Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.
His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhiand Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Spiritual Crisis
After the age of 50 and despite his fame, his wealth and his happy family life, Tolstoy became dissatisfied with himself because he hadn’t managed to probe into the purpose of life and hadn’t found the answers he was looking for. He couldn’t find much help in the writings of philosophers and theologians, but there was a clue in the simple life of peasants and their belief in serving God and their fellow men. He became convinced that the teachings of Jesus held the truth he was looking for, but their original substance was lost in the authority of the church. In 1893, and based on Luke’s Gospel, he wrote The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which deeply moved Mahatma Gandhi when he read it. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy about his Passive Resistance Movement and their correspondence led to a warm friendship and Tolstoy’s work A Letter to a Hindu in 1908.
His everyday life changed a lot, too. He used to dress in peasant clothes, he became a vegetarian and gave up smoking and drinking alcohol. He refused to be served, he cleaned his own room, worked in the fields, tried to live in complete chastity and got involved in philanthropic activities. All these made his reputation spread not only throughout Russia, but in the rest of the world, and there were hundreds of people, “The Tolstoyans,” who daily visited his estate to meet him, and who were willing to give up all worldly pleasures and live according to his principles. But there was a contradiction between the life of ease and wealth his family lived and the ascetic, religious life he, himself wanted to follow. He tried to divest himself of his own property, but his family made him transfer his estate and loyalties to them. He wrote pamphlets and articles with his views on political power, war, social and government practices of violence, and asked for reforms.