Leo Tolstoy’s anticlericalism in its context and beyond: a case against churches and clerics, religious and secular

2016-06-09T14:13:13Z (GMT) by Alexandre J.M.E. Christoyannopoulos
In the last thirty years of his life, Leo Tolstoy wrote numerous books, essays and pamphlets expounding his newly-articulated views on violence, the state, the church, and on how to improve the human condition. Since then, these “Christian anarchist” views have often been dismissed as utopian or naive, and, despite inspiring many activists and intellectuals, often forgotten or ignored. Some of those views and arguments, however, arguably remain apposite today—and can in some cases be applied to broader phenomena than those he identified. This article focuses on one of the aspects of his Christian anarchist thought: his anticlericalism. The first Section recounts the evolution of Tolstoy’s views on religion and the church, and briefly describes Tolstoy’s peculiar metaphysics. The second outlines his main charges against the church, discusses some common objections to it, and considers the continuing relevance of his anticlericalism. The third seeks to secularise his anticlerical arguments by applying them beyond the church, against secular preachers and institutions, and does so by reflecting on the quality of debate in the contemporary public sphere, on the hypocritical distance between the morality preached by secular “clerics” and their practice, and on the steady process of ossification and betrayal which befalls secular political ideals. The article thus contributes to the literature firstly by summarising, discussing and reflecting upon the anticlericalism of a famous writer who also espoused controversial religious and political views; secondly by succinctly outlining his idiosyncratic metaphysics, including his peculiar reinterpretation of traditional Christian referents; and thirdly by applying the arguments that informed his criticisms of the church to a broader variety of religious and secular secular institutions.