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A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy on Knowledge and the Meaning of Life

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

On March 15, 1884, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) wrote in his diary:

I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.

So he set out to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people” — a florilegium five centuries after the golden age of florilegia and a Tumblr a century and a half before the golden age of Tumblr, a collection of famous words on the meaning of life long before the concept had become a cultural trope. The following year, he wrote to his assistant, describing the project:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

Armenian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

Tolstoy spent the next seventeen years collecting those pieces of wisdom. In 1902, in his late seventies, seriously ill and confronting mortality, he finally sat down to write the book under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. Once he sent the manuscript to his publisher, he returned to the diary and exhaled:

I felt that I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading.

Retitled to Thoughts of Wise Men, the book was first published in 1904, followed closely by an expanded and reorganized edition titled A Calendar of Wisdom, in which the quotes were organized around specific daily themes and which included several hundred of Tolstoy’s own thoughts. It wasn’t until 1997 that the compendium received its first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, titled A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library).

Tolstoy writes in the introduction:

I hope that the readers of this book may experience the same benevolent and elevating feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again, when I reread it every day, working on the enlargement and improvement of the previous edition.

Running through the book are several big-picture threads that string together the different quotations. One of them is Tolstoy’s intense preoccupation with the acquisition and architecture of knowledge, ignorance, and the meaning of life. Here are several of the insights he culls from other thinkers, along with the respective days of the year to which Tolstoy assigned them:

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.

What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century. Yes, we should be grateful for the best books, for the best spiritual achievements in our lives.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 1)

Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 1)

Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.

Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 9)

A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…. That is why constant learning softens your brain…. Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries.

(Arthur Schopenhauer, January 9)

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.

(Jean Jaques Rousseau, March 16)

Science can be divided into an infinite number of disciplines, and the amount of knowledge that can be pursued in each discipline is limitless. The most critical piece of knowledge, then, is the knowledge of what is essential to learn and what isn’t.

A huge amount of knowledge is accumulated at present. Soon our abilities will be too weak, and our lives too short, to study this knowledge. We have vast treasures of knowledge at our disposal but after we study them, we often do not use them at all. It would be better not to have this burden, this unnecessary knowledge, which we do not really need.

(Immanuel Kant, April 1)

What is important is not the quantity of your knowledge, but its quality. You can know many things without knowing that which is most important.

There are two types of ignorance, the pure, natural ignorance into which all people are born, and the ignorance of the so-called wise. You will see that many among those who call themselves scholars do not know real life, and they despise simple people and simple things.

(Blaise Pascal, April 18)

There is only one real knowledge: that which helps us to be free. Every other type of knowledge is mere amusement.

(Vishnu Purana, Indian Wisdom, June 23)

The way to true knowledge does not go through soft grass covered with flowers. To find it, a person must climb steep mountains.

(Josh Ruskin, September 20)

A sage is not afraid of lack of knowledge: he is not afraid of hesitations, or hard work, but he is afraid of only one thing — to pretend to know the things which he does not know.

You should study more to understand that you know little.

(Michel de Montaigne, October 1)

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.

(Seneca, November 14)

Armenian sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952) working on his statue of Leo Tolstoy. (Public domain, Library of Congress)

But most poignant of all are Tolstoy’s own thoughts, which appear after the collected quotations on various days. A sampling:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive. (January 1)

A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more.

Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know. (January 9)

A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.

There are a limitless number of different sciences, but without one basic science, that is, what is the meaning of life and what is good for the people, all other forms of knowledge and art become idle and harmful entertainment.

We live a senseless life, contrary to the understanding of life by the wisest people of all times. This happens because our young generations are educated in the wrong way—they are taught different sciences but they are not taught the meaning of life.

The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone. (January 18)

If all knowledge were good, then pursuit of every sort of knowledge would be useful. But many false meditations are disguised as good and useful knowledge; therefore, be strict in selecting the knowledge you want to acquire. (March 16)

If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself. (March 17)

Beware of false knowledge. All evil comes from it.

Knowledge is limitless. Therefore, there is a minuscule difference between those who know a lot and those who know very little. (April 1)

Ignorance in itself is neither shameful nor harmful. Nobody can know everything. But pretending that you know what you actually do not know is both shameful and harmful. (April 18)

Every person has only one purpose: to find perfection in goodness. Therefore, only that knowledge is necessary which leads us to this. (May 3)

There are two very clear indications of real science and real art: the first inner sign is that a scholar or an artist works not for profit, but for sacrifice, for his calling; the second, outer sign is that his works are understandable to all people. Real science studies and makes accessible that knowledge which people at that period of history think important, and real art transfers this truth from the domain of knowledge to the domain of feelings.

Creating art is not as elevated a thing as many people guess, but certainly it is a useful and kind thing to do, especially if it brings people together and arouses kind feelings in them. (July 2)

It is better to know less than necessary than to know more than necessary. Do not fear the lack of knowledge, but truly fear unnecessary knowledge which is acquired only to please vanity. (September 23)

Though much of A Calendar of Wisdom bears the dated religiosity of the era — and of an old man confronting his mortality in that era — many of the collected thoughts resonate with timeless secular sagacity. Complement it with Montaigne on the art of living and the collected wisdom of modern icons on the meaning of life.

BP

Joy Williams’s Daily Writing Routine

“…all messages which will fuel the morrow’s pages coming to me in friendly and artful dreams…”

This omnibus of the daily routines of famous writers endures as the second most popular Brain Pickings article of all time. (For the curious, this is the first.) From the new anthology Always Apprentices: The Believer Magazine Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between Writers (public library) comes a beautiful contribution by novelist and essayist Joy Williams, who knows a thing or two about why writers write. Like Edison, she enjoys a good nap. Like Thoreau and Virginia Woolf, she finds creative fuel in nature. Like Henry Miller, she makes a point of seeing friends.

This is her day:

Tea and fruit in the morning, then four or five hours of solid work, a salad for lunch. A nap, in which my lost loved ones come to me and tell me they’re happy and still love me, a walk through bird-songed woods, followed by several more hours of oxygenated work. Drinks with friends, each more accomplished and interesting than the other, then bed, windows flung open to the soothing pounding of the sea, turning rock over rock, all messages which will fuel the morrow’s pages coming to me in friendly and artful dreams…

The rest of Always Apprentices, a sequel to the 2008 tome The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, offers five years’ worth of conversations with literary icons, including Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, and reconstructionist Joan Didion.

BP

Wondrous the Merge: Why Love Knows No Boundaries

“At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle.”

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Big Joy — a wonderful documentary about the life of the poet, filmmaker, gay liberation champion, and counterculture hero James Broughton (1913–1999):

Though Broughton was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and left a powerful imprint on culture with his experimental cinema and expressive poetry, what makes the film most soul-stirring of all is Broughton’s remarkable and unlikely love story.

Already twice married and the father of two daughters and a son, it wasn’t until late in life that he met his soulmate.

James was 61. Joel was 26.

Exultantly besotted, James wrote Joel in a letter:

I did not think you would come to me in this lifetime.

On April 5th, 1975, James captured in his journal, preserved at the Kent State archives, a joyously disbelieving account of their first time making love:

And it was wonderful, truly wondrous. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I can still scarcely believe it. Such mutual joy. I was half my age. Age vanished. There was only lovingness. And connecting. And ecstasy. As if this were what I had been waiting for all my life, since … Littlejohn of boyhood. And thought had long since passed all opportunity by me.

And it was suddenly here. So very here. So tenderly and strongly. At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle. It is from Hermes himself. It is a manifestation of so much that I have been feeling under surface in my soul so long: an incarnation. It had to become manifest. So much desire must create a reality.

Seven years later, in “Wondrous the Merge”, one of his many love poems for Joel, found in the sublime collection Special Deliveries: New and Selected Poems (public library), James offered a lyrical addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Wondrous Wondrous the merge
Wondrous the merge of soulmates
the surprises of recognition
Wondrous the flowerings of renewal
Wondrous the wings of the air
clapping their happy approval

* * *

I severed my respectabilities
and bought a yellow mobile home
in an unlikely neighborhood
He moved in his toaster his camera
and his eagerness to become
my courier seed-carrier and consort

Above all he brought the flying carpet
that upholsters his boundless embrace
Year after year he takes me soaring
out to the ecstasies of the cosmos
that await all beings in love

One day we shall not bother to return

The two remained together for 25 years, as muses for each other, until James departed this world on his flying carpet.

If you can, treat yourself to a local screening of Big Joy and consider helping the filmmakers crowdfund the film tour.

BP

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