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Tolstoy’s 14 Rules for Life


One doesn’t become a classic by simply making a wish; one must also, for example, get up early and only visit brothels twice a month.

An author can lead a good life or a reprehensible one, but in the end what matters is the quality of their writing: this is what will stand out within the morass of literature across the centuries and which will engrave his name in the memory of generations of readers. But from an early age, the Russian novelist and thinker Leo Tolstoy told himself: “I have to convince myself, once and for all, that I am an exceptional human being.”

That self-assurance and his vocation contrast sharply with the list of obligations that he was keen on his whole life, especially in his early maturity, of which he left a wealth of records in his diaries, and which he kept for more than 50 years.

His “rules of life” aimed to create an ethical and intellectual set of ideas that would allow him to make the most of his best hours and lend flexibility to his restless spirit, as well as keeping him on the ball. In his youth he wrote:


Get up at 5 a.m.

Don’t go tor bed any later than 10 p.m.

Two hours of siesta are allowed during the day

Eat in moderation

Avoid sweet foods

Walk for one hour each day

Don’t visit a brothel more than twice a month

Love those whom you can be of help to

Discount all public opinion not based on reason

Do only one thing at a time

Avoid imaginary reveries unless they are necessary


‘Avoiding unnecessary imaginary reveries’ may always be a mystery, but there is no doubt that these rules or vital counsels served Tolstoy, if not to completely equip himself as his ‘ideal I,’ then to continually redefine some vital prescriptions; such as those concerning his relationship with women and lust, for example. Tolstoy would father 14 children during his lifetime, despite the fact that at one point he promised himself to:


Never show emotion

Stop worrying about other people’s opinions of myself

Do good things unnoticed

Stay away from women

Banish lust by working hard

Help the less fortunate


To paraphrase Whitman, it could be said that Tolstoy also contained multitudes and that each of those beings that inhabited him was greater than the sum of its parts. Contradictions shrouded in doubt and hard work on the spirit were the margins within which Tolstoy’s work became some of the strongest literature of the 19th century, among which is War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Many more lists are found in his Diaries and in essays on ethics such as “Confession”.

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