Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales is a collection of Tolstoy short stories, mostly from his maverick, purist, pacifist, anarchist Christian period. They are typically written in a straightforward, literal, I suppose simplistic, style, suitable for children or adults (indeed, some are explicitly labeled as children’s stories), mostly intended to inform and uplift relative to the Christian moral system that he had embraced.
The longest story in this collection of twenty-four is the first: Walk in the Light While There is Light. (So the book title actually uses a shortened version of this story’s title. A more accurate title for the book would be Walk in the Light While There is Light and Twenty-Three Other Tales.)
The story begins with a prelude set in the present, wherein a group of people agrees that their very typical, conventional lives are largely without meaning or worth, and that they would be far better off dispensing with these lifestyles that they are accustomed to and becoming Tolstoyan, pacifist Christians—embracing poverty, renouncing violence, loving everyone, etc. But then they talk themselves out of making any such dramatic changes by citing all their current responsibilities and such. The last 95% of the story, set in the Roman Empire in the early years of the Christian church, more fully fleshes out this conflict between a life recognized as ideal and morally obligatory, and the view that regardless of its merits in the abstract, there’s no realistic way to live like that.
Julius and Pamphilius are best friends growing up. Julian is the son of a rich merchant and Pamphilius is the son of a slave that Julian’s father freed.
Julian develops in conventional fashion for someone of his class—mostly irresponsible as a youth, but eventually maturing to where he fits the roles expected of someone in his position in society by marrying and having children, pursuing his economic self-interest, getting involved in politics, etc.
Meanwhile, Pamphilius becomes a Christian, abandoning his former life to join a commune of folks who live very frugally, own what little they own collectively, refrain from engaging in violence, try to love everyone, and follow extreme Sermon on the Mount type ethical doctrines such as giving away everything they have to anyone who demands it. They cultivate a non-attachment to life, accepting persecution up to and including martyrdom if that happens to be visited upon them.
Julius and Pamphilius only very rarely encounter each other as adults. When they do, invariably they engage in philosophical discussions about their contrasting lifestyles. Pamphilius is always supremely confident of the Christian way of life, while at the same time being very gentle, calm and respectful toward Julius as toward everyone. Julius raises all the common objections to Christianity that he has heard.
Each time Julius can’t help but see that Pamphilius has had the better of the argument. As this sinks in, multiple times he decides that he too will abandon his present life and join a Christian commune. But every time he does, the people in his life raise the same kind of objections Tolstoy placed in the prelude, and Julius himself brought up in his discussions with Pamphilius. When things reach a point that he seems about to break through these objections after all, the final push to dissuade him comes from a mysterious old stranger (guess who!) who seems to always pop up at these crossroad moments of his life, offering kindly and flattering advice concerning how not adopting the Christian way of life is actually a better manifestation of Julius’s good nature and commitment to moral duty.
There’s not all that much of a “story” here, but I got into this one more because the underlying philosophical issue is of great interest to me, and one that I have often reflected on and been troubled by.
I think 99% of people—including those who call themselves Christians—pretty much absorb whatever are the values, habits, and expectations of those around them, whether their family, fellow church members, school peers, or society as a whole. They’re conformists, basically. If they ever have occasion to think about these matters or have to defend themselves—which they rarely do—they rationalize. That is, the commitment to certain habits of thought and behavior come first, based on non-rational internalizing of the values of their group, and reasons come later in an ad hoc fashion if at all.
When anthropologists talk about the values of a “culture,” that’s pretty much what they mean—these unthinking norms that almost everyone in a given group conforms to, or at least gives lip service to, typically for little reason beyond “that’s the way it’s done around here” or “that’s what we believe” of “that’s just our way.”
I’m of the tiny minority that actually thinks these things through and tries to come up with the most rationally justified moral philosophy in the abstract. I obviously think that’s better than the typical unthinking conformity approach, but plenty of people would argue precisely the opposite, which is that any kind of “objective” right and wrong is completely illusory, making my quest a quite silly, impossible one. They would have no problem with the people who simply adapt to whatever is common in their culture, since, in their view, there are no alternative ideals that would in any way be superior anyway.
But, rightly or wrongly, I’ve always tried to work out my moral philosophy as best I could on the merits, as, obviously, Tolstoy did. And that can generate a major problem when it comes to trying to live by such values.
It’s a problem that doesn’t arise for the overwhelming majority of people, because it’s practically a tautology that if your predilection is to conform to what’s normal and common and approved in your group you’ll have the implicit support of your group in living as is most natural for you. But on the other hand, if you come to the non-conformist conclusion, say, that nudism is a wonderful if not obligatory thing, you’ll likely come to grief rather quickly if you try to live by your values at the office, or on your next Gray Line trip to Branson.
It’s not a trivial thing. The farther your values take you from the mainstream of your group, the harder it is to avoid hypocrisy. You end up making constant compromises, settling for living up to your values as much as is realistic in hostile circumstances.
So the objection of “Yeah, in the abstract these extremist Tolstoyan Christian ideals sound appealing, but if the world is arranged such that there’s no realistic way to live by them, then what’s the point?” carries some weight. Tolstoy has Pamphilius give the strongest available responses to such objections, but neither in his writing nor in his life did he ever really fully solve the problem of living by non-conformist principles in a conformist world.
In the end it may be that “Live by your ideals, without compromise, no matter how futile that is and no matter the consequences” is the least evil of the available choices, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t damn difficult—probably too difficult for anyone fully to abide by, and too difficult for all but a small minority of folks to even mostly abide by.
In God Sees the Truth, But Waits, Tolstoy shows the nobility of character of a man who undergoes suffering and injustice (condemned to servitude in Siberia for a crime he did not commit), and yet does not use that as justification to commit sins of his own or retaliate against the man who is most responsible for his plight.
A Prisoner in the Caucasus is less simplistic a moral tale, and somewhat closer to a conventional short story. According to what I read online, it is based in part on an incident Tolstoy was familiar with from his own military career and based in part on a Pushkin poem of the same name.
Two Russians are captured by Tartars and held captive for ransom—the protagonist Zhilin and a comrade Kostilin. Kostilin behaves in less than exemplary fashion, yet Zhilin remains loyal to him even when doing so is contrary to his self-interest. They attempt multiple escapes, aided by a Tartar child that Zhilin has been kind to.
Zhilin may be a hero to a limited extent in the way he doesn’t retaliate against Kostilin for his transgressions, but he’s far, far from a Tolstoyan ideal. He lies for instance, and has no compunction about the kind of killing and maiming that is routine and expected from a soldier. It is no surprise that this story is from 1870, when though Tolstoy was already something of a moralist he had not yet arrived at the pacifist, anarchist extreme he would later in life.
The Bear-Hunt, from roughly this same period (1872), is also a lot less of a moral fable than most of the stories in this collection. According to an editor’s note, it is based on something that happened to Tolstoy in real life. If so, it certainly must have been a harrowing experience, as the story recounts a multiple day chase of a wounded bear by a hunting party, culminating in the bear’s viciously attacking the first person narrator (Tolstoy himself, if it is indeed a true story), at one point getting a good portion of his face in his mouth and biting down multiple times. It’s hard to believe a person could survive that.
What Men Live By is a story of kindness to a suffering stranger used to teach the lessons of what dwells in man (love), what is not given to man (to know his own needs, including when to live and when to die), and what men live by (serving God by serving each other).
In A Spark Neglected Burns the House, two neighboring peasant families fall to feuding, and despite the urging of the wise elder of one of the families it takes them a great deal of time, suffering, and loss to figure out that every retaliation, every escalation, makes everyone worse off, and that only through forgiveness and love can they break out of their vicious circle of mutual destruction.
Two Old Men is the story of two friends who late in life decide to fulfill their vow to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They learn that while the holy sites may have some inspirational value in focusing the mind on godly things, what is ultimately of greater value in bringing one closer to God than ritualistic activities at what have largely degenerated into tourist sites is to act in accordance with the simple love and service taught in the Gospels.
In Where Love Is, God Is, a simple but good-hearted cobbler learns the meaning of “Insofar as ye did it unto one of these my brethren even these least, ye did it unto me,” one of my favorite Biblical passages (though the translation here is a bit awkward).
While many of the stories compromise realism through oversimplification of the consequences of characters’ actions and such, as well as by occasionally introducing an angel or other supernatural being or event, The Story of Ivan the Fool is more blatantly fanciful. Appropriately labeled “A Fairy Tale,” it is the story of three brothers: Two non-Tolstoyans who are forever striving for greater worldly success and coming to grief, and a Tolstoyan “fool” who cheerfully labors hard, lives simply, and serves others, and always comes out on top.
Evil Allures, But Good Endures is one of the shortest tales in this collection, just three pages. The Devil seeks to bring about discord by getting a man to provoke another man into anger and retaliation, knowing that once people start down that road it tends to escalate to greater and greater evil. But the Devil’s efforts are thwarted when the man is not provoked by being wronged, but instead responds with forgiveness and kindness.
Little Girls Wiser Than Men is another three pager. Two little girls are playing together, but then get into a fight over some childish trivialities. Adults then take the side of whichever of the girls they are related to, and they take to arguing as well. As their pride, anger, and perceived loyalty to family escalates things to where they are even exchanging physical blows, the little girls forget their fight as easily as they started it, and lose themselves in playing together again, ignoring the ruckus around them. Tolstoy reminds us, “Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
In Ilyas, a rich peasant and his wife come upon hard times and gradually lose all they have, until they are reduced to working as servants in the home of a Muslim who takes pity on them. After many years working as servants, they are asked by a visitor how they have been able to bear their misfortune. They insist that far from being frustrated or depressed when they compare their former life with their present one, they have come to realize that the more one has, the more there is to worry about losing. Life in the past, they say, was a nonstop, stressful battle to hold on to whatever they had, if not desperately seek to gain more to supposedly give themselves more security—when in fact it did the opposite—whereas now they have only to perform honest labor and they are well provided for with much more peaceful lives where they can focus on their souls rather than their material selves.
The Three Hermits tells of a bishop who attempts to educate three simple hermits to pray according to the formal teachings of his church, rather than the way they’ve worked out for themselves. But in the end a miracle reveals to him that they are well ahead of him on the spiritual path, and that it was arrogant of him to think that it was he who was qualified to teach them rather than the other way around.
In The Imp and the Crust, an imp charged by the Devil with the task of corrupting a peasant finds that he is unable to do so as long as the peasant is poor. But as soon as he arranges for him to acquire some wealth and property, and introduces liquor into his life, the imp can just sit back happily and watch things unfold, as the peasant and his fellows very quickly throw themselves into sinful lives.
In yet another story about the corrupting influence of the pursuit of material wealth, How Much Land Does a Man Need? tells of a greedy peasant who always thinks that if only he could be a little bit richer, and acquire a little bit more or better land, he could relax and be happy knowing he is finally secure. Ultimately he is offered what seems like an extraordinarily generous deal to acquire still more land than he has ever owned thus far, and realizes too late that the price is far higher than he’d thought.
A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg is a three-page story about the discovery of a giant grain of corn, and a king’s efforts to learn more about it. He gets nowhere until he summons the oldest man in the kingdom. Stunningly, the man is in far greater shape than the much younger people the king had previously questioned, and he tells the king that in the olden days everything was bigger and better, including the grain being giant like this one. Asked how things could have deteriorated so much, he replies, “These things are so, because men have ceased to live by their own labor, and have taken to depending on the labor of others. In the old time, men lived according to God’s law. They had what was their own, and coveted not what others had produced.”
In The Godson, a man falls prey to a Garden of Eden apple-type temptation, which gives him the opportunity and capacity to intervene in situations that he otherwise would have remained ignorant of. He tries to use this power for what he thinks is good, but when he uses evil means to thwart evil, the unintended consequences make things turn out even worse than if he had done nothing. He is charged with the task of discovering why this is so and what the alternative is.
The Repentant Sinner is another three-pager. A man who has led a sinful life shows no sign of repentance whatsoever until right at the moment he dies he calls out for God to forgive him. Will this be good enough to get him into Heaven? Oddly enough it is. He’s stopped at the gates of Heaven by King David and by the Disciples Peter and John, but he shames them into letting him in by reminding them that they weren’t so perfect in their lives either and yet look where they are as a result of God’s love and mercy.
The Empty Drum is yet another fanciful folk tale-type story, though with less of a clear Tolstoyan Christian moral, at least as far as I can discern. A king takes a fancy to a peasant’s wife, and decides he wants her for himself. Unlike in real life, he does not permit himself to take her by force, but must instead devise some devious plan—or at least he tasks his servants with doing so—to get the peasant killed without out and out murdering him, as in that case as a widow the wife would be available and the king could have her.
The plan they come up with is to take the peasant on in the palace as a worker, and to give him harder and harder tasks to complete, until he fails one and can be executed for disobeying the king’s orders. But the plan is thwarted by the fact that simply by doing his best the peasant is always able to complete the assigned tasks, evidently being assisted by some kind of magic or supernatural means to make up the difference between what he is capable of doing and what he is required to do.
Maybe the moral would be something like: Fulfill your obligations to the best of your ability, and trust that no matter how far you fall short of the ideal the consequences will work out.
There then follow two stories labeled as “Adaptations from the French.” The first is The Coffeehouse of Surat. A quick search online reveals that this is evidently Tolstoy’s version of a 1790 story Le Café de Surate, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
A bunch of religious folks are arguing in a café about the nature of God, each insisting that their religion is right and the others wrong. Interestingly, although there are representatives of many major religions there, showing themselves to be bigoted in favor of their own faith, Tolstoy does not include a Russian Orthodox—or any kind of Orthodox—Christian as one of the characters. Furthermore, when someone in the end points out to them that their each jealously clinging to their own culture’s conception of God is unjustified and only takes them farther from what they really should be focused on, which is common to all religions, Tolstoy makes this enlightened character a Confucian for some reason. (Was Tolstoy a great admirer of Confucianism? If so, I’m not aware of it.)
The second of these French stories is Too Dear!, Tolstoy’s version of a story by Guy de Maupassant. I did a little research online, but was unable to identify the original story. I did come across a claim in an introduction to a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories (not this one—a different, older, collection) that the story had never previously been published, but I couldn’t ascertain from the context whether that meant the Maupassant story had never been published or this version by Tolstoy hadn’t been. I’m leaning toward it being the former, though, as I came across another reference to the Maupassant work calling it a “sketch,” which makes it sound like it was something incomplete.
Anyway, in Too Dear!, in the tiny kingdom of Monaco a man is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Unfortunately, Monaco has never used the death penalty before, and it lacks any execution device such as a guillotine, and has no executioners.
Monaco contacts France and Italy to see if they would be willing to do the job, but the price quoted is way, way higher than Monaco is willing to pay. So they decide that for now they’ll just keep him in prison. Though this isn’t as expensive short term, it’s even more expensive long term, so they change their mind about that as well. They even arrange to let him escape so as to relieve themselves of the responsibility of doing something with him, but he refuses to leave, on the grounds that by now he’s lost the habit of working, his reputation is shot with his countrymen, and overall he’s ill-suited to making it on the outside. Eventually they buy him off with a pension to get rid of him.
Obviously it’s taken to a satirical extreme, but there are echoes of this story down to the present in American capital punishment and incarceration. Think about the debates over what methods of execution are legally permissible or not, the complications created by countries and businesses that refuse to sell the material needed for the executions, the high costs both of going through all the necessary steps to do an execution versus the high costs of keeping the person incarcerated for years, etc. Routinely, executions are at least delayed, and often cost is a direct or indirect reason.
We’re really not much better at the execution thing than this fictional version of Monaco is. Or as Tolstoy wryly concludes, “It is a good thing that he did not commit his crime in a country where they do not grudge expense to cut a man’s head off, or to keeping him in prison for life.”
Note that there is also a parallel between the story and modern criminal justice in the way that imprisonment tends to make people only more unqualified and disinclined to live in a productive, law-abiding manner once released (and all but a tiny fraction of prisoners of course are eventually released).
Esarhodden, King of Assyria is a powerful story of a king who is magically caused to temporarily experience life as a rival king, and even a hunted animal, who have suffered as a direct or indirect result of his actions. Not surprisingly, this extreme example of walking a mile in another’s shoes devastates him, as he comes to understand how all the evil he has been able to rationalize from his own perspective is still evil from the perspective of those on the receiving end.
The three-page story Work, Death, and Sickness: A Legend, bearing the subtitle A legend from the South American Indians, tells of how God keeps adding to the circumstantial evidence that shows that people absolutely must labor, cooperate, love, and depend on each other to survive and thrive. But God becomes increasingly frustrated by the fact that in spite of all the new challenges he gives man, the sicknesses, the unpredictable death, and so on, people remain too dense to figure it out, and continue to war with each other and split into classes of non-laboring exploiters and slaves and such.
The collection closes with Three Questions. A king decides that he would have the secret to success in life if he could answer just three key questions: What is the right time to begin something? Who are the people most necessary to listen to as regards it? What is the most important thing to do to further it?
He’s unsatisfied with the conflicting answers the learned men of his kingdom offer him to these questions, so he travels to a renowned wise hermit to ask him. Ultimately he gets his answers (which turn out to be that one ought to follow the tenets of Tolstoyan Christianity).
Even when he consciously oversimplifies, Tolstoy is a fine writer. As far as subject matter, the content of these stories varies in terms of how interesting I thought it was, how much I cared about it, how important I thought it was, etc. But the writing itself consistently bumps these stories up a level or two from where they’d otherwise be.
I didn’t dislike any of the types of stories included here, but some types I liked more than others. The more realistic stories taken from life, such as The Bear-Hunt, and the many highly fanciful folk tales about kings and magic and scheming imps and the like, such as The Empty Drum, are decent. But probably the ones that most connected with me were some of the morally uplifting tales that were either somewhat realistic, or at least not quite as deep into fantasy as the out-and-out fairy tales.
Many, maybe most, readers would likely find such tales hokey, and I suppose they are, in a sense. But I am perhaps more receptive to them than many people would be in that while I am not a Christian per se (by the way, at least as contemporary Americans use the term, Tolstoy himself wouldn’t count as a Christian by many people’s lights), the moral philosophy that I have worked out in life as the most convincing to me overlaps with that of Tolstoy to a substantial degree. (There’s maybe something like 70% overlap between me and Tolstoy, and 85% overlap between me and Gandhi. I overlap that much with probably very few other folks. Maybe Immanuel Kant, if you want to talk formal philosophers.)
So I respect that Tolstoy felt obligated to use his extraordinary literary gifts to try to make the world a better place morally, and I mostly am quite sympathetic toward the specific Sermon on the Mount-based pacifism and anarchism he espoused. I admit that I found stories like Two Old Men and Where Love Is, God Is moving, and indeed inspiring. They are welcome reminders that I should and could be doing much more to live up to my own values.
If only more real-life Christians were like the good-hearted peasants of Tolstoy’s stories, rather than being among the most hateful and ignorant of Republicans, think how much better the world would be.
Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales is one of those books that I feel I’m just a slightly better person after reading it.