Thoreau, George and Tolstoy:
A Triple Comparison

Jack Schwartzman

[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." - Tolstoy

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 existence?

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, 1883)

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, 1891)

Poverty, claimed George and Tolstoy, is the reason for this "desperation," this "oppression," this lack of "brightness." Thoreau disagreed.

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, different dates)

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 Poverty)

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 Disobedience, 1849)

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 Poverty)

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. …The 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 Disobedience)

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. …With these 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 unendurable. …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. …Society 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 Peace?, 1896)

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 Moral Law.

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." (Walden)

GEORGE: "Science . . . shows . . . the universality of law. ...The social law runs into and conforms with the moral law." (Progress and Poverty)

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 morality.

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." (Walden)

"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.