A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy’s self-help guide for “inner force, calmness, and happiness”

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Despite my love for the great Russian author, until recently I had heard very little about A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy.

This was Tolstoy’s last published work, and the book that he considered to be his most important contribution to humanity.

A Calendar of Wisdom was widely read in pre-revolutionary Russia, banned and forgotten under Communism, and has only recently gained recognition once more.

Not only is A Calendar of Wisdom an excellent guide to living, but it’s also one of the best places to start with Tolstoy.

As you may expect from the description in its title as a “calendar”, each page of the non-fiction book is dedicated to a particular day of the year. Moreover, the quotes for each day are grouped under a certain theme, be it God, intellect, law, love, faith, temptations, work, or something entirely different.

The original idea for this work appeared to come to Tolstoy in the mid-1880s: in 1884 he wrote about, “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people”.

In his diary on March 15 of that year, he added,

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.

In 1885, he wrote in a letter to his assistant,

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 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.

Bibliotherapy in Tolstoy's A Calendar of Wisdom
Each page of the text is dedicated to a single day of the
year, and deals with a certain theme (e.g. virtue).
Tolstoy spent fifteen years collecting these thoughts, piecing together quotes that represented a wide variety of philosophical views, cultural backgrounds, and historical periods. Through completing the book, Tolstoy fulfilled a dream he had nourished for many years: that of “collecting the wisdom of the centuries in one book”.

The result is a highly accessible, useful guide to life that we could all benefit from having on our bedside tables.

I currently make time to read the quotes for the day just before bed, after any other bedtime reading. This way, I can fall asleep pondering the quotes instead of my own anxieties.


I thought I’d share the quotes for June 18 from A Calendar of Wisdom, when I wrote this post:

Understanding our duty provides us with the understanding of our divine soul. And, too, the understanding of our divine soul gives us the understanding of duty.

There is in our soul something that, if we see it as it is and give it the proper attention, will always give us great pleasure; this something is the moral disposition or quality which was given to us at our creation. ~ Immanuel Kant

People can reach heavenly joy: those pure ones who are filled with the desire for a good life receive pleasure in their body, in their material life. When your mind and your heart are pure, then the divine will be opened for you. ~ Brahmin Indian wisdom

If your heart is filled with virtue, then you will find happiness and beauty. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The voice of your conscience is the voice of God.

Each entry begins and ends with one of Tolstoy’s own meditations, and contains other fragments of wisdom and advice in-between. Even if you are not a fan of Tolstoy’s fiction, I would certainly recommend this book. It’s easy to read, concise, and full of useful guidance for daily life.

I have the hardback Scribner edition, as translated by Peter Sekirin, which I’ve so far found highly accessible and enjoyable.

For more on Tolstoy, you might like:

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