“[The Law of Love and The Law of Violence] consists of almost the last words Tolstoy wrote. Everything Tolstoy wrote is precious, but I found this final statement of the truth about life as he had come to understand it particularly beautiful and moving. ‘That is what I have wanted to say to you, my brothers. Before I died.’ So he concludes, giving one a vivid sense of the old man, pen in hand and bent over the paper, his forehead wrinkled into a look of puzzlement very characteristic of him, as though he were perpetually wondering how others could fail to see what was to him so clear – that the law of love explained all mysteries and invalidated all other laws.”
“Freedom from servitude, he was always insisting, cannot be achieved through collective effort, through the capture or exercise of power in order to change the external forms of authority, but only through the liberation of men’s souls from the evil that is harboured within them. No more can human happiness be advanced through the creation and distribution of wealth:-
‘Each step we make today towards material progress not only does not advance us towards the general well-being, but shows us, on the contrary, that all these technical improvements only increase our miseries. One can imagine other machines, submarine, subterranean and aerial, for transporting men with the rapidity of lightning; one could multiply to infinity the means of propagating human speech and thought, but it would remain no less the case that these travellers, so comfortably and rapidly transported, are neither willing nor able to commit anything but evil, and the thoughts and words they pour forth would only incite men to further harm’ ”
The words are those of Malcolm Muggeridge, a prominent 20th century writer in tribute to one of the greatest writers of all time, Leo Tolstoy, the man who in correspondence, would mentor the youthful Gandhi in the ways of passive resistance against colonial rule . His valedictory ends with something which intrigued me, about a green stick.
“Tolstoy writes somewhere about a peasant belief that a green stick had been buried in the earth and would one day be found, and then all our troubles would come to an end. I think he half believed it himself, and was always on the look out for the green stick, until at last he grew tired of looking. Never mind. The fact that a man like Tolstoy could exist amounts in itself to a green stick. It is true that today his hopes seem more remote even than when he entertained them. Yet underlying the disappointed hopes was his faith in a single infallible guide, a ‘Universal Spirit that lives in men as a whole, and in each one of us . . . that commands the tree to grow towards the sun, the flower to throw off its seed in autumn, and us to reach out towards God and by so doing become united to each other.’ Such was his last word, delivered to us, his brothers, who come after him”
With the benefit of our connected world today to find out more, the green stick legend appears to be more of a personal experience, deriving from a story conceived by elder brother Nicolai.
Nikolai solemnly announced to his siblings one day that he possessed a wonderful secret that could make all men happy. If it became generally known, a kind of golden age would exist on earth: there would be no more disease, no human misery, and no anger. All would love one another and become “Ant Brothers.” (Moravskiye bratya – “Moravian Brothers” – of whom young Nikolai had no doubt read, was probably mistakenly transformed by the boys into Muraveinye bratya – “Ant Brothers.”)
The children adopted the idea with enthusiasm and even organized a game of Ant Brothers. Boxes and chairs were converted with shawls, and they all cuddled together in the dark within the shelter.
Nikolai had disclosed the Ant Brotherhood to them but not the chief secret – the means by which all men would become everlastingly happy. He had written this secret, he said, on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a ravine in the Zakaz forest.
The other children soon forgot about the green stick. Tolstoy, however, traced to the Ant Brotherhood under the shawl-covered chairs his first childhood experience of love, not love of some one person, but love of love. Huddled together under the chairs, the Ant Brothers felt a particular tenderness for each other, and they talked of what was necessary for happiness and how they would love everybody. When he was over seventy, he recalled the incident in his Recollections:
“The ideal of Ant Brothers clinging lovingly to one another, only not under two armchairs curtained by shawls, but of all the people of the world under the wide dome of heaven, has remained unaltered for me. As I then believed that there was a little green stick whereon was written something which would destroy all evil in men and give them great blessings, so I now believe that such truth exists among people and will be revealed to them and will give them what it promises.”
Two years before his death, Tolstoy dictated to his secretary, N.N. Gusev, the following: “Although it is a trifling matter, yet I wish to say something that I should like done after my death. Even though it is a trifle of trifles: let no ceremonies be performed in putting my body into the earth. A wooden coffin, and whoever wishes, carry it or cart it to Zakaz, opposite the ravine at the place of the ‘green stick.’ At least, there’s a reason for selecting that and no other place.” When he mentioned the green stick, Gusev observed, tears filled his eyes.
Leo Tolstoy died long before his influence on Gandhi would be realised in the creation of the world’s largest democracy and longer still before Martin Luther King would inspire a nation to regard all men as equal.
Muggeridge’s valedictory to Tolstoy was printed in The Observer of 25th January 1970. That same year he travelled to Calcutta to meet and subsequently introduce the world to an Albanian nun, now better known to us as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who offered these words:
“There is a terrible hunger for love.
We all experience that in our lives – the pain, the loneliness.
We must have the courage to recognize it.
The poor you may have right in your own family.
Find them. Love them. ”
Leo Tolstoy: The Law of Love and the Law of Violence
Malcolm Muggeridge: Time and Eternity
The Last Days of Leo Tolstoy