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Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales

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Walk in the Light
And Twenty-Three Tales

By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise Shanks Maude and Aylmer Maude
Orbis Books, 2003, 351 pages
ISBN: 1-5707-5460-8

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 4, 2009

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is known for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina and is considered to be one of the greatest novelists. He also wrote short stories. Walk in the Light contains a novella called Walk in the Light While There Is Light, with a subtitle A Story of Early Christian Times. The title is in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Isaiah 2:5 states: "Come house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord." I John 1:7 reads: "But if we walk in the light, as he is the light, we have fellowship one with another."

Readers of this tale and some of the other short stories in this volume need to know something about Tolstoy's mindset, specifically his view of Christianity, in order to understand what he is saying and why he said it. While Walk in the Light has twenty three other short stories, we will focus our attention on the captioned novella.

Tolstoy had a spiritual crisis when he was fifty years old, around 1878. The novella was composed in 1893, after he resolved the crisis. In his The Gospel in Brief and other writings, Tolstoy tells how he became convinced that Jesus' teachings were perverted by the people who transmitted them. The ideas that were presented were wrong for, among other things, Jesus was not involved with unnatural miracles. Tolstoy felt that he understood the true concept of Christianity.

Tolstoy believed that God, who he called "the infinite source of being," is not involved in current human affairs. This "source of being" created everything out of love.

Jesus was not God; he was as human as other people. He was different only because he understood that everything that the infinite source created was created with love. Therefore, he also understood that if people want to relate to the source, God, as they should, they can only do so by being like God, showing love to all people.

Walk in the Light is Tolstoy's dramatization of what he considers the proper Christian way of thinking. It is a very shallow tale and a disappointment. There are essentially two characters in what is basically a parable, a homily, a sermon. The Christian, Pamphilius, is portrayed as a meek, passive, uneducated and unsophisticated man totally uninterested in improving himself or society. Pamphillius' name is Greek and means "beloved of all." Tolstoy probably assigned him this name because Pamphilius' life goal was love. The name is unintentionally ironic because Pamphillius despised everything related to Greek culture.

Pamphillius has a friend named Julian. This name is appropriate. It reminds the reader of the Roman emperor with this name who lived between 331 and 363 C.E. and was viciously opposed to Christianity.

The two friends grew up together in Tarsus, in the south of modern Turkey, about a hundred years after the onset of Christianity. Julian is the son of a rich merchant and Pamphillius of a freed slave. Julian's father pays for Pamphillius to attend school with his son, but Pamphillius leaves school before completing his education to live the life of a Christian.

Julian continues his education and after a period of sowing his oats, settles down, marries, has children, and becomes a successful merchant after his father's death. Although successful, he is not altogether satisfied with his life; he feels that something is lacking. He meets Pamphillius by chance several times and the two discuss the teachings of Christianity.   

Does Pamphilius have any concern about the future of the universe? Remarkably, Tolstoy answers "No." Pamphillius tells Julian:

It is true that we do not set ourselves the aim of continuing the human race, and do not make it our concern in the way I have heard your philosophers speak of it. We suppose that our Father has already provided for that. Our aim is simply to live in accord with His will.

What about marriage? Since love is paramount among Pamphilius' group, one would think that marital love should be emphasized. It isn't. The group is so concerned about the problems of lust, that they make their wives ugly to diminish their love for them and make their relationship no higher than the love between a bother and his sister. Thus, while a zealot today may insist that his wife wear a veil and disfiguring clothes to disguise her beauty from others, Pamphilius does so to hide her beauty from himself.

(O)ur law reveals to us that every lustful look at a woman is a sin, and so we and  our women, instead of adorning ourselves to stimulate desire, try to avoid it that the feeling of love between us between brothers and sisters, may be stronger than the feeling of desire for a woman which you call love.

Pamphilius tells Julian that he seeks happiness; but while Julian wants honor and wealth, he finds happiness in "submissiveness…in giving everything up."

Julian criticizes his friend, saying in essence that while he is segregating himself from society and despises Roman laws and its army, he is taking advantage of the many benefits that society provides. The Roman law and army is protecting him and assuring that he can live in peace. Additionally, he despises the concept of private property, but takes advantage of what people provide him and sells objects that he owns.

Julian points out that the Christians believe that if people do not "quarrel, nor yield to lust, nor take oaths, nor do violence, nor take arms against another nation" they "will be happy." But, he argues, they miss the point, it is the government and laws that assures, or at least tries to assure that people do these things. But the Christians, by removing themselves from the law "under the pretext of living a better life, destroy all that has improved or does improve it." What would happen to society, Julian asks, if everyone would "run away?"

Furthermore, one of the primary duties of parents is to educate their children so that they can be successful in life, which they neglect. "You must train them to be worthy servants of their country." Instead of teaching the children how to improve themselves, they teach them to be withdrawn and passive to "accept either fate (life and death) with equal indifference."

Pamphilius' answer does not persuade his friend, "we live in the light and therefore our life does not depend on the body."  

What was it that caused Julian to accept Pamphilius' life? Here lies the weakest part of Tolstoy's tale. After rejecting Christianity all of his life, Julian is now old. His wife is now dead. His son is cheating him of his money. He has lost his influence in town and the officials in Rome refuse to help him. He feels totally alone. His depression led him to Pamphilius.

In his introduction to Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, which does not contain this novella, John Bayley writes: "It is a mistake to regard the writings of Leo Tolstoy too much in the light of a sage's personal utterances rather than as works of art." Certainly this is true as a general statement. However, Walk in the Light is best understood as Tolstoy's attempt to put flesh on the bare bones of his notion of Christianity.  

Everyone has a right to believe as he or she feels fit. Tolstoy is no exception. He thought hard after a long period of struggle and developed a concept of Christianity that many feel makes sense. His views should be respected, but this novella fails to do his views justice. The story does not depict Pamphilius' ideas well and it offers a very weak reason for Julian to accept his way of life.

Boomer Books released the Twenty-Three Tales by the same translators in 2006, but they deleted Walk in the Light. These twenty-three tales are excellent. Why? Because they do not focus on Tolstoy's ideas about Christianity, but about proper behavior: that people should help one another. While all of these twenty-three tales focus on the proper Christian life, it is interesting to note that all religions have versions of these stories. They simply have their own superior being motivate the proper behavior.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century rational philosopher, and the co-author of a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.

Related Reviews:

The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy.
Seeking answers to "the problem of life," Tolstoy rewrote the Four Gospels of the New Testament, condensing them into a single book that only included the ethical teachings of Jesus.

The Jefferson Bible, by Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson believed that the pure-principled teachings of Jesus should have been separated from the dogma and abuse of organized religion of the day. This led him to recast, by cutting and pasting from the gospels, a new narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus.

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