Thoreau, George and Tolstoy:
A Triple Comparison
[Reprinted from Fragments, Summer, 1995]
"You conquer fate
by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men and
institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences
of thinking inevitably follow. " - Thoreau
"Social reform is not to be secured
by noise and shouting; by complaints and denunciation; by the
formation of parties, or the making of revolutions; but by the
awakening of thought and the progress of ideas. Until there be
correct thought, there cannot be right action; and when there is
correct thought, right action will follow." - George
"Neither fortresses nor cannon nor
guns by themselves can make war, nor can the prisons lock their
gates, nor the gallows hang, nor the churches themselves lead
men astray, nor the customhouses claim their dues, nor palaces
and factories build and support themselves; all these operations
are performed by men; and when men understand that they need not
make them, then these things will cease to be." -
I had previously spoken about, and written articles on Henry David
Thoreau (1817-1862), Henry George (1839-1897), and Lev (or Leo)
Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), each talk and article limited to one
man or two men being discussed. In this essay, however, I shall
present (by means of a thematic comparison) the main ideas of all
three men - in their own words.
To begin with, what are the "negative" factors of human
All three thinkers (using the same expression: "mass" or "masses")
commented on the grim and dismal condition of humanity.
THOREAU: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet
desperation." (Walden, 1854)
GEORGE: "What oppresses the masses is their own ignorance,
their own short-sighted selfishness." (Social Problems,
TOLSTOY: "The masses ... suffer and toil, their lives dull and
uninteresting, never enlivened by a ray of brightness, enduring
numberless privations." (The Kingdom of God Is within You,
Poverty, claimed George and Tolstoy, is the reason for this "desperation,"
this "oppression," this lack of "brightness."
THOREAU: "Often the poor man is not so cold and
hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste,
and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will
perhaps buy more rags with it." (Walden)
GEORGE: "Poverty is the open-mouthed, relentless hell which
yawns beneath civilized society. ...Poverty is not merely
deprivation; it means shame, degradation; the searing of the most
sensitive parts of our moral and mental nature ...; the denial of
... strongest impulses and ... sweetest affections; the wrenching of
the most vital nerves." (Progress and Poverty, 1879)
TOLSTOY: "Every man ... sees his fellow-beings divided into
two classes, the one in poverty and distress, which labors and is
oppressed; the other idle, tyrannical, luxurious." (The
Kingdom of God Is within You)
To George and Tolstoy, land monopoly is responsible for the existing
poverty. Thoreau, too, was critical of private property in land.
THOREAU: "Enjoy the land but own it not." (Walden)
"I am amused to see from my window here how busily man has
divided and staked off his domain. God must smile at his puny fences
running hither and thither everywhere over the land." (Journal,
GEORGE: "Historically as well as ethically, private property
in land is robbery. It nowhere springs from contract; it can nowhere
be traced to perceptions of justice or expediency; it has everywhere
had its birth in war and conquest, and in the selfish use which the
cunning have made of superstition and law." (Progress and
TOLSTOY: "The evil and injustice of private property in land
have been pointed out ... by the prophets and sages of old...
Possessing hundreds, thousands, scores of thousands of acres,
trading in land, profiting ... by landed property, is ... a
detestable and evil thing." (A Great Iniquity, 1905)
To perpetuate their entrenched power, the monopolists created the
State (or government, words synonymously used).
THOREAU: "I heartily accept the motto, - "That
government is best which governs least,' and I should like to see it
acted up more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally
amounts to this, which also I believe, 'That government is best
which governs not at all,' and when men are prepared for it, that
will be the kind of government which they will have." (Civil
GEORGE: All unjust governments are oppressive, but unjust
democracies are the worst. "Where there is gross inequality in
the distribution of wealth, the more democratic the government the
worse it will be. ...To put political power in the hands of men
embittered and degraded by poverty is to tie firebrands to foxes and
turn them loose amid the standing corn." (Progress and
TOLSTOY: "Terrible force is lodged in the hands of the
authorities ... a vast amount of money, institutions, riches,
submissive functionaries of the clergy, and the army.
government ... can - unless it is bribed - suppress and annihilate
all those who are opposed to it." (Postscript to the Life
and Death of Drozhin, 1895)
The life-blood of the State is taxation.
THOREAU: "I meet this American government ... in the
person of its tax gatherer ... and it then says distinctly,
Recognize me; and the simplest
mode of expressing your little
satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then." (Civil
GEORGE: "The present method of taxation operates upon exchange
like artificial deserts and mountains; it costs more to get goods
through a custom house than it does to carry them around the world.
...If I have worked harder and built myself a good house while you
have been contented to live in a hovel, the tax gatherer comes
annually to make me pay a penalty for my energy and industry, by
taxing me more than you." (Progress and Poverty)
TOLSTOY: "We are all brothers: yet I make my living by
collecting taxes from the poor, that the rich may live in luxury and
idleness." (The Kingdom of God is within You)
The worship of the authoritarian State eventually leads to war.
THOREAU: "You may see a file of soldiers ...
marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against
their wills, aye against their common sense and consciences... Are
they ... men at all? or moveable forts ... in the service of some
unscrupulous man in power?" (Civil Disobedience)
GEORGE: "As families and tribes are separated from each other,
the social feeling ceases to operate between them, and differences
arise in language, custom, tradition, religion.
differences, prejudices grow, animosities spring up, contact easily
produces quarrels, aggression begets aggression, ... wrong kindles
revenge ... and the powers of men are expended in attack or defense,
in mutual slaughter and mutual destruction of wealth, or in warlike
preparation." (Progress and Poverty)
TOLSTOY: "It has been instilled in you [soldiers] that you are
not responsible for the consequences of your shots. But you know
that the man who tails bleeding from your shot is killed by you and
by no one else, and you know that you could have refrained from
shooting, and that then the man would not have been killed." (Notes
for Soldiers, 1901)
How should one fight the tyrannical State? One of the suggested means
of opposition is civil disobedience. What is civil disobedience?
THOREAU: "All men recognize the right of revolution,
that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the
government, when its tyranny or inefficiency are great and
When the subject has refused allegiance, and the
officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is
accomplished." (Civil Disobedience)
GEORGE: We must refuse obedience to the absolute power of the
State, and obey only Justice. "If ... we turn to Justice and
obey her ... the dangers that now threaten must disappear.
would [then] ... approach the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, ...
the abolition of government. But of government only as a directing
and repressive power." (Progress and Poverty)
TOLSTOY: "We must not only cease our present desire for the
growth of our State, but we must desire its decrease, its weakening,
and help this ... with all our might." (Patriotism or
What are the "positive" factors of human existence?
The world, stated the three thinkers, is governed by Natural Law (or
Laws, singular and plural interchangeably used), which is also the
THOREAU: "Our whole life is startlingly moral. The
laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the
side of the most sensitive. Listen to every zephyr for some reproof,
for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who does not hear it."
GEORGE: "Science . . . shows . . . the universality of law.
...The social law runs into and conforms with the moral law." (Progress
TOLSTOY: "What is the law of nature? ... To be certain that my
piece of bread only belongs to me when I know that every one else
has a share, and that no one suffers because of it." (Religion
and Morality, date uncertain)
Freedom (or Liberty, words synonymously used) is the Path to
THOREAU: "What is the value of any political
freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be
slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?" (Life
without Principle, 1863)
GEORGE: "Liberty! it is a word to conjure with. . . .For
Liberty means Justice, and Justice is the natural law - the law of
health and symmetry and strength, of fraternity and co-operation. .
. .We must wholly accept her [Liberty], or she will not stay.
...This is the universal law. This is the lesson of the centuries.
Unless its foundations be laid in justice the social structure
cannot stand." (Progress and Poverty)
TOLSTOY: "Awake, brethren! . . .Believe only the consciousness
which tells you that you are neither beasts nor slaves, but free
men." (Carthago Delenda Est, 1899)
The central theme in the writings of the three men is human
individuality - the uniqueness and worth of each person on earth.
THOREAU: "If a man does not keep pace with his
companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let
him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
"There will never be a really free and enlightened State,
until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and
independent power, from which all its own power and authority are
derived, and treats him accordingly." (Civil Disobedience)
GEORGE: "Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever
he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes
a light and a power." (Social Problems)
TOLSTOY: "Brute force is as nothing compared to the
consciousness of truth, which surges in the soul of one man who
knows the power of truth, which is communicated from him to a second
and a third, as one candle lights an innumerable quantity of others."
(A Reply to Criticisms, 1895)
Good night, gentlemen. It is an honor to know you.