The Radical Kindness of Leo Tolstoy

In our world, cruelty often makes the headlines while kindness is ignored or treated like an outdated idea. The world has been like this for some time. If you’re like me and feel frustrated that kindness doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, you should study the writings of 19th-century Russian novelist and thinker Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s perspective on kindness resonates across history. His ideas on kindness extend beyond mere niceties; they form the backbone of his philosophy and worldview.

Kindness as a Spiritual Endeavor: Tolstoy wasn’t just talking about kindness as a social grace or courtesy. For him, kindness was a deeply spiritual practice connected to his interpretation of Christianity. In books like The Kingdom of God Is Within You, he challenges the traditional structures of religion, urging people to internalise the teachings of Jesus, particularly the idea of unconditional love and non-resistance to evil. Kindness, in this light, is not just good behaviour; it’s a form of spiritual activism.

Kindness and the Russian Soul: In Tolstoy’s literary works, particularly War and Peace and Anna Karenina, kindness isn’t just a virtue but a lens through which to understand the complexities of human interaction. His characters are often flawed, struggling with moral dilemmas and societal pressures, but it’s their moments of kindness that make them relatable and genuinely human. Kindness is a fundamental aspect of what Tolstoy saw as the Russian soul, a collective spirit that transcends social and economic boundaries.

The Radical Nature of Kindness: But don’t mistake Tolstoy’s kindness for weakness. He took his philosophy to radical lengths. In advocating non-resistance, he influenced figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrating that kindness could be a potent form of civil disobedience. In his essays and letters, Tolstoy often critiqued the state, the church, and social institutions, arguing that they perpetuated systems that were inherently unkind. He believed in taking direct, compassionate action as an antidote to systemic cruelty.

Now, you might be thinking, ‘That’s all well and good for a 19th-century novelist, but how does this apply to me?’ The beauty of Tolstoy’s philosophy is that it’s remarkably accessible. Kindness doesn’t require grand gestures; it starts with the individual and radiates outward. The core of Tolstoy’s argument is that kindness is a daily choice, and one that has a cumulative effect on the world around us.

Tolstoy’s view on kindness serves as a poignant reminder that our actions, no matter how small, can have a profound impact on the lives of others and, by extension, on society as a whole. In an era where cynicism often prevails, revisiting Tolstoy’s writings offers a fresh perspective on the transformative power of simple acts of kindness.

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