From Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy I learned a deep resect for God’s inflexible, absolute Ideal. The ethical ideals Tolstoy encountered in the Gospels attracted him like a flame, though his failure to live up to those ideals ultimately consumed him. Tolstoy strove to follow the Sermon on the Mount literally, and his intensity soon caused his family to feel like victims of his quest for holiness. For instance, after reading Jesus’ command to the rich man to give away everything, Tolstoy decided to free serfs, give aaa his copyrights, and dispose of his vast estate. He wore peasant clothes, made his own shoes, and began working in the fields. His wife, Sonya, seeing the family’s financial security about to vaporize, protested petulantly until he made some concessions.
As I read Tolstoy’s diaries, I see flashbacks of my own lunges toward perfectionism. The diaries record many struggles between Tolstoy and his family, but may more between Tolstoy and himself. In an attempt to reach perfection he kept devising new list of rules. He gave up hunting, smoking, drinking, and meat. He drafted “Rules for developing the emotional will. Rules for developing lofty feelings and eliminating base ones.” Yet he could never achieve the self-discipline necessary to keep the rules. More than once, Tolstoy took a public vow of chastity and asked for separate bedrooms. He could never keep the vow for long, and much for his shame, Sonya’s sixteen pregnancies broadcast to the world that inability.
Sometimes Tolstoy managed to accomplish great good.For example, after a long hiatus he wrote one last novel, Resurrection, at the age of seventy-one, in support of the Doukhobors-an Anabaptist group undergoing persecution by the tsar–donating all proceed to finance their emigration to Canada. Also, Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence, lifted directly from the Sermon on the Mount, had an impact that long outlived him, and ideological descendants like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.