Tolstoy on knowledge and meaning of life


Recently I came across Maria Popova’s blog and her collection of Leo Tolstoy’s quotes from his book, A Calendar of Wisdom. In the Calendar, first published in 1904, Tolstoy [1828-1910] set out to compile “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people.”

Here are some great ones I’d like to share on wisdom, knowledge (and ignorance!), learning and the meaning of life:

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre [Ralph Waldo Emerson].

Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory. Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge [Henry David Thoreau].

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life [Jean Jaques Rousseau].

A huge amount of knowledge is accumulated at present. Soon our abilities will be too weak, and our lives too short, to study this knowledge. We have vast treasures of knowledge at our disposal but after we study them, we often do not use them at all. It would be better not to have this burden, this unnecessary knowledge, which we do not really need [Immanuel Kant].

There are two types of ignorance, the pure, natural ignorance into which all people are born, and the ignorance of the so-called wise. You will see that many among those who call themselves scholars do not know real life, and they despise simple people and simple things [Blaise Pascal].

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life [Seneca].

And here are some of Tolstoy’s own thoughts I like, which appear after the collected quotations on various days:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive.

A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more.

Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know.

A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.

There are a limitless number of different sciences, but without one basic science, that is, what is the meaning of life and what is good for the people, all other forms of knowledge and art become idle and harmful entertainment.

We live a senseless life, contrary to the understanding of life by the wisest people of all times. This happens because our young generations are educated in the wrong way—they are taught different sciences but they are not taught the meaning of life.

If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself. 

Knowledge is limitless. Therefore, there is a minuscule difference between those who know a lot and those who know very little. 

Ignorance in itself is neither shameful nor harmful. Nobody can know everything. But pretending that you know what you actually do not know is both shameful and harmful.

Every person has only one purpose: to find perfection in goodness. Therefore, only that knowledge is necessary which leads us to this. 

It is better to know less than necessary than to know more than necessary. Do not fear the lack of knowledge, but truly fear unnecessary knowledge which is acquired only to please vanity. 

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