previous ninety-nine posts.

10) An interview on Talking Philosophy with Alain de Botton proved to be my most interesting interaction with any atheist thinkers in the past hundred posts.  His thoughts pointed to dangers in atheistic thinking and proposed, in deliberate critique of New Atheists, various senses in which religion was a good thing, even as an atheist.  From Leading Atheist on What’s Wrong with Atheism:

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining…Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

9) I am deeply enamored of the thought of Eugene Genovese, a fact which will probably become evident over the next few weeks.  In a criticism of southern support for American imperialism, I quoted Genovese, among others, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Imperialism in the Imperialized South:

The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany…To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity – an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity.

8) Of the critical series I have written in this cycle, the one I most enjoyed researching and producing was my exposition of complementarianism in response to Roger Olson.  The great quote, on the other hand, likely came from the Founding Father’s series.  In Illusions of Innocence, I applied Richard T. Hughes and Leonerd Allen’s thesis about primitivism in American Protestantism and applied it to American political primitivism.  To conclude, I quoted their evaluation of Roger Williams primitivist thought, a historically unsustainable but ideologically more appealing variety:

For Williams, the radical finitude of human existence, entailing inevitable failures in understanding and action, makes restoration of necessity an open-ended concept. The absolute, universal ideal existed for Williams without question. But the gap between the universal and the particular, between the absolute and the finite, was so great that it precluded any one-on-one identification of the particular with the universal…the best one could do was approximate the universal, an approximation that occurred only through a diligent search for truth.

7) Though most of the series on Christianity and Jain occurred earlier, the day after the three hundredth post, I added to the comparative study Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness.  Here is some wisdom from Mahavira on the subject:

If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.

6) Long overdue, I finally shared a selection of quotes in The Wisdom of the Pilgrim connecting my longstanding love of fourteenth century hesychasm with a more recent text:

[O]ne of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge which drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick.

5) For Easter–that is East Easter not West Easter–I shared a few notes from the Ecumenical Patriarch about the meaning of life in Christ made possible by his death and resurrection and the destructive attempts of people to secure life apart from him.  From Christos Anesti!:

There is no need for some nations to be destroyed in order for other nations to survive. Nor is there any need to destroy defenseless human lives so that other human beings may live in greater comfort. Christ offers life to all people, on earth as in heaven. He is risen, and all those who so desire life may follow Him on the way of Resurrection. By contrast, all those who bring about death, whether indirectly or directly, believing that in this way they are prolonging or enhancing their own life, condemn themselves to eternal death.

4) Buried deep in the recesses of a response to a Fox News article, Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!, is perhaps one of my favorite short quotes from any of the early church fathers.  Here is Justin Martyr’s response to persecution:

You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us.

3) Of all the wonderful cow stories–and I had options this time around–that have been shared here throughout the years, none had me more excited than finding an archival story about Grady, the cow who got stuck in a silo and captured the imagination of a nation.  On This Day in Cow History celebrated her generations old story, and its very happy ending:

What’s in store for Grady? “Well, I believe she’s earned peace and quiet the rest of her life,” Mach [her owner] said. “She’s had more excitement than most cows.”

2) My commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s sermons offered throughout the month of his birth was littered with excellent quotes.  McGarvey was, however, perhaps most poetic and profound when he recorded his thoughts On Prayer:

If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as well be made of ice. He is a living God; a God who has friends, and loves His friends; and this is the reason that He will do something for them when they cry to Him. Don’t think of God as mere abstraction, or as a being who keeps Himself beyond the sky; but think of Him as one who lives with you, who is round about you, who lays His hand under your head when you lie down to rest. So in praying, pray with the confidence of little children…Pray in the morning; pray at the noontide; pray when you lie down to sleep…Pray often; pray earnestly; and in order that your prayer may amount to anything, be righteous men and women.

1) The Anarchy in May series is perhaps the most fun I have ever had here, and selecting a single quote from a month of my favorite thinkers is exceedingly difficult.  More than anything, this selection from Tolstoy on Moral Culpability, is appropriate because of Tolstoy’s preeminent place in the history of anarchism:

[W]e are responsible for our own misdeeds. And the misdeeds of our rulers become our own, if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying, them out. Those who suppose that they are bound to obey the government, and that the responsibility for the misdeeds they commit is transferred from them to their rulers, deceive themselves.

I can only hope that the next hundred posts flow as easily and are as much fun to write as the last hundred were.

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Anarchy in May: Tolstoy on Moral Culpability

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
The previous quote from William Lloyd Garrison was drawn from Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. Unsurprisingly, Tolstoy himself–regarded by many to be the seminal figure in modern Christian anarchism, probably more for his notoriety than any novelty or innovation on his part–had plenty to say on the subject of the Christian relation to the state. While volumes could be filled with such quotes (and they are), consider this brief statement on the nature of moral culpability as it relates to citizen participation in civil government:

There are some people, who, without any definite reasoning about it, conclude straightway that the responsibility of government measures rests entirely on those who resolve on them, or that the governments and sovereigns decide the question of what is good or bad for their subjects, and the duty of the subjects is merely to obey. I think that arguments of htis kind only obscure men’s conscience. I cannot take part in the councils of government, and therefore I am not responsible for its misdeeds… Indeed, but we are responsible for our own misdeeds. And the misdeeds of our rulers become our own, if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying, them out. Those who suppose that they are bound to obey the government, and that the responsibility for the misdeeds they commit is transferred from them to their rulers, deceive themselves.

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A Day with Ben Witherington: Bad Arguments

After spending three consecutive days critiquing Witherington’s concept of theosis and attempting to demonstrate ways in which a proper understanding of theosis would correct the deficiencies in his thought, I think it is appropriate to turn away for a moment from critiquing Witherington. Instead, I would like to use him as a vehicle to critique the way people interact with bad arguments.

I was surprised and excited (read “giddy like a little school girl”) when Witherington “confessed” that he is a pacifist. I am always delighted to find scholars outside the historic peace churches who have come to an honest conviction about the necessity of non-violence as part of Jesus’ ethos. In the deep South and at the new Harding–the one totally inimical to the ethical stances of both its namesake and its founder and totally ignorant of its history–pacifism is the kind of sin you can still be lynched for, if only intellectually in a coffee house by an irate undergraduate.

After the shocking revelation took the time to sink in, a student interjected with what he expected, I am sure, to be a damning argument: “That’s all good in theory, but let’s talk about practice. I mean, Tolstoy died penniless at a train station!”

I’ll let the force of that impressive argument sink in for a moment.

Just think on it.

Has it sunk in?


I imagine not. In fact, the argument is bad on so many levels that I’m sure I could spend the better part of a day dissecting all the ways in which it is obviously wrong. Witherington, for his part, responded with a certain grace that Tolstoy was by no means the typical pacifist and that even utopian style pacifism was not typical pacifism. Witherington is, of course, right to point out that Tolstoy cannot be said in any sense to be a representative of all Christian pacifists. Judging the majority by the radical minority is the same way we came up with the rhetoric about homosexuals molesting little boys. It doesn’t fly.

Of course, there are other angles that can be taken. For example, what is so bad about the fact that Tolstoy died penniless at a train station? Tolstoy elected to give up his wealth and to live an itinerant life. He expected to die penniless, and had you told him in advance that he would die this way, it would likely not have bothered him. The mention of the train station is particularly odd. Is there virtue to dying on a hospital bed? Death is inglorious regardless of its locale.

You might just have readily argued that thousands upon thousands of pacifists have died quite “respectable” deaths (whatever that is), at home in their beds surrounded by family and with their modest financial means in tact. Examples like Lipscomb, Harding, and Armstrong spring immediately to mind. None of them were rich men, by any means, but they lived full lives and died peacefully by all accounts. The thousands of nameless, faceless members of the historic peace churches who die all the time without consequence probably deserve to be counted as well. If we are really measuring the value of a person by the circumstance of his death, then we should say that pacifism is a delightful system. After all, a pacifist is less likely to die in the field of battle. And wars happen more often than Tolstoys.

I was tempted to blurt out, “Your savior had died penniless on a cross.”

All of this, however, is actually my problem. Arguments such as these are so simple to refute that we do it automatically. There was no reason for Witherington to hesitate in distancing himself from Tolstoy. The comparison was made, and his immediate thought was, “I am not Tolstoy or even a disciple of Tolstoy.” Yet, when you take time to refute the content of an argument whose very nature is corrupt, you legitimize the argument. If Witherington was a follower of Tolstoy, would the critique have then been applicable? If most pacifists died poor and ingloriously, would pacifism be undone? If Jesus had died rich, if utopian pacifism was typical, if some of the facts were changed, would the reasoning of the argument be valid?

The real problem with the appeal to Tolstoy is that it doesn’t speak to the value of pacifism at all. It doesn’t deal with the question of whether or not violence is ethical. How Tolstoy died is not directly related to ethics, or if it is, then that connection is not self-evident. Yet, every time we chase down an opponent’s red herring, no matter how simple it is to prove wrong, we reinforce the practice of flawed argumentation. When that argument (so well crafted that it just had to come from the website of a right wing militia) finds its rhetorical niche among people who already agree with its unrelated conclusion, they will have no reason not to embrace and repeat it. We ought to be developing a culture of intellectual honesty, and the first step is to start calling bad arguments what they are. Stop refuting them as if they warranted our attention. The correct response to “Tolstoy died penniless at a train station” is “So what?

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