The Heart of Tolstoy

Tolstoy remains one of my favorite writers. His War and Peace and Anna Karenina were reading investments that still pay dividends. These four short stories, in particular What Men Live By, represent some aspects of Tolstoy's later turn to a simpler and more universal religious outlook, when he eschewed organized religion, and embraced a code based on Christ's teaching alone, centering on the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount.

Each of the stories could be described as short homilies, not at all tendentious or doctrinal, but clear-eyed and gentle themes of say, the futility of seeking earthly riches as dramatized in the story How Much Land does a Man Need, or embracing each moment of life as dramatized in the story Three Questions, or the power of caring for others as dramatized in the story What Men Live By, or the folly of holding to rigid religious ideas rather than acknowledging the deep mystery of God as dramatized in the story The Coffee-House of Surat.

Opening yourself up to ideas and attitudes beyond what is familiar is the starting point for a more inclusive view of various creeds and cultures. That inclusive view is based on a sharp and humbling recognition that whatever system of thought and expected behaviors you have been taught or are immersed in do not provide the only answers to life’s conundrums. Much of rigid cultural and religious insistence on the one and only way is driven from pride and fear, from accidental or deliberate isolation from the wider world. It is no accident that historically the most open thinking has often arisen in places that have found themselves a center of trade, places where people of many nations and creeds come together, where people are exposed to other ideas which cannot be completely ignored, if only because without sufficient relaxation of ideological insistence trade cannot be sustained. One such place is The Coffee-House of Surat.

Recommended by my friend David Wilson

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