For once I have nothing to add…

Tolstoy’s Forbidden Book

By Alexander Green

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelists of all time. His two masterpieces, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” are widely regarded as the very pinnacle of realist fiction. 

In many ways, Tolstoy had it all. By his mid-40s, he was rich, in perfect health and at the height of his fame. He was also wracked with despair. Despite his worldly success, Tolstoy felt his life was meaningless. No matter what he achieved, he asked himself “What is it for? What does it lead to?”

Over time these “moments of perplexity” turned into a full-blown crisis. He contemplated suicide. Yet from this internal struggle grew the book that Tolstoy believed was his greatest accomplishment. He called it “A Calendar of Wisdom.”

Over 15 years, Tolstoy read, researched and compiled the greatest spiritual thoughts of all time, creating a circle of reading that included Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, Schopenhauer and The New Testament, among others.

What could be more precious, he asked, than to communicate daily with the wisest souls who have ever lived?

For months at a time he avoided newspapers and magazines, reading nothing but the world’s wisdom literature. In his diary he wrote,

I became more and more astonished by the ignorance, and especially by the cultural, moral ignorance of our society… All our education should be directed to the accumulation of the cultural heritage of our ancestors, the best thinkers of the world.

Yet too often today we experience just the opposite. The media bombards us daily with heartbreak, misery and cynicism. Much of what we read is depressing, even rattling. We tire of hearing about wild-eyed terrorists, drug-addled celebrities, ethically-challenged businessmen and crooked politicians.

Thoughts meant to inspire, uplift, or ennoble are as welcome as a cold glass of water on a July afternoon. And with the publication of his Calendar of Wisdom in 1912, Tolstoy achieved his goal.

After the Russian Revolution, however, its publication was forbidden under the new Soviet regime, due to the book’s spiritual orientation and numerous religious quotes.

Re-reading it this week, however, I was struck by one overriding theme: We are here for a short time. Knowledge is limitless. Therefore, the most critical knowledge is not a particular skill or discipline but rather wisdom about “How to Live.”

Here is a brief sampling of Tolstoy’s thoughts on the subject:

  • There are only two ways to live: Either without thinking of death… or with the thought that you approach death with every hour of your life.
  • The more upset you are with other people and circumstances, and the more satisfied you are with yourself, the further you are from wisdom.
  • Don’t compare yourself with others. Compare yourself only with perfection.
  • It is not the place we occupy that is important, but the direction in which we move.
  • When you want to escape from rage, do not walk, do not move, do not speak. Your rage cannot be justified by anything. The reason for your rage is always inside you.
  • Speak only when your words are better than silence. For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence.
  • There are two ways not to suffer from poverty. The first is to acquire more wealth. The second is to limit your requirements. The first is not always in our power. The second is.
  • You do not have the right to be unhappy with your life. If you are not satisfied, see this as a reason to be unsatisfied with yourself.
  • The more strictly and mercilessly you judge yourself, the more just and kind you will be in the judgment of others.
  • Strive for goodness without any expectations for rapid or noticeable success. For the further you progress, the higher your ideal of perfection will rise. Yet it is the process itself, this striving, that justifies our lives.

Not your typical banned book, needless to say. But then the Soviet regime was about obedience to the state above all else.

Tolstoy believed in a higher ideal. And while he swore he couldn’t define it or explain it, it cured his existential despair, gave him direction and imbued his life with meaning.

In his Calendar, he wrote, “Nobody knows where the human race is going. The highest wisdom, then, is to know where you are going.”

Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 350,000 readers. Alex is also the author of The New York Times bestselling book “The Gone Fishin’ Portfolio: Get Wise, Get Wealthy… and Get on With Your Life.”