Leo Tolstoy is generally considered the greatest writer of all time and this year, on 20 November, marks his 110th death anniversary. Since Tolstoy has been my favourite author for years, I thought it would be good for me to write this post about his contribution to literature and to society.
Every time when I pick up one of his novels from my bookshelves, be it War & Peace or Anna Karenina, I have this strange feeling of a special emotional connection with it.
Leo Tolstoy, the person
Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 in an aristocratic Russian family, and was a well-respected writer of his time. However, he soon realized the futility and injustice inherent in nobility lifestyle and preferred to live a simple life. In a gesture of solidarity with the poor peasants, he gave up his aristocratic title (“Count” Leo Tolstoy), renounced his riches and lavish lifestyle, and started living a very simple life devoting his time to writing and charity. As a pure vegetarian, he advocated that ‘A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.’
After having completed War & Peace in 1869 and Anna Karenina in 1877, he wrote a series of literary works in later years on religious, social, and political philosophy trying to popularise the message of early Christianity.
Tolstoy was also a profound philosopher, a religious humanist with very critical views about politics and his contemporary social environment. In his books, he dealt with complex philosophical questions, be it about the nature of reality, about the origins of religion, morality and art, or about the nature of political power and patriotism.
His books and I
To me, his novels are not just literature books but a guide to philosophy of life. Actually, I can often sit back and let myself carried away in the fragrance of his writings, beliefs and teaching, which is so beautiful and appealing. His writings have unique features in the story with a well-defined expression of romanticism that flows with love and emotion, and he wrote on every aspect of life – love, friendship, courage, challenges, betrayal everything. I think this is what makes Leo Tolstoy an exceptional literature writer and his glory is recognized not only in Russia, but all over the world.
Over the years, I am fortunate to have read many of Tolstoy’s writings and the little I got to know about his works has changed my way of life. His thoughts have literally given me the courage to follow my heart and live a better life. My previous articles in the Forum page of Le Mauricien, about beauty of literature and some short stories are all inspired from Leo Tolstoy.
As an author, Leo Tolstoy is best known for his two longest masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which are commonly regarded among the finest novels ever written. Unfortunately, I think these books often fall into the category of those classics, which Mark Twain described as ‘books which people praise but don’t read’. On the other hand, I still believe that War and Peace continues to entertain, enlighten, and inspire readers of all ages and backgrounds. For me, the book brings the past alive and takes me inside the forgotten moments of Napoleon’s great march to Moscow. There are moments in the book that make me feel the pain of the characters as if Tolstoy have created characters that live and breathe.
Other books that I really loved to read are The Death of Ivan Ilyich and A Confession, both are highly philosophical. These books are like magic; they captivate me and take me into another world where the story deals with issues that have haunted me for years.
A Confession was written in the first-person style of Tolstoy’s own spiritual journey, from his rejection of religion as a young man to the rediscovery of the church in his middle age while accepting the simplest moral teachings of Jesus. The book tries to explore the fundamental question of ‘Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?’ Neither religion, science nor any other branch of study could provide him a satisfactory answer to his question. For Tolstoy, mortality remained a philosophical dilemma.
Tolstoy and Gandhi
Tolstoy’s figure as a literary master and his rigid advocacy of nonviolence stretched beyond Russia. As a moral philosopher his ideals on nonviolence as described in his work The Kingdom of God is Within You, greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy never met in person, but they communicated through exchange of letters.
In fact, in 1908, Mahatma Gandhi came across an article entitled « Letter to a Hindu » written by Tolstoy and published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Tolstoy’s message in that article was that the only way for the Indian people to free themselves from the British rule was through the principle of love. Gandhi felt impressed by the view of Tolstoy and he wrote his first letter to him. This led to a close and mutually admiring correspondence that lasted until Tolstoy’s death on November 20, 1910. Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi commenting on how important his work in the Transvaal (South Africa) was in providing practical proof of the law of love in practice.
Later Gandhi described Leo Tolstoy as ‘the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced’ and a “great teacher whom I have long looked upon as one of my guides”. A teacher who indeed provided valid reasons to Gandhi for the foundation of the nonviolence movement. Tolstoy’s philosophy inspired Gandhi so much that he named his farm in South Africa “Tolstoy Farm” where he lived with other residents working toward the ideals of truth, love and non-violence.
Although Leo Tolstoy died 110 years ago, his works still live today. As a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker, he continue to provide priceless life’s wisdom to people of all age and nationality. To him, the sole meaning of life is to serve humanity and that there is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.
Today, as the world gets more complex with people tending to be more materialistic, always looking for shortcut to riches, we need to remember that Tolstoy taught us the lesson to face all the challenges in life with honesty and simplicity.
Let me end my post by the following Tolstoy’s quote – “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”