What is Religion? and Other Writings – Leo Tolstoy

29 Sep

An insight into Tolstoy as there was no dust jacket to amuse you with.

Sat in work’s canteen, I found myself enjoying a bit of Tolstoy, nothing beats having a paid fifteen minute break to sit and read a book.  This book wouldn’t have been my obvious choice for a début work read but it was something I had started and quite simply didn’t wish to distract myself with another book.

I remember picking up my somewhat battered 1902 version from a wonderful second-hand shop four or so years ago and it is worth every penny of the £4.95, I paid for it.  Why somebody would let this go I have no idea.  Tolstoy writes with a simplicity and a logic that whilst sometimes seeming a little repetitive, makes his points with an effective and compelling clarity.

The primary essay centres on Tolstoy asking what is religion and its essence?   He begins by analysing the key message of all religions, what they have in common, the teachings, in particular Christianity (and the teachings of Jesus) and how far the established church has diverted from certain tenets of its own faith.

In this and the other writings, class is a big factor for the author, asking why small groups of powerful people be it in the Church or not are working for their own ends and not for the good of everybody.  Tolstoy also asks us to consider the logic of some of the dogma that surrounds the modern-day state of the church, these are issues that are around today and seem to still be largely ignored.

Although these letters and essays were written between 1896 and 1902 they seem remarkably relevant, not only from a spiritual standpoint but also a moral one.  It was for this stance of outspoken Christian anarchy, if you will that Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.  It was explosive stuff for the time and is pretty compelling should you be in the right frame of mind for it.

The author has many other short works in the book including the problem of soldiers reconciling the commandment of thou shalt not kill with their day jobs, religious tolerance and the questioning of the established churches and how they convey the teachings of Jesus as well as how the flock is treated by the hierarchy.  As well as a letter outlining how non-violent resistance could be used as a tool to for India to gain autonomy from the British, this was the letter that influenced Ghandi’s independence movement and the correspondence between the two men.

The mixture of social and spiritual reform that Tolstoy espouses is fascinating and still relevant today for the most part, as well as being a snap shot into the past and the similar struggles that were going on even then.  Anybody with an interest in religion, or spiritual and moral awareness will find something here.  You can’t go far wrong with a bit of Tolstoy, anybody with an interest in either the author or theology will get a lot out of this.


Posted by on 29/09/2014 in Essays, Philosophy


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29 responses to “What is Religion? and Other Writings – Leo Tolstoy

  1. gargoylebruce

    29/09/2014 at 22:14

    That sounds compelling – I wonder why I haven’t come across it in my studies…we were stuck mostly with Durkheim but this sounds like it is along the same lines. Interesting…


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:23

      In a bit of poetic dovetailing, I have not yet come across Durkheim. I shall add it the list which I shall have to split into two now in order to make it carry-able.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gargoylebruce

        02/10/2014 at 05:12

        I might have to split mine into two also….one half containing the books that I actually really want to read AND can see myself actually reading before death, and the other half featuring those that I add to my tbr list due to pity, misdirected projection of affection, temporary lunacy or a desire to please others.


  2. shadowoperator

    30/09/2014 at 00:20

    I read something by Tolstoy about God once, I can’t remember the title, but it was only about a ten to twenty page book, with an onion skin paper at the beginning and a facsimile signature. In it, he seemed singularly humorless. I guess now given your recommendation, I will have to read him again and see how I feel. I wasn’t particularly into religion at the time. I’m a bit more tolerant now.


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:19

      He is a bit dry, I suppose if he were to inject some humour, he would probably have been accused of levity. As most of the essays and letters are short, there is a good chance you have read one of these essays before. How age makes us more interested in a bit of everything!


  3. writersideup

    30/09/2014 at 04:01

    Ste J, I am far from well read when it comes to classics and books such as these, and I already know I never will be. I sincerely appreciate you doing this post ’cause now I have a better insight as to what Tolstoy wrote. He was obviously a man of great integrity to put truth first. Something to admire! I know, for sure, this book would interest/fascinate me because I’m very well aware of the difference between most dogma and what Christianity really is. I was raised a Catholic, but don’t belong to any organized religion, though of all of them, the ones I believe are the closest to the truth are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Anyway, thank you for enlightening me on Tolstoy! 😀


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:15

      All these essays are short, the biggest by far is only 55 pages long so if you did wish to dabble, they are nice and bite sized…You can become as well read as you wish my friend, go for it! It is interesting considering religion and how it has changed/been changed throughout history. It is always a pleasure to introduce readers to new books and opinions.


      • writersideup

        30/09/2014 at 21:55

        ah, OK, so they’re essays. Perhaps, at some point, I’ll pick it up just to read one or two. My being “well read” is mostly children’s literature, and even that I can’t fit in the way I’d like 😦 Oh, well…


        • Ste J

          01/10/2014 at 20:34

          I do love children’s literature which is another genre that I haven’t reviewed much of, of late. I shall get something on the pile as soon as.


  4. Tom Gething

    30/09/2014 at 06:20

    Nope, you can’t go wrong with a bit of Tolstoy!


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:10

      Next stop Anna Karenina…at some point.


  5. Lyn

    30/09/2014 at 13:36

    So which of Tolstoy’s books are you reading? It sounds like something I could really get my teeth into…not literally of course, just in the literary<i? sense 😀


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:09

      You would need some sort of drink to wash down the big words, I’m thinking…I once ate a bit of menu, it wasn’t very appetising oddly!


  6. N@ncy

    30/09/2014 at 14:00

    Paul Veyne touched on the subject of religion. He wanted to believe ( ..was it with difficulty) in ‘quelquechose’ that is bigger than us, towers over us and surrounds us. He concluded that ” Ce sentiment me communique une émotion qui me fait chaud au coeur pendant une minute” (pg 103). He said it so simply yet it still lingers in my mind. I enjoyed reading this review, thanks!.


    • Ste J

      30/09/2014 at 19:34

      Even if Google translate did a bad job that was still one heck of a quotation, Mr Veyne intrigues me even more now. I think we are programmed to believe in something higher and be that genetic or actually God infused it does keep pondering such questions fascinating.


  7. Letizia

    01/10/2014 at 14:40

    I remember reading the titular piece years ago but not the other essays in the book so I will have to dust off my copy. I love the image of your reading this in the canteen during your lunch break.


    • Ste J

      01/10/2014 at 20:31

      Wherever I work people always look at me a little oddly when I bring some of the books in, it’s nice to escape into something that makes me think though. it is nice to be able to have a break to do it in as well lol. I think you will appreciate a lot of the points Mr T. makes.


  8. Sherri

    02/10/2014 at 08:48

    I’ve never read Tolstoy to my shame but Anna Karenina is on my list. And how long have I been saying that? I would love to know more about the man. It’s so heartening to know that you are there in your canteen reading books such as these. So much better than Heat magazine…


    • Ste J

      03/10/2014 at 13:13

      Anna Karenina is on my list as well, in fact it has been for a few years…I did take the plunge with Tolstoy and tackle War and Peace as my first book by him. There is usually a copy of one of these celebrity magazines in the canteen, that and the Daily Star for some odd reason…I’m on a travel book at the moment and that is more a semblance of normality I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sherri

        03/10/2014 at 13:20

        War & Peace…that must have taken a long time to read. It would me anyway. Nothing like a good travel book 🙂


        • Ste J

          03/10/2014 at 13:25

          It took me seven weeks, three of which were working full time and four were part time, nothing beats the feeling of getting to page 750 and realising you only have another 750 pages to go lol.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Cody McCullough

    04/10/2014 at 01:51

    Another book to add to my list. It sounds very interesting. I do like Tolstoy.


    • Ste J

      05/10/2014 at 18:31

      I had never heard of it until I accidentally came across it, it’s well worth a read and thought provoking.


  10. RoSy

    09/10/2014 at 22:44

    Sounds like something that would really make one think.


    • Ste J

      10/10/2014 at 19:16

      When we think of religion, it is easy to accept what is taught but perhaps some of the concepts have been skewed to fit in with certain agendas…it is thought provoking and well worth an examination of religious beliefs.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. anna amundsen

    22/10/2014 at 18:45

    It’s been a long time since I read Tolstoy. I did have an idea to make the last Winter’s reading all-Russian but stars were lined differently. Maybe I could try to make it work this year – and include these essays!


    • Ste J

      23/10/2014 at 19:30

      This collection of essays is short and would be a nice break in between bigger books. There are so many great Russian authors, I think it is a great challenge to take on.



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