Leo Tolstoy’s 17 “Rules of Life:” Wake at 5am, Help the Poor, & Only Two Brothel Visits Per Month

tolstoy rules 2

Many aspir­ing epic nov­el­ists sure­ly would­n’t mind writ­ing like Leo Tol­stoy. But can you write like the writer you admire with­out liv­ing like the writer you admire? Biogra­phies reveal plen­ty of facts about how the author of such immor­tal vol­umes as War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na passed his 82 years, none more telling than that even Leo Tol­stoy strug­gled to live like Leo Tol­stoy. “I must get used to the idea, once and for all, that I am an excep­tion­al human being,” he wrote in 1853, at age 25, under­scor­ing that “I have not met one man who is moral­ly as good as I am, or ready to sac­ri­fice every­thing for his ide­al, as I am.”

Clear­ly, exces­sive mod­esty did­n’t count among Tol­stoy’s faults. Sev­en years before mak­ing that dec­la­ra­tion, he had already envi­sioned for him­self a life of virtue and indus­try, lay­ing out what he called his “rules of life,” per­haps a fore­shad­ow­ing of his search for a rig­or­ous­ly reli­gious life with­out belief in a high­er being. The web­site Tol­stoy Ther­a­py has post­ed a selec­tion of these rules, which com­mand­ed him as fol­lows:

  • Wake at five o’clock
  • Go to bed no lat­er than ten o’clock
  • Two hours per­mis­si­ble for sleep­ing dur­ing the day
  • Eat mod­er­ate­ly
  • Avoid sweet foods
  • Walk for an hour every day
  • Vis­it a broth­el only twice a month
  • Love those to whom I could be of ser­vice
  • Dis­re­gard all pub­lic opin­ion not based on rea­son
  • Only do one thing at a time
  • Dis­al­low flights of imag­i­na­tion unless nec­es­sary

To this list of pre­cepts drawn up at the dawn of his adult life, most of which would­n’t seem out of place as any of our 21st-cen­tu­ry new year’s res­o­lu­tions, Tol­stoy lat­er added these:

  • Nev­er to show emo­tion
  • Stop car­ing about oth­er peo­ple’s opin­ion of myself
  • Do good things incon­spic­u­ous­ly
  • Keep away from women
  • Sup­press lust by work­ing hard
  • Help those less for­tu­nate

Even if you haven’t read much about Tol­stoy’s life, you may sense in some of these gen­er­al prin­ci­ples evi­dence of bat­tles with par­tic­u­lar impuls­es: observe, for instance, how his twice-month­ly lim­it on broth­el vis­its becomes the much more strin­gent and much less real­is­tic for­bid­dance of women entire­ly. But per­haps his tech­nique of work­ing hard, how­ev­er well or poor­ly it sup­pressed his lust (the man did father four­teen chil­dren, after all), ben­e­fit­ed him in the end, giv­en the vast and (often lit­er­al­ly) weighty body of work he left behind.

“Between ‘rules of life’ and life itself, what a chasm!” exclaims biog­ra­ph­er Hen­ri Troy­at in Tol­stoy. But as rich with inter­est as we find books like that, we ulti­mate­ly care about writ­ers not because of how they live, but because of how they write. The young Tol­stoy knew that, too; “the pub­li­ca­tion of Child­hood and ‘The Raid’ hav­ing made him, in his own eyes, a gen­uine man of let­ters,” writes Troy­at, “he soon added no less peremp­to­ry ‘Rules of Writ­ing’ to his ‘Rules of Life’:”

  • When you crit­i­cize your work, always put your­self in the posi­tion of the most lim­it­ed read­er, who is look­ing only for enter­tain­ment in a book.
  • The most inter­est­ing books are those in which the author pre­tends to hide his own opin­ion and yet remains faith­ful to it.
  • When reread­ing and revis­ing, do not think about what should be added (no mat­ter how admirable the thoughts that come to mind) … but about how much can be tak­en away with­out dis­tort­ing the over­all mean­ing.

Then again, War and Peace has in the mod­ern day become a byword for sheer length, and few read­ers not already steeped in 19th-cen­tu­ry Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture would turn to Tol­stoy for pure enter­tain­ment. Per­haps the writer’s life implic­it­ly adds one caveat atop all the ever-stricter rules he made for him­self while liv­ing it: nobody’s per­fect.

via Tol­stoy Ther­a­py

Relat­ed con­tent:

Leo Tol­stoy Cre­ates a List of the 50+ Books That Influ­enced Him Most (1891)

Rare Record­ing: Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Lan­guages, 1909

Vin­tage Footage of Leo Tol­stoy: Video Cap­tures the Great Nov­el­ist Dur­ing His Final Days

The Com­plete Works of Leo Tol­stoy Online: New Archive Will Present 90 Vol­umes for Free (in Russ­ian)

Leo Tolstoy’s Fam­i­ly Recipe for Mac­a­roni and Cheese

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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