Tolstoy’s Plea for Peace

In “The First Step,” Tolstoy wrote:

Leo Tolstoy Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time.

I had wished to visit a slaughterhouse, in order to see with my own eyes the reality of the question raised when vegetarianism is discussed. But at first I felt ashamed to do so, as one is always ashamed of going to look at suffering which one knows is about to take place, but which one cannot avert; and so I kept putting off my visit.

But a little while ago I met on the road a butcher returning to Toúla after a visit to his home. He is not yet an experienced butcher, and his duty is to stab with a knife. I asked him whether he did not feel sorry for the animals that he killed. He gave me the usual answer: “Why should I feel sorry? It is necessary.” But when I told him that eating flesh is not necessary, but is only a luxury, he agreed; and then he admitted that he was sorry for the animals.

“But what can I do? I must earn my bread,” he said. “At first I was afraid to kill. My father, he never even killed a chicken in all his life.” The majority of Russians cannot kill; they feel pity, and express the feeling by the word “fear.” This man had also been “afraid,” but he was so no longer.

Not long ago I also had a talk with a retired soldier, a butcher, and he, too, was surprised at my assertion that it was a pity to kill, and said the usual things about its being ordained; but afterwards he agreed with me: “Especially when they are quiet, tame cattle. They come, poor things! trusting you. It is very pitiful” (Tolstoy 1883).

Tolstoy, L. (1883). The First Step. Preface to Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet. In Essays and Letters, trans. Aylmer Maude. NY: H. Frowde 1909.