Readers Write In #434: On Leo Tolstoy’s ‘A Calendar of Wisdom’ and the idea of daily devotion.

Posted on January 8, 2022

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By J. Eswar

A Velocity of Being, edited by Maria Papova, was an unusual book to read. The book carries one letter on each page. The letters all follow a theme – what reading means for the letter writer. But the letters are written by individuals from diverse backgrounds. To read these letters like a typical book is like switching between books from distinct authors after every page.  So I chose to read one page a day to give me enough time to take in a letter before moving on to the next one. I liked this idea of reading one planned page every day. Even when I didn’t have the time or the energy, I could just read that one page. I thought I had discovered a great idea, but as I learnt later, this practice has been in use for centuries.

It is unclear when or where the concept of reading something every day originated. It probably began as a religious ritual. For example, Christianity has Daily Devotionals with specific spiritual readings for each day of the year. Following this tradition, Leo Tolstoy created A Circle of Reading – thoughts from wise people for every day of the year. Roger Cockrell has translated and edited a version of this titled, A Calendar of Wisdom.

1st January

It is better to know a little of what is really good and worthwhile than

a lot of what is mediocre and unnecessary.

 Tolstoy

The first edition of A Calendar of Wisdom was published in 1905-06. However, Tolstoy had considered the idea at least twenty years before that. In a diary entry in 1884, Tolstoy writes, “I need to compile for myself a Circle of Reading: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Pascal, the Gospels. This would be something that everybody would need”. The following year he revisits this idea and defines the scope of this work as “the one thing that man needs more than anything, and which constitutes his life and his salvation”. Even though Tolstoy had this idea in 1884, it was only in 1903 it turned into reality. But what prompted Tolstoy to continue working on an idea he had considered twenty years earlier?

7th February

How strange! People will fight against an evil which comes from outside them, from other people – something which is not in their power to eliminate – but they do not fight the evil that is inside them, although that is always in their power to do.

Marcus Aurelius

In the introduction to A Calendar of Wisdom, Roger Cockrell mentions Tolstoy was “horrified by the generally primitive level of culture to which society has descended”. Tolstoy wished to do something about this situation. “To be truly educated and enlightened is to be able to assimilate and take advantage of the entire spiritual legacy that has come down to us from our ancestors. I would very much like to be able to do something to redress this appalling situation”, Tolstoy wrote in a letter in 1904. Tolstoy’s intentions are clear, but a question remains. Why did Tolstoy choose a direct and instructive format instead of an inquiry through the characters of a novel? 

21st April

The most fatal error that ever happened in the world was the separation of political and ethical science. 

Shelly

Contemporary Tamil writer Jeyamohan, in a lecture on Tolstoy, observes there are two facets to Tolstoy. Tolstoy – the storyteller, who created War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Resurrection. Then there is Tolstoy – the guru, like a priest addressing from an altar. Though Tolstoy explored moral and ethical dilemmas through the characters in his literary works, he doubted their impact on society. He probably felt that his fictional works are not sufficiently clear to understand and practice. So Tolstoy started focussing on simple, direct, fable-like pieces to teach morality. 

2nd July

We can only be totally satisfied with the impression made on us by a work of art when, despite all our intellectual efforts, there is something about it that remains beyond our full comprehension.

Schopenhauer

What is it like to read A Calendar of Wisdom? 

At a superficial level, this is just a book of quotes. Many quotations come across as preachy and may not be appreciated by everyone. But on a deeper level, this is a compendium of answers to the eternal questions facing humanity. These questions have been asked and answered by every generation yet they continue to persist.

18th December

Life is a constant striving towards a goal, to which it is possible to come close,

but which is impossible to achieve; therefore there can be no rest

Giuseppe Mazzini (1860)

More than a century later, 


You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote

toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Paul Kalanithi (2016) 

The concerns of Lao Tzu were also the concerns of Tolstoy. The pressing questions of the 19th century are also our own. So, A Calendar of Wisdom is not just any book of quotes but wisdom for posterity. Have all these thoughts stood the test of time? Many of them, yes. But, some of these thoughts have not aged well. And some of them will not be agreeable at all. These imperfections show no one can be right about everything every time, not even the wisest among us.

13th September

Look upon your thoughts as if they were your guests, and your desires as if they were your children. 

Chinese Proverb

Even though this is a collection of quotations, the daily devotional format makes it easier to digest these thoughts. By limiting the ideas under a single topic for a day, the book provides a coherent reading experience. The daily format enables reading only one page a day, slows us down, and creates time to reflect on these views. This format also nurtures a daily reading habit. For these reasons, I find the daily devotional style appealing.

26th November

It is better to believe in the most impossible and distant good than to believe that people are capable of committing even the most trivial of sins.

Tolstoy

The downside of repeating something every day is, the repetition could numb the experience. It risks becoming a chore. This is true even for a daily reading routine. Some days, the entries in A Calendar of Wisdom did not register in me, a likely side effect of the daily routine. Maybe, mixing different daily readings could help with this. The idea of daily devotional has permeated today into various subjects beyond scriptural reading. Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic provides a page-a-day guide for stoicism. Clemency Burton-Hill introduces classical music in Year of Wonder. Robert Greene’s book The Daily Laws is a collection of ideas about strategy and human nature. The daily readings are also available in a non-book format. Daily Dad and Daily Stoic are free e-mail subscriptions on parenting and stoicism. If the idea of reading a page every day sounds interesting to you, then daily devotional is a great format to explore ideas.

31st December

“Time passes!” we often hear people say. There is no such thing as time;

we are the ones who are moving.

The Talmud