Web posted Thursday, September 23, 1999
5:51 a.m. CT
Tolstoy's musings food for thought
We are in a culture that increasingly promotes intellect and human abilities as the keys to success in life while relegating any spiritual motivation or goals to the sideline, like cheerleaders at a football game.
Oh, yes, we are told, it's nice to be spiritual in the sense of having a system of ethics that calls for us to be nice to each other and to the planet. But when you start talking about an intelligent creator and beliefs that can't be proven in the lab - well, you're getting a little weird if you take that too seriously.
One attitude is that if being "religious" is good for you as a quaint little part of your life, fine, but all that really counts is what we accomplish here, now, as professionals, as productive citizens, as thinkers, as humans, out on the true field of play.
For some, such a humanistic view of life is necessary for a person to be sophisticated. So through the years, it has comforted - and inspired - me when I've run across the opinions of people who the world has accepted as great writers or thinkers and who, it turns out, had strong beliefs in God that sometimes heavily influenced their writing.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, generally accepted as one of the world's great novelists on the strength of such works as "Crime and Punishment" in 1866 and "The Brothers Karamazov" in 1880, fits into that category. He explored the depths of human nature and in doing so, treated Christianity as an essential, not a peripheral, part of life.
Leo Tolstoy also saw religion as a lifestyle, not just one of several components of life. His great works such as "War and Peace" in 1860 and "Anna Karenina" in 1877 also reflected Christian philosophies.
But Tolstoy wasn't content with the institutional religion that dominated Russia in the 19th century. In part because of the elitism of the Russian Orthodox Church, he gradually turned toward a more humanistic philosophy that drew on all the major religions but still kept the direct teaching of Jesus Christ as central.
Now a distillation of Tolstoy's conclusions is readily available in the form of a paperback book, "The Wisdom of Humankind," published this year by CoNexus Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. The unabridged version was Tolstoy's last work, published in 1911, the year after his death. He never got to his plan to condense it for easier use. Guy de Mallac, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, produced that short version.
The celebrated author drew upon Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Baha'i and other faiths and philosophies, picking and choosing the parts that seemed real to him and that fit together into an integrated philosophy.
In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy's own example illustrated the melange of belief to which he had migrated. Born into the Russian ruling class in 1828, he eventually deeded his estate to his wife and lived a life of virtual poverty. In addition to his studies, Tolstoy's observation of the simple life of Russian peasants greatly influenced his turn to a simplified existence.
"The Wisdom of Humankind" is presented as a series of guidelines under topic headings such as "The Spirit Within," "Sexual Unrestraint," "False Religious Practice" and "Self-Denial." Tolstoy directly quotes Jesus more than anyone, but he also endorses ideas from Buddha, Muhammed, Pythagoras, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Paul and St. Francis of Assisi.
This is not some philosophical tome that only scholars can understand. De Mallac has translated the Russian simply and edited it into brief segments. And its application is as modern as the Internet. For example, Tolstoy's views on nonviolence heavily influenced Gandhi, who in turn was an inspiration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tolstoy's "True Religion" as presented in the book focuses heavily on the idea of God within us all and how, by living an ascetic and unselfish lifestyle, we can more fully be aware of that universal spirit inside us.
Some specifics of Tolstoy's beliefs include the elimination of armies, turning the other cheek, the need for every human to do manual labor in order to justify eating and the complete submission of self to serve others.
Certainly, modern Christians would agree with many of Tolstoy's general principles. But others, such as a call for the elimination of government, embrace a form of communism. And Tolstoy has that view of God as a spirit within all of us that we will become more aware of only as we do good deeds. That approach smacks of Eastern religions, New Age beliefs and, yes, even The Force in modern space movies.
Without endorsing Tolstoy's version of theology, I nevertheless think the guidelines from this giant of literature are worth a look. If nothing else, a reader would gain a quick course in some of the beliefs of major world religions.
"The Wisdom of Humankind" is worth spending some brain power on, but realistically, I know most of you aren't going to read the book. So next time in this space, watch for some more specific examples of Tolstoy's suggestions for living.
Mike Haynes teaches journalism at Amarillo College.
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