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Monday, August 24, 2009

Tolstoy quotes

(Painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin)

If you, like me, are basically middle brow, you've probably heard a lot of expressions whose derivation you're not familiar with. A few years ago I had occasion to look up a quote from Tolstoy, and was surprised to see the number of expressions of his which I had heard somewhere, but hadn't realized were his. I was even more surprised to see the number of great lines I hadn't heard.

If you, like me, have neither the patience nor the time to wade through War and Peace in search of these lines, here is a sampling. (The italics are mine; I'll refrain from writing "how true!", even though that is my reaction to most of them):

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

(Losing weight and gaining money do not count.)

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.

The only thing we know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us.

(Certainly economic, if not physical.)

Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but is essential for right thinking.

War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves.

(My sense is that most of those who wage it have no conscience to stifle.)

He had heard that women often love plain ordinary men, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful mysterious exceptional women.

History would be an excellent thing if only it were true.

Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.

Boredom, the desire for desires.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.

A beautiful woman utters absurdities; we listen, and we hear not the absurdities but wise thoughts.

(God knows how many times I've been guilty of this; it seems to happens to me less these days, and I am the poorer for it.)

I have discovered nothing new, I have only perceived what I already knew.

The Christian churches and Christianity have nothing in common save in name: they are hostile opposites. The churches are arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity, death; Christianity is humility, penitence, submissiveness, progress, life.

Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.

(As illustrated by the movie Shallow Hal and by the perspective with which we view our bank accounts.)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(It is not Tolstoy's fault that this has become such a cliche among movie reviewers.)

Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.

Even in the valley of the shadow of death, two and two do not make six.

(It sure can seem that way, though.)

He never chooses an opinion; he just wears whatever happens to be in style.

(How many people do you know like this?)

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means -- except by getting off his back.

If you want to be happy, be.

(C'mon Leo, you know that's easier said than done.)

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.

(I do that all the time, which is why I never get any work done.)

There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.

A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.

(Myself, I only pretend -- for purposes of this blog -- to have a small denominator.)

I sometimes wonder if the greats like Tolstoy would have been as prolific as they were had they had an internet and video games to distract them.

In any case, it's good that we have superiors like Leo to fall back on when our own wells run dry.


Coming soon: Mark Twain.

3 comments:

pelicanmarsh68 said...

Nicely said, sir.

The Christian churches and Christianity have nothing in common save in name: they are hostile opposites. The churches are arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity, death; Christianity is humility, penitence, submissiveness, progress, life.

Hm. Funny that. I learned through experience that my relationship with Jesus has zilch to do with my dealings with any church.

Rock on.

Anonymous said...

Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but is essential for right thinking.


This was my favorite. Surprising how many of Tolstoy's observations are perfectly relevant today.

John Craig said...

Thank you both for your comments. I was struck as well by how relevant his comments are; I guess human nature does not change.

And yes, churches often has little to do with real Christianity. Just look at some of the people who run them.