Liberal Arts Blog — Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) novelist, anarchist, pacifist

John Muresianu
6 min readDec 5, 2023

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Religion, and Culture Day

Today’s Topic: Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) novelist, anarchist, pacifist

So what is most worth remembering about Leo Tolstoy? What are the seven best things he ever said or wrote? Is there a better way to honour a writer you admire than to take a little time and a little energy and invest it in trying to distill the essence of their thought into a little package and etch that distillate into the myelin of your brain so that you are able to transmit it at any moment to someone else, enriching their lives with the magic of it? Thanks to my friend Bill Kemeza for inspiring this post.

A few tidbits on Tolstoy: nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 3 times, for the Nobel Literature prize 5 times. Never won. He had 13 children with his wife Sophia Tolstaya, who suffered three miscarriages. “The marriage of Tolstaya and Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the famously unhappy marriages of literary history.” Eight of the children survived into adulthood. As a young man he fought in the Crimean War.

“His experience in the army, and two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61 converted Tolstoy from a dissolute and privileged society author to a non-violent and spiritual anarchist. Others who followed the same path were Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin. During his 1857 visit, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that marked the rest of his life. In a letter to his friend Vasily Botkin Tolstoy wrote:

“The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens … Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.” Tolstoy’s writings would have a major influence in Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

TRUTH — variations on a theme

1. “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.”

2. “Truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.”

3. “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.”

NB: Tolstoy’s thoughts echo Thoreau’s: “Rather than love than fame than money, give me truth.”

HELPING OTHERS — the illusion, the hypocrisy, and the value of self-reliance

1. “I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.”

2. “The more is given the less the people will work for themselves, and the less they work the more their poverty will increase.”

RESPECT, WISDOM, THE TWO MOST POWERFUL WARRIORS (below his wife, in the year of their marriage, 1862, she was 18 years old)

1. “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.”

2. ““We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” (not the first guy or the last to say some variation of this)

3. “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

NB: “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”

LOVE, CHANGING THE WORLD, BEAUTY

1. “Love. The reason I dislike that word is that it means too much for me, far more than you can understand.” (Anna Karenina)

2. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

3. “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”

NB: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

TOLSTOY’S THREE QUESTIONS, HIS THREE ANSWERS, MY COMMENT

1. What is the most important time? Now.

2. Who is the most important person? The person you are with.

3. What is the most important thing to do? To help that person.

NB: Connect Tolstoy’s question package with those of Ben Zoma (Who is wise? who is strong? who is rich? who is honored?) and Hillel (If I am not for myself who will be for me, if I am only for myself who am I, if not now when). I discussed all three packages in a note on April 11, 2023. As Confucius said in the first sentence of the Analects: “Isn’t it a pleasure having learned something once to return to it with a regular periodicity?” Can you distill what you have learned in your life into three questions? Last April I did that for my life

Do you remember what they are? If not and are curious, check out the last link below.

Leo Tolstoy — Wikipedia

The Three Questions — Wikipedia

Yasnaya Polyana — Wikipedia

Sophia Tolstaya — Wikipedia

Leo Tolstoy Quotes (Author of Anna Karenina)

Leo Tolstoy Quotes — BrainyQuote

Leo Tolstoy — Wikiquote

Liberal Arts Blog — Question Packages: Ben Zoma, Hillel, Tolstoy (plus a little exercise)

QUOTE OF THE MONTH

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

My spin — then periodically review, re-rank, and exchange your list with those you love. I call this the “Orion Exchange” because seven is about as many as any human can digest at a time. Game?

ATTACHMENTS BELOW:

#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, (11/17/20)

#3 Israel-Palestine Handout

NB: Palestine Orion (Decision) — let’s exchange Orions, let’s find Rumi’s field (“Beyond all ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. Meet me there” Rumi, 13 century Persian Sufi mystic)

THE LAST FOUR YEARS OF POSTS ORGANIZED THEMATICALLY INTO FOURTEEN BOOK-LENGTH PDFS:

PDF with headlines — Google Drive

YOUR TURN

Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture.

Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.

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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.