Lesson 1: Keep an Open Mind –
One area in which Tolstoy excelled was the ability and willingness to change his mind based on new experiences. It was a skill he began nurturing in the 1850s when he was an army officer. Tolstoy fought in the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War, a horrific experience that turned him from a regular soldier into a pacifist. A decisive event took place in 1857, when he witnessed a public execution by guillotine in Paris. He never forgot the severed head thumping into the box below. It convinced him of the belief that the state and its laws were not only brutal, but served to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.
Lesson 2: Practice Empathy
Tolstoy was one of the great empathic adventurers of the 19th century, displaying an unusual desire to step into the shoes of people whose lives were vastly different from his own. Following the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, and influenced by a growing movement across Russia which extolled the virtues of the peasantry, Tolstoy not only adopted traditional peasant dress, but worked alongside the laborers on his estate, ploughing the fields and repairing their homes with his own hands. For a blue-blooded count, such actions were nothing short of remarkable.
Lesson 3: Make a Difference
Tolstoy made a notable effort to take practical action to alleviate other people’s suffering. His dedication to the peasantry was nowhere more evident than in his famine relief work. After the crop failure of 1873, Tolstoy decided to stop writing Anna Karenina for a year to organize aid for the starving. His friends and family thought it crazy that one of the finest novelists in the world would put one of his works of genius on the backburner. But Tolstoy was adamant. He did it again after the famine in 1891, and with other members of his family spent the next two years raising money from around the world and working in soup kitchens.
Lesson 4: Master the Art of Simple Living
One of Tolstoy’s greatest gifts was his addiction to the question of the meaning of life. He never ceased asking himself why and how he should live, and what was the point of all his money and fame. In the late 1870s, unable to find any answers, he had a mental breakdown and was on the verge of suicide. After immersing himself in the German philosopher Schopenhauer, Buddhist texts, and the Bible, he adopted a revolutionary brand of Christianity which rejected all organized religion, including the Orthodox Church he had grown up in, and turned toward a life of spiritual and material austerity. He gave up drinking and smoking, and became a vegetarian.
Lesson 5: Beware Your Contradictions
Tolstoy’s new, simpler life was not, however, without its struggles and contradictions. Apart from the fact that he preached universal love yet was constantly fighting with his wife, the apostle of equality was never able to fully abandon his wealth and privileged lifestyle. When he mooted the idea of giving away his estate to the peasants, his wife and children were furious, and he eventually backed down. But in the early 1890s he managed, against their wishes, to relinquish copyright to a huge portion of his literary works, in effect sacrificing a fortune. Given the privileged position in which Tolstoy started life, his personal transformation, if not complete, still deserves our admiration.
Lesson 6: Expand Your Social Circle
The most essential lesson to take from Tolstoy is to follow his lead and recognize that the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. That’s why he ceased socializing in Moscow and spent so much time with laborers on the land. Tolstoy pointed out that most people, whether they are wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians, or common thieves, consider their beliefs and way of life to be both admirable and ethical.