It's 150 years since Leo Tolstoy put pen to paper and began writing his epic War and Peace. While most people think of him as one of the 19th century's greatest novelists, few are aware that he was also one of its most radical social and political thinkers. During a long life from 1828 to 1910, Tolstoy gradually rejected the received beliefs of his aristocratic background and embraced a startlingly unconventional worldview that shocked his peers. Tracing his personal transformation offers some wise — and surprising — lessons for how we should approach the art of living today.
Tolstoy was born into the Russian nobility. His family had an estate and owned hundreds of serfs. The early life of the young count was raucous and debauched, and he gambled away a fortune through a reckless addiction to cards. As he acknowledged in A Confession:
I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder —