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Tolstoy Journal, January 11, 2017

I did not read 20 pp. of Tolstoy yesterday but early early this morn during my holy hour I read a big chunk of one of my “travel books,” The Gospel in Brief. I had read some yesterday and am now up to page 99.

I had tried to read it before but found it too boring. Now, I like it better. I bought it years ago when I read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and then read about how he was a Tolstoyan. I want to include the whole story verbatim from the introduction but first I want to say Tolstoy’s introduction is incredibly wise and stupid at the same time. I get what he’s saying about the accretions of church tradition but all that he writes about how no one can form sects when a leader’s message is clear, is nonsense. What can he possibly mean here? Sects always form. When have they not? Is he so vain that he thinks after centuries he will present the truth of Jesus in such a way that no one will disagree or have differing opinions about it? Why not just keep the four gospels & have done with it? Read those, forget St. Paul & all the rest.

And, so far, though Tolstoy’s arrangement is smooth, Jesus does not come across as vividly as he does in the gospels themselves. Not to mention that Tolstoy added his own sections about sensuality, etc. This is a Jesus crafted into Tolstoy’s image, but, even Tolstoy, wrestling with God, can’t quite pull it off: Jesus wins the match and enough of him comes through to make the book worth reading and makes it understandable why Wittgenstein was so enamored of it.

And I am also struck that Tolstoy, after reading deeply into science, philosophy & religion, still saw the uniqueness of Jesus. He is hard to shake.

Okay, here is the story of Wittgenstein and Tolstoy’s book as told by F.A. Flowers III in the Bison Books edition of The Gospel in Brief:

“Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief had a profound impact on many of its readers, including one particular renowned reader of Tolstoy, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), one of the most influential and yet elusive personalities in the history of modern philosophy. During the early months of World War I, Wittgenstein’s regiment participated in the absurdly incompetent Galician campaign, in which there were more than 600,000 casualties. The great suffering Wittgenstein witnessed made him feel completely alone and abandoned. Soon after arriving in Galicia, he found himself in a small bookshop in Tarnow, which contained just one book: Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought The Gospel in Brief, merely because there was no other, and started reading it on September 1, 1914. Wittgenstein began receiving benefits from the book immediately. He ‘read and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times.’

“Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief did indeed captivate Wittgenstein. He wrote in his diary that ‘I say that Tolstoy’s words over and over again in my head,’ and he was able to recite whole passages by heart. Wittgenstein also recommended Tolstoy’s book to anyone in distress, explaining to one such friend in 1915 that ‘this book virtually kept me alive . . . you cannot imagine what an effect it can have upon a person.’ Wittgenstein’s comrades referred to him as ‘the man with the gospels.’

“Tolstoy’s teachings, as Wittgenstein quickly learned, required man to renounce the flesh and the gratification of his own desires and will. Man must also make himself independent of outward circumstances in order to serve the spirit, which is in all men and which makes all men sons of God. Wittgenstein tried to live the Tolstoyan ideal of a simple life until his death in 1951. One of his first steps after returning from the war was to give away the immense fortune he inherited upon his father’s death in 1913. Thereafter, a great simplicity, at times even an extreme frugality, became characteristic of Wittgenstein’s life.

“Both Wittgenstein and Tolstoy understood that the question of the meaning of live was not an academic question and that words were inadequate to explain the meaning of life. Tolstoy also understood that the meaning or ‘sense’ of life could not be found in any individual passage of the Gospels. But Tolstoy did believe that a sense of life becomes clear through an inner understanding derived from the simplicity, clarity, and harmony contained in Jesus’ teachings as a whole. The Gospel in Brief contributes to this process of understanding by emphasizing that one’s well-being may well depend upon not what has happened in the world around him, but, rather, upon one’s spiritual condition. Or, as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God ‘has neither time nor place, because the Kingdom of God, the one I preach, is within you.'”


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