Tolstoy's "10 Rules of Life"

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (a book about how to be more happy and grateful, which I enjoyed very much) ran this list of Tolstoy's "10 Rules of Life" on her blog:
[F]or happiness-project purposes, Tolstoy is particularly fascinating -- both because he wrote so extensively about happiness and because he made and broke so many resolutions himself. Spectacularly... Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old:

Get up early (five o'clock)

Go to bed early (nine to ten o'clock)

Eat little and avoid sweets

Try to do everything by yourself

Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for evry minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater

Keep away from women

Kill desire by work

Be good, but try to let no one know it

Always live less expensively than you might

Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

10 "Rules of Life" from Tolstoy


  1. No wonder the Russians lost the Cold War.

    Tolstoy’s rules of life reworked by me.

    Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)… The next morning.

    Eat little and avoid sweets…. Later.

    Try to do everything by yourself….After you can’t get someone else to do it for you.

    Keep away from women. NOT!

  2. Keep away from women

    If passenger airlines existed in Tolstoy’s time, I’m fairly confident he would have strong opinions on airplane food.

    1. These are interesting considering Tolstoy didn’t pay them all that much heed.

      I know especially this one:
      Eat little and avoid sweets.

      I know! Tolstoy’s Rugalah binges are legendary!

  3. I think if you average these with Charlie Sheen’s 10 Rules of Life you would get something approximately normal.

  4. I am going to pre-emptively devowel myself and call you all “fls”. Think of how much you could accomplish if you were to deprive yourself the pleasures of life! Indeed, pleasure and accomplishment seem diametrically opposed.

  5. Be good, but try to let no one know it

    Not far off from the only bit in the gospels that stuck with me, Matthew 6:2-4

    “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    1. Well, there’s not announcing one’s good deeds out of humility, and then there’s prudence in declaring one’s deductibles to the tax man, but sure.

  6. “Always live less expensively than you might” has been my guiding principle for years, and actually ends up making following the rest of those a lot easier.

    Getting up early and going to be early are a bit tough, though. And, if I weren’t actual involved with someone right now by some quirk of fate and say my charming personality took care of “Keep away from women” rather neatly.

    On a slightly prudish-sounding note (from someone who’s not a prude), I don’t think advice to a young person to avoid careless lasciviousness (“Keep away from women”) is necessarily such a bad thing. I mean, for some people a lot of life’s problems definitely could be avoided by being a little more discriminating about their sex partners.

  7. This guy seems like no fun. Wanting to kill his desire? Never changing anything about his mode of living no matter how rich he gets? That puts asceticism over common sense, which is never a good idea. If I could get a car that was in better shape than the one I have now, I would get it. And a bunch of wonderful art. Let no one know you do good? No one likes a braggart, but a person who can’t take a compliment is not much better. And doing everything yourself-

    Oh wait. It was written when he was 18. Then I guess my summary can be boiled down to, “What an angsty yet idealistic know-it-all teen. Someday he’ll know better.”

  8. He apparently did well enough to have become Gandhi’s inspiration in adopting non-violent struggle.

  9. #9/10 are easier to do when you’re born into the aristocracy and don’t abandon your wealth until you’re 82 (only to die a few days later).

  10. This was an interesting post of Tolstoy’s Franklin-esque rules to live by when he was 18, which I’ve never seen before, but when I read literate and halfway intelligent posts by people like sbarnes2 I’m disappointed with the general publics’ basic lack of understanding of foundational thinkers of some of the movements that caused actual positive change in the world over the last century. Don’t mean to pick on you sbarnes2, your post just stuck out.

  11. Most “get up early” adherents I’ve met are positively lathered in self-righteousness. Perhaps though Tolstoy was a night-owl, and only felt compelled to strive for waking at first light?

    1. Are you, by any chance a night owl? Because, as someone who can do both, as long as I get enough sleep, I’ve certainly met annoyingly self-righteous people from both sides. (And the “I need only 4 hours of sleep (not counitng the afternoon nap) crowd.

  12. The biography of Sophia Tolstoy should be required reading before commenting on this post. Or at least a good understanding of that relationship at the very least. With knowledge of this some of these rules become quite humourous.

  13. I think the thing to remember is that he was still a teenager when he wrote this, and my guess is that he later felt amusement at his youthful naïveté. It’s less a view of Tolstoy as it is a view of what would have been the equivalent of an emo kid of his time.

    1. lolwat. Tolstoy was inspired by Orthodox Christianity, where ascetism is a central element. Obviously the rules don’t make that much sense to most of us, as most of us are hedonists. But then again — we don’t make much sense to the Orthodox, seeing us ravage around, seeking the next stimulant after the other until we’ve exhausted our means. Meanwhile, the Orthodox sit and relax, drinking tea. Like a boss.

      Orthodox Christianity is way different world than most of the Christianity you hear about in the news. We best avoid judging them without actually understanding their motives, lest we want to appear as smug hipsters.

      1. My comment mostly referred to the fact that Tolstoy seemed to toss this advice out the window himself. Avoid women? He was married and had kids. Eat little and avoid sweets? Another case where he ignored his younger self’s advice. Perhaps he kept the list to remind himself of when he was far too serious, too sure he know all the answers.

        As for my “emo” comment, I was thinking of the brooding philosophical stance so many we now call “emo” try to project. It seems to be a trait unique to our species that when on the cusp of adulthood, we suddenly think we finally know the answers to life. It’s not the advice per se, but the “I know what is right” that the list projected.

  14. Why “ten” ? Is it a magical number ? Are the rules really important when you decide in advance that there should be 10 of them, no less, no more.

    Tolstoî make you feel great of not being a great man.

  15. “Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer”

    But what if I become ten times poorer?

  16. These are not bad rules. Most modern happiness studies would agree with Tolstoy’s rules, and a few of them show great wisdom for a teenager. In the best-selling book “The Millionaire Next Door”, the author concluded that most millionaires got that way by living frugally, even when they had the money to live otherwise. Almost every book about success in business endeavors will advise you to break larger long-term goals into smaller, short-term ones. The scourge of diabetes in this country would be eliminated by adherence to Tolstoy’s stricture to lay off the sweets. And I know many people whose very worst life decisions can be attributed to chasing skirts.

  17. Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)

    Ohohoho!! I smell serious BS: This very list reeks of ‘still up at 3:30am thinking too much’…

  18. “Tolstoy was inspired by Orthodox Christianity” – considering he was excommunicated by the church, I’m not sure I completely agree.

    ‘Tolstoyism’ was a variety of Christian anarchism that represented a huge threat to Orthodoxy. I won’t attempt to summarize Tolstoy’s ideas in a sentence or two, but they are well articulated in his book, ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ (which so influenced Ghandi’s thinking – see his ‘The Story of My Experiments With Truth’). If that is too dull (it is pretty dull) read his novels where belief is a central theme… Granted, the ascetic element certainly applies and isn’t inconsistent with the core beliefs of Orthodoxy (which was sort of his point, that the church had strayed from them)…

    “Always live less expensively then you might” – well, at one point in his live he gambled away his family estate, not exactly prudent. And considering he was an extremely wealthy aristocrat living ‘modestly’ couldn’t have been too difficult, though at the end of his life he did give away all his property and money due to his religious convictions.

    “Keep away from women” – His conquests were well documented in his personal diary – there is a scene in Anna Karenina where Levin gives Kitty his diary as a confession of his sordid past that came straight from Tolstoy’s own experience.

    The main point: Tolstoy was a phenomenal writer – ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘War and Peace’ in particular are fantastic novels that once you start you can’t put down. You’ll get a much better sense of his world view than from these 10 cliches.

  19. Rule number last is a recipe for becoming a psychopath. For the rest—to each their own. Though lists with ten items smacks of trying to please American TV-bred audiences. (A guy with foresight, this Tolstoy.)

    BTW, from the introduction to What Then Must We Do? (PDF, via Wikipedia):

    When he finished this book he intended to hand his estate over to the peasants and to support himself by manual labour. […] But […] Tolstoy had to encounter the demands of his wife, who was prepared to appeal to the Tsar to have her husband declared incapable of disposing of his property. Even apart from that, he wished to be considerate to his wife and not provoke her to anger; so it was arranged that his property should be dealt with as though he were dead. It was divided up equally between his wife and their nine living children, each of whom received property to the value of about £5,000.

    The question of book-rights remained to be dealt with, and he gave his wife an authorization to publish everything he had written before 1881, and he also issued an announcement that for the future he would neither accept money for what he wrote, nor claim any copyright in it. Anyone was to be free to publish and republish it as they pleased.

    […] This desire of hers [to secure first publication] clashed with Tolstoy’s own intention of allowing the publication of his works to help the causes he had at heart, such as the supply and circulation of cheap and good literature among peasants and workmen. Recurring strife with his wife over this matter rendered life at Yasnaya Polyana a torment to them both[…]. […] Tolstoy always wished to get away from Yasnaya Polyana, but every time he attempted to do so his wife demanded that he should remain, and threatened to commit suicide if he left her. This state of things grew worse and worse till at last, at the age of eighty-two, he escaped secretly one night without even having decided where to go. He fell ill on the train, and died at the wayside station of Astapovo.

    1. For those too lazy to read a book, there is a recent film about Tolstoy, wherein he’s portrayed by that great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer:

      ..and it seems it deals with precisely those issues with his wife to which you refer.

      PS Funny how the youthful womanizer ended up being so vexed by a woman in his dotage. Serves him right!

  20. To introduce greater confusion into the discussion, I should mention that there was more than one writer with the last name Tolstoy. There were, in fact, three. (well, three who were at least somewhat famous). Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, and Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

    All three did hold the title of Count, but only one managed to both be a Count *and* the recipient of three State Stalin Prizes.

  21. 1. When you get old, you will get up several times a night to go to the bathroom, that includes 5 A.M.
    2. I have trouble staying awake all day.
    3. Not a problem for fixed income people.
    4. “Live Alone and Look It” is my favorite book title. Whose helping?
    5. My goal is getting to the bathroom on time.
    6. Can I look at the pictures?
    7. Work kills me.
    8. Non-starter.
    9. No soup for you. Obama did not raise my cost-of-living S.S. this year.
    10. Yeah, right. See number nine.

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