Review of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom

A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Peter Sekirin
Hardcover, 387 pages
Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 1, 1997
ISBN: 0684837935
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 11/16/1997

The Commonplace of a Great Spirit

It is better to know a few things which are good and necessary
than many things which are useless and mediocre.
— Leo Tolstoy

One of the great unforeseen literary boons of the end of the Cold War and the opening of Russian society over the past decade has been that previously banned books, which have never been translated before, are coming out of Russian cellars and basements and finally finding their way into print. Along with the works that Soviet censors considered “decadent” or “Western,” materials with a religious orientation were anathema to the Soviet regime. Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom is dripping with spirituality. Tolstoy compiled this book of quotations and reflections during the last years of life, when his thoughts turned to teleological matters. Most of the pages were created by Tolstoy himself in 1903-1910 and are dedicated to matters of love, faith, kindness, knowledge, sacrifice, family, meditation, and prayer. Banned by Lenin during 75 years of of the Soviet regime for numerous quotes from the sacred texts of many major world religions, it is again a best seller in its native land.

For the elder Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom was alledgedly the most important project of his life, a book he proclaimed himself prouder that his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. “I hope that the readers may experience,” Tolstoy wrote in 1908, in the preface, “the same elevated feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again when I re-read it every day.” In 1910, when Tolstoy fell seriously ill and knew that he was dying, he asked his caretakers to bring him the Bible, the Works of Shakespeare, and the Calendar.

A Calendar of Wisdom is constructed like one of those quotation calendars (ie Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy) you’ll find all over the stores this Christmas buying season. It is a compact hardcover volume, with a beautiful cover representing each of the four seasons. The pages of the book are divided by the 365 days of the year. For each day, Tolstoy has collected quotations, not only from the Bible, the Koran, Confucius, and Buddha, but also from secular philosophers like Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Carlyle. I have to admit that I might not be the ideal person to review this book. I’ve read little Tolstoy, and I’m a devout agnostic. Perhaps, on the other hand, I’m an ideal reader for those same reasons. While many of the religious quotations don’t particularly stir me (plenty of people make meaningful lives without completely “submitting to the will of God”) the focus of the book is essentially unitarian. By spreading his spiritual sources across different religions, different philosophers, and different continents, Tolstoy composed a text which is not so much about any particular religion as much as it is about a nearly universal human need for some sort of spiritual fulfillment, some way of making a coherent meaning from a human life process that inherently resists coherence.The books is very smart in this way — it is not a consistent argument for “one true path” but a series of often contradictory shots in the dark of metaphysical uncertainty. Thus, while on February 16, Tolstoy informs us, via Cicero,

Remember that you are not mortal; only your body is mortal. What is alive is not your body but the spirit living in your body. An unseen force guides your body, just an unseen force guides the world.

on March 21, Tolstoy also offers us a secular focus, via Alexis de Tocqueville:

Real life is found only in the present. If people tell you that you should live your life preparing for the future, do not believe them. We live in this life, and we know this life only, and therefore all our efforts should be directed toward the improvement of this life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this work is its very intertextual nature. In literary study, we break things down into categories, and very often treat these categories as if they exist in a vacuum. The academy tends to downgrade the value of study of works in translation. “If you want to read Russian novels,” some academics might say, “learn Russian.” But this book is a potent reminder that such categories are arbitrary, and that translations are vital to an understanding of our shared literary heritage. Tolstoy was not influenced exclusively by the Russians who preceded him. Shakespeare, Seneca, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lucy Mallory, John Ruskin, Benedictus Spinoza, Francis Bacon, Lao-Tzu, and Arthur Schopenhauer bore just as much influence on the way that he viewed the world as did Gogol. This book is evidence of that. This is the way that ideas move across the world. It didn’t take the World Wide Web or international distribution systems to make Tolstoy an international novelist. He lived in Russia, but he drew from, and wrote for, the whole world, even “way back then” in the 19th Century.

This book is chock-full of what Tolstoy thought was the world’s wisdom. I don’t always agree with him, but I don’t think I could have chosen a wiser guide. I haven’t read this book from cover to cover, but rather, as I think Tolstoy intended, I have spent some worthwhile minutes each morning pondering the quotations that Tolstoy offers me for the day ahead. These moments have not been ones of prayer, but part of a kind of conversation with one of the world’s great novelists. I wish every great novelist had written a book like this one.

The translator of The Calendar of Wisdom, Peter Sekirin, is the author of a recent biography,The Dostoevsky Archives. He is completing his PhD in Russian literature at the Universty of Toronto.

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