Tolstoy Asks Us To Address One Question: How Should We Live?

“The only means of deliverance from violence lies in not taking part in it.”

Russia’s most significant literary figures of the 19th century would include Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, for laying the groundwork of Russian literature, followed by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekov. These latter three, who achieved international fame for their stories, novels and writing, are still familiar to us today.

What I most vividly recall about Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy — who is best known for his War and Peace and Anna Karenina — was that he devoted the second half of his life to living out a life in harmony with the teachings of Christ. As a result, having become keenly aware of injustice, he had a falling out with Orthodox and organized religion.

Tolstoy was not always motivated by the teachings of Jesus. In his book Confession he writes, “Quite often a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.”

This paragraph pretty much sums up what he became, despite his nice Sunday school upbringing:

“I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was not a crime I did not commit… Thus I lived for ten years.”

When his life bottomed out, he found new meaning in the teachings of Jesus, which infused much of his writing the second half of his life. What follows are quotes from his various writings.

The Kingdom of God is Within You

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

On Meaning

“The only significance of life consists in helping to establish the kingdom of God; and this can be done only by means of the acknowledgment and profession of the truth by each one of us.”

The Key Question

“This divergence and perversion of the essential question is most striking in what goes today by the name of philosophy. There would seem to be only one question for philosophy to resolve: What must I do? Despite being combined with an enormous amount of unnecessary confusion, answers to the question have at any rate been given within the philosophical tradition on the Christian nations…”

“But in more recent times, since Hegel´s assertion that all that exists is reasonable, the question of what one must do has been pushed to the background and philosophy has directed its whole attention to the investigation of things as they are, and to fitting them into a prearranged theory. This was the first step backwards.”

On Pacifism

“The Quakers sent me books, from which I learnt how they had, years ago, established beyond doubt the duty for a Christian of fulfilling the command of non-resistance to evil by force, and had exposed the error of the Church’s teaching in allowing war and capital punishment.”

On the Good Life

“To be good and lead a good life means to give to others more than one takes from them. “

On Oppression

“The oppression of a majority by a minority, and the demoralization inevitably resulting from it, is a phenomenon that has always occupied me and has done so most particularly of late.”

On True Religion

“Genuine religion is not about speculating about God or the soul or about what happened in the past or will happen in the future; it cares only about one thing-finding out exactly what should or should not be done in this lifetime.


“All our problems are caused by forgetting what lives within us, and we sell our souls for the ‘bowl of stew’ of bodily satisfactions.” (Reference to the story of Jacob and Esau.)

On Wealth and Poverty

“Honest work is much better than a mansion.”

“Wealth is a great sin in the eyes of God. Poverty is a great sin in the eyes of man.”

“If a poor person envies a rich person, he is no better than the rich person.”

On Wisdom

“The only thing that we know is that we know nothing — and that is the highest flight of human wisdom. — Chapter One, War and Peace

* * * *

Each of these could become a writing prompt for a future blog post. And since there is much more to say on many of these points, I will likely return.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store