We can learn a lot about the art of living from Tolstoy's War and Peace - a 10-hour dramatisation of which is airing on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday. It acutely observes vanity and folly, sexual jealousy and family relationships. But we can also learn from the life of the master novelist himself, writes Roman Krznaric.
Tolstoy, who was born in 1828 and died in 1910, was a member of the Russian nobility, from a family that owned an estate and hundreds of serfs. The early life of the young count was raucous, debauched and violent.
"I killed men in wars and challenged men to duels in order to kill them," he wrote. "I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people…so I lived for ten years."
But he gradually weaned himself off his decadent, racy lifestyle and rejected the received beliefs of his aristocratic background, adopting a radical, unconventional worldview that shocked his peers. So how exactly might his personal journey help us rethink our own philosophies of life?
1. Keep an open mind
One of Tolstoy's greatest gifts was his ability and willingness to change his mind based on new experiences. The horrific bloodshed he witnessed while fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850s turned him into a lifelong pacifist. In 1857, after seeing a public execution by guillotine in Paris - he never forgot the thump of the severed head as it fell into the box below - he became a convinced opponent of the state and its laws, believing that governments were not only brutal, but essentially served the interests of the rich and powerful. "The State is a conspiracy," he wrote to a friend. "Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere." Tolstoy was on the road to becoming an anarchist. He would be the first to encourage us to question the fundamental beliefs and dogmas we have been brought up with.
Find out more
- Roman Krznaric is the author of The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live, on which this article is based - he is founder of the Empathy Museum and the digital Empathy Library
- You can listen to a 10-hour production of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace on BBC Radio 4 on 1 January - catch up later via the BBC iPlayer, or download the podcast
- The new dramatisation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker stars John Hurt, Paterson Joseph, Simon Russell Beale and Lesley Manville - watch John Hurt tackle the role of Prince Bolkonsky
2. Practise empathy
Tolstoy displayed an unusual capacity to empathise by stepping into the shoes of people whose lives were vastly different from his own. In the 1860s, he not only adopted peasant dress but began working alongside the newly emancipated labourers 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. Although no doubt tinged with paternalism, he enjoyed the company of peasants and consciously shunned the literary and aristocratic elite in the cities. Tolstoy believed you could never understand the reality of other people's lives unless you had a taste of it yourself.
3. Make a difference
He also distinguished himself from his upper class peers by taking practical action to alleviate other people's suffering, most evident in his famine relief work. After the crop failure of 1873, Tolstoy stopped writing Anna Karenina for a year to organise aid for the starving, remarking to a relative: "I cannot tear myself away from living creatures to bother about imaginary ones." His friends and family thought it was crazy for one of the world's finest novelists to put one of his works of genius on the backburner. He did it again following the famine in 1891, spending two years working in soup kitchens and fundraising. Can you imagine a bestselling author today setting aside their latest book to do humanitarian relief work for two years?
4. Master the art of simple living
Following a mental breakdown in the late 1870s, Tolstoy rejected all organised religion, including the Orthodox Church he had grown up in. He adopted a revolutionary brand of Christianity based on spiritual and material austerity. He gave up drinking, smoking, and became a vegetarian. He also inspired the creation of utopian communities of simple, self-sufficient living, where property was held in common. These "Tolstoyan" communities spread around the world and led Gandhi to found an ashram in 1910 named the Tolstoy Farm.
5. Beware your contradictions
This new, simpler life was not without its struggles and contradictions. Tolstoy famously preached universal love yet was constantly fighting with his wife. Moreover, the apostle of equality was never able to fully abandon his wealth and privileged lifestyle. He lived until old age in a grand house with servants. But in the early 1890s he managed - against his family's 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 his life, his personal transformation, if not complete, still deserves our admiration.
6. Become a craftsman
Tolstoy recognised that striking a balance between mind and body was an essential part of his creative process. He not only regularly put down his pen to guide a horse-drawn plough across the fields, but kept a scythe and saw leaning up against the wall next to his writing desk. In his last years, when writers and journalists came to pay homage to the bearded sage, they were always surprised to find one of the world's most famous authors huddled over his cobbling tools making a pair of boots. If Tolstoy were here today he would no doubt suggest we get some craft into our lives rather than grant so much of our leisure time to tweeting and texting.
7. Expand your social circle
The most essential life lesson to take away from Tolstoy is to follow his lead and recognise 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. In Resurrection, he pointed out that most people - whether they are politicians, businessmen or thieves - "instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it". Cosseted within our peer group, we may think it perfectly normal and justifiable to own two homes, or to oppose same-sex marriage, or to bomb countries in the Middle East. We cannot see that such views may be perverse, unjust, or untrue, because we are inside circles of our own making. The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own. Our ultimate task, Tolstoy would advise us, is to journey beyond the perimeters of the circle.
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