All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1960

The Power of Truth

The power of the government is maintained by public opinion, and with this power the government, by means of its organs —its offi­cials, law courts, schools, churches, even the press —can always main­tain the public opinion which they need. Public opinion produces the power, and the power produces public opinion. And there appears to be no escape from this position.

Nor indeed would there be, if public opinion were something fixed, unchangeable, and govern­ments were able to manufacture the public opinion they needed.

But, fortunately, such is not the case; the public opinion is not, to begin with, permanent, unchange­able, stationary; but, on the con­trary, is constantly changing, mov­ing with the advance of humanity; and public opinion not only can­not be produced at will by a gov­ernment but is that which pro­duces governments and gives them power, or deprives them of it….

These passages are selected from Count Tol­stoy’s essay on Patriotism and Christianity writ­ten in 1894.

No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity; neither the arma­ment of millions of soldiers, nor the construction of new roads and machines, nor the arrangement of exhibitions, nor the organization of workmen’s unions, nor revolu­tions, nor barricades, nor explo­sions, nor the perfection of aerial navigation; but a change in public opinion.

And to accomplish this change no exertions of the mind are needed, nor the refutation of any­thing in existence, nor the inven­tion of any extraordinary novelty; it is only needful that we should not succumb to the erroneous, al­ready defunct, public opinion of the past, which governments have induced artificially; it is only need­ful that each individual should say what he really feels or thinks, or at least that he should not say what he does not think.

And if only a small body of the people were to do so at once, of their own accord, outworn public opinion would fall off us of itself, and a new, living, real opinion would assert itself. And when pub­lic opinion should thus have changed without the slightest ef­fort, the internal condition of men’s lives which so torments them would change likewise of its own accord….

Thought and Its Expression

The governments know this, and tremble before this force, and strive in every way they can to counteract or become possessed of it.

They know that strength is not in force, but in thought and in clear expression of it, and, there­fore, they are more afraid of the expression of independent thought than of armies; hence, they insti­tute censorships, bribe the press, and monopolize the control of re­ligion and of the schools. But the spiritual force which moves the world eludes them; it is neither in books nor in papers; it cannot be trapped, and is always free; it is in the depths of consciousness of mankind. The most powerful and untrammeled force of freedom is that which asserts itself in the soul of man when he is alone, and in the sole presence of himself reflects on the facts of the uni­verse, and then naturally com­municates his thoughts to wife, brother, friends, with all those with whom he comes in contact, and from whom he would regard it as sinful to conceal the truth.

No milliards of rubles, no mil­lions of troops, no organization, no wars or revolutions will pro­duce what the simple expression of a free man may, on what he re­gards as just, independently of what exists or was instilled into him.

One free man will say with truth what he thinks and feels amongst thousands of men who by their acts and words attest exactly the opposite. It would seem that he who sincerely expressed his thought must remain alone, where­as it generally happens that every­one else, or the majority at least, have been thinking and feeling the same things but without ex­pressing them.

And that which yesterday was the novel opinion of one man, to­day becomes the general opinion of the majority.

And as soon as this opinion is established, immediately by im­perceptible degrees, but beyond power of frustration, the conduct of mankind begins to alter.

Whereas at present, every man, even if free, asks himself, “What can I do alone against all this ocean of evil and deceit which overwhelms us? Why should I ex­press my opinion? Why indeed possess one? It is better not to refleet on these misty and involved questions. Perhaps these contra­dictions are an inevitable condi­tion of our existence. And why should I struggle alone with all the evil in the world? Is it not better to go with the stream which car­ries me along? If anything can be done, it must be done not alone but in company with others.”

And leaving the most powerful of weapons —thought and its ex­pression —which move the world, each man employs the weapon of social activity, not noticing that every social activity is based on the very foundations against which he is bound to fight, and that upon entering the social ac­tivity which exists in our world every man is obliged, if only in part, to deviate from the truth and to make concessions which de­stroy the force of the powerful weapon which should assist him in the struggle. It is as if a man, who was given a blade so marvel­ously keen that it would sever any­thing, should use its edge for driv­ing in nails….

Let the government keep the schools, Church, press, its mil­liards of money and millions of armed men transformed into ma­chines: all this apparently terrible organization of 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. The light needs only to be kindled, and, like wax in the face of fire, this organization, which seems so powerful, will melt, and be consumed.



Ideas on Liberty

Education for Privacy

We are living in a world and in a time when powerful leaders with millions of fanatical followers are committed to the forcible regimentation of their fellow men, according to formulas which have no initial authority but that of their own private dogma­tism. They not only refuse to recognize the right of private thought and personal conscience to be considered in the manage­ment of public affairs, but they have abolished the concept of the individual as a private personality and have reduced him to the level of the bee in the hive. To restore the individual to his former dignity as a human being is the urgent need of the day.