My Russian friends look at me oddly as if to say, "Of all the great Russian writers, you pick Tolstoy? You are a crazy American!"
In my defense, I thought I would post a reprint of an article I wrote in 2003 for the e-zine Ninetyandnine.com. I believe it will help you understand my fascination with Tolstoy's work. I love his use of language and the twisting of his allegories. I am curious about his life and how he saw himself though the lens of a Christian. I am drawn into his teaching - but not quite as much as those who followed him religiously.
So here I go throwing words into the universe which I hope will inspire you to read some great words, to think on some broader views and to strive to consider the value of your fellow man.
What does a writer do in a Moscow winter? Studies great writers to learn to write!
What Men Live By
By Kris A. Newman
November 3, 2003
In an age where we are inundated with information, sometimes it’s hard to remember what the nitty-gritty of Christianity is all about—is it found in worship? Is it found in Bible memorization? Is it found in hearing the best preacher? Isn’t there someone who can tell us the simple rules that men ought to live by?
Actually, the simple lesson has been found. Count Leo Tolstoy wrote it many years ago in his novella and short story collection entitled What Men Live By and Other Tales.
It begins with What Men Live By, where we find an angel named Michael, disobedient to the plan of God, has fallen to earth and relies upon the mercy of a simple peasant family. Michael is assigned three lessons to learn—what dwells in man, what is not given to man, and what men live by. Unwittingly, the peasants and their neighbors teach him the answers.
Woven through this beautiful allegory of giving is a sense of common beauty. The beauty of family life and community breathe through every chapter. Tolstoy’s characters live simply, unburdened by the traps of possessions. They have one another. They have their work. They have God. What else could they need? They are not oblivious to the grand riches of the wealthy around them. Rather, they are satisfied with the richness of their relationships.
The first lesson is learned when the peasant looks beyond his own discomfort to share his coat and clothes with Michael as he suffered by the wayside. The peasant’s wife, likewise, has pity on Michael. They feed him, clothe him, and give him work. Their kindness teaches Michael that love is what dwells in man.
A year later, a verbose, obnoxious wealthy man demands that Michael make him a pair of boots from a specially tanned piece of hide. The rich man threatens that Michael will not be paid for the work unless the boots last for an entire year as if they were new. Michael, however, sees the death angel hovering near the rich man. He knows that God is about to take the man’s life. Carefully, he cuts and stitches the leather into a very fine pair of slippers. While the confused peasant is reprimanding Michael for wasting the gentleman’s materials, a messenger enters to tell them the gentleman perished before arriving home. They will need burial slippers instead. Thus, it was learned that it is not given to man to know what he needs. One must rely upon God for his needs to be met.
Several years pass before the final lesson is learned. Through the telling of a sad story with a rich ending, we learn that men live by love for another.
I John 4:20 tells us, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20). Tolstoy is clearly teaching this lesson in What Men Live By. This thought is exemplified by the last line of the story, “All men live not by the thought they spend on their own welfare, but because love exists in man.” When we learn to give, we discover a new depth in God and the relationship He has with us.
Continuing on this theme, Tolstoy moves on to “Three Questions,” the story of a king who seeks to find the answers to these questions—“What is the most important thing to do? Who is the most important person? When is the most important time?” The answers are found when the king becomes actively engaged in helping others. The busier the king is about giving, the happier and safer his life becomes.
“The Coffee House of Surat” explores thoughts of spiritual prejudice and misconception. A discussion of religiosity introduced by a bitter, deceived man causes a disruption in the coffee house. Finally, a student of Confucius quietly addresses the crowd. He likens God to the sun and man’s ideas of God to their ideas of the sun. He concludes that the more learned a man becomes about the subject of God, the more he realizes how big God is, how small man is; He points out that our relationship with God should draw us closer to one another and never cause us to become haughty.
Finally, the Devil presents himself to a man who is overcome with greed in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Driven to succeed, Pahom continues seeking after the elusive perfect piece of land. Finally, the title question is answered—six feet deep by six feet long. That’s all you have in the end.
It is common knowledge that the great Russian author was a wealthy landowner. How, then, could he write about peasant life, and why would he choose peasant life as his recurring subject in this book? (After all, he did write War and Peace.)
However, Tolstoy had a spiritual awakening of some sort in his later years. Realizing his need of people rather than riches, he denounced the money he made, freed his serfs, and worked among them as an equal. Thus, his teachings relating to Christianity flow from a forgiven heart.
Although rife with historical intricacies, the substance of Tolstoy’s teaching is timeless. Likewise, the opium drink in the coffee house was a common thing in Tolstoy’s day and certainly not allowable today. However, coffee houses still brew conversations and discussions as meeting places for bright minds.
Tolstoy is worth reading. Just don’t start with War and Peace. Start with his short story collections. You need go no further.
© 2003, Kris Newman