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.
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.
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 reflect 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 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.
These passages appeared in volume 8 of Essays on Liberty, published by The Foundation for Economic Education in 1961. They were selected from Count Tolstoy’s essay “Patriotism and Christianity,” written in 1894.