A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy: Summary & Notes

Front cover of A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy.

In short

A Calendar of Wisdom is Leo Tolstoy’s one-page-a-day book that contains short messages and quotes he collected over a lifetime. Apparently when it was released it was quite a popular collection, but consequently banned and forgotten under communism.

The subtitle says “daily thoughts to nourish the soul”, and while that is technically true, the quality of the daily thoughts varies a lot. Of course this is very personal, but some days have a good message, other days there will be little of value. Overall it’s a bit too religious for my liking but it’s a good collection to leaf through.

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Book Summary & Notes

“Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge” – Henry David Thoreau

“A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…That is why constant learning softens your brain…Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

“It is not the place we occupy which is important, but the direction in which we move.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘When you have doubts about what to do, just imagine that you might die at the end of that same day, and then all your doubts will disappear, and you will see clearly what your conscience tells you, and what is your true personal wish.’

“A distinctive feature of a thinking person is submission to his fate, as opposed to the shameful struggle with it that is a characteristic feature of animals.” – Marcus Aurelius

‘Many people worry, and suffer, because they have been involved in so many bad things in their lives. In truth, though, good things often happen in spite of our wishes, and sometimes even in opposition to our wishes, and often after our excitement and suffering over unworthy things.’

‘Remember how passionately you yearned in the past for many of the things which you have or despise now. Remember how many things you lost trying to satisfy your former desires. The same thing could happen now, with the desires which excite you at present. Try to tame your present desires, calm them; this is most beneficial, and most achievable.’

‘It is a sin not to be engaged in work, even if it is not necessary for you to make your living with everyday work.’

“Work all the time. Do not think that work is a disaster for you, and do not seek praise or reward for your work.” – Marcus Aurelius

“The most outstanding gifts can be destroyed by idleness.” – Michel de Montaigne

“The only way to tell the truth is to speak with kindness. Only the words of a loving man can be heard.” – Henry David Thoreau

“We lie to other people so often that we get used to it, and we start to lie to ourselves.” – François de la Rochfoucauld

‘If you want to be a clever person, you have to learn how to ask cleverly, how to listen attentively, how to respond quietly, and how to stop talking when there is nothing more to say.’

“Many stupid things are uttered by people whose only motivation is to say something original.” – Voltaire

“Life is not given to us that we might live idly without work. No, our life is a struggle and a journey. Good should struggle with evil; truth should struggle with falsehood; freedom should struggle with slavery; love should struggle with hatred. Life is movement, a walk along the way of life to the fulfilment of those ideas which illuminate us, both in our intellect and in our hearts, with divine light.” – After Giuseppe Mazzini

“The ideal is within you, and the obstacle to reaching this ideal is also within you. You already possess all the material from which to create your ideal self.” – Thomas Carlyle

“If you want other people to speak well of you, do not speak well of yourself.” – Blaise Pascal

‘Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.’

“A person who knows little likes to talk, and one who knows much mostly keeps silent.      This is because a person who knows little thinks that everything he knows is important, and wants to tell everyone. A person who knows much also knows that there is much more he doesn’t know. That’s why he speaks only when it is necessary to speak, and when he is not asked questions, he keeps his silence.” – After Jean Jacques Rousseau

‘To feel shame in the company of other people is good, but it is even better to experience shame when you are alone with yourself.’

“You can feel your own drawbacks only through the eyes of other people.” – Chinese proverb

‘When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.’

“A victory over oneself is a bigger and a better victory than a victory over thousands of people in a score of battles. Those who have achieved victory over other people can be defeated in future battles, but those who have achieved victory over themselves become victors forever.” – Dhammapada, a book of Buddhist wisdom

“A passion in a person’s heart is like a spider’s web. At the beginning it is an alien visitor; then it becomes a regular guest; then it becomes master of the house.” – After the Talmud

“There is a certain limit to the appropriate length of any time in this world. Just as the fruits and vegetables are limited by the seasons of the year, everything should have its beginning, its life, and its ending, after which it should pass away. Wise people willingly submit to this order.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

‘Life in this world is not a vale of tears, not a trial, but a thing that surpasses our imagination. Life could be limitless joy, if we would only take it for what it is, in the way it is given to us.’

‘A person’s unfriendly attitude to other people makes life unhappy, both for that person and for those who surround him. A friendly mood and loving attitude are as an oil which lubricates the wheels of life, making them move easily and smoothly.’

‘A man is wise who does three things: first, he does by himself those things which he advises others to do; secondly, he does not do anything that contravenes the truth; and thirdly, he is patient with the weaknesses of those who surround him.’

“Everything is indefinite, misty, and transient; only virtue is clear, and it cannot be destroyed by any force.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Constant idleness should be included in the tortures of hell, but it is, on the contrary, considered to be one of the joys of paradise.” – Charles de Montesquieu

“When a person sets to work, even if it is the most unqualified, primitive, simple work, the human soul calms down. As soon as a person starts to work, all the demons leave him and cannot approach him. A man becomes a man.” – Thomas Carlyle

“There are no coincidences, either in life or in one’s fate. A man creates his own destiny.” – Abel Villemain

“The happiness or unhappiness of a man does not depend upon the amount of property or gold he owns. Happiness or misery is in one’s soul. A wise man feels at home in every country. The whole universe is the home of a noble soul.” – Democritus

‘We often refuse to participate in the innocent joys of life because we are too busy with something we feel we have to do. We should accept these moments, because the sweet and joyful game is sometimes more important and necessary than most other things. Very often the business which busy people claim to be doing is not important at all, and sometimes it would be better left undone.’

“We live in an epoch of discipline, culture, and civilization, but not in an epoch of morality. In the present state, we can say that the happiness of the people grows, and yet the unhappiness of the people increases as well. How can we make people happy when they are not educated to have high morals. They do not become wise.” – Immanuel Kant

“This is the divine law of life: that only virtue stands firm. All the rest is nothing.” – Pythagoras

“Wise consumption is much more complicated than wise production. What five people will produce, one person can very easily consume, and the question for each individual and for every nation is not how are we to produce, but how our products are to be consumed.” – John Ruskin

Every man, from the king to the poorest pauper, should seek his own perfection, because only self-perfection improves mankind.” – Confucius

“I have a burden on my soul. During all my long life, I did not make anyone happy, neither my friends, nor my family, nor even myself. I have done many evil things…I was the cause of the beginning of three big was. About 800,000 people were killed because of me on the battlefields, and their mothers, brothers, and widows cried for them. And now this stands between me and God.” – Otto von Bismarck

‘For the most part, false and harmful opinions are distributed and supported by influence. We are too likely to accept the views and thoughts of other people without trying to investigate them deeper and further ourselves. Unimportant people are those who accept other people’s thoughts without developing them themselves.’

‘Your thought is easily influenced by the presence of another soul; a person can be completely free only when he is alone.’

‘You make your decisions in the present, and the present exists out of time; it is a tiny moment where to periods – the past and the future – meet. In the present you are always free to make your choice.’

“The journey of the wise to virtue is as a journey to a remote land, or the ascent of a high mountain. People who travel to a faraway place start with a single step, and those who climb a high mountain start from the bottom.” – Confucius

“Work toward the purification of your thoughts. Without bad thoughts you will be incapable of bad deeds.” – Confucius

“We cannot prevent birds from flying over our heads, but we can keep them from making nests on top of our heads. Similarly, bad thoughts sometimes appear in our mind, but we can choose whether we allow them to live there, to create a nest for themselves, and to breed evil deeds.” – Martin Luther

‘A person who loves himself has the advantage of having very few competitors.’

A person understands himself not through thoughts, but with actions. It is only through making an effort that a person will understand his worth.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Pain is the necessary condition of our body, and suffering is the necessary condition of our spiritual life, from birth to death.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Only in the storm can you see the art of the real sailor, only on the battlefield can you see the bravery of a soldier. The courage of a simple person can be seen in how he copes with the difficult and dangerous situations in life.” – Daniel Achinsky

‘Debates conceal the truth more often than they reveal it. Real truth should be revealed in solitude. When it is revealed, it becomes clear to you that you can accept it without any argument of discussions.’

“You should abstain from arguments. They are very illogical ways to convince people. Opinions are like nails: the stronger you hit them, the deeper inside they go.” – Decimus Junius Juvenalis

“I cannot stop thinking that I was dead before I was born, and at my death I will return to the same state.” – George Lichtenberg

“I do not regret that I was born here and that I lived part of my life here, because I lived in a way that I think was useful. When the end comes, I will leave my life in the same way, as if I leave an inn and not my home, because I think that my stay in this life is temporary and that death is only a transfer to another state.
               Even if I err in saying that the soul is eternal, nevertheless I am happy that I made this mistake. And while I am alive, not a single person can take away this assurance which gives me complete calmness and great satisfaction.”
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

‘We ask the wrong question when we say, “What will happen after death?” When we speak about the future, we speak of time, but when we die, we leave time behind.’

‘We suffer from the past, and we spoil our future because we neglect the present.’

‘There is no past and no future; no one has ever entered those two imaginary kingdoms. There is only present. Do not worry about the future, because there is no future. Live in the present and for the present, and if your present is good, then it is good forever.’

“The virtue of a person is measured not by his outstanding efforts, but by his everyday behaviour.” – Blaise Pascal

“What is truth? For the majority of people, truth is the majority of counted votes.” – Thomas Carlyle

‘Never build, but always plant: in the case of the first, nature will interfere and destroy the creation of your work, but in the case of the second, nature will help you, causing growth in everything you planted. The same thing happens in your spiritual life: those things which are in harmony with the eternal laws of human nature will grow, but those things which correspond to the temporal wishes of people will not.’

‘Just as one candle lights another and can light thousands of other candles, so one heart illuminates another heart and can illuminate thousands of other hearts.’

‘Good books are a good influence. Good art is a good influence. Prayer is an influence as well. But the strongest influence is the example of a good life. A good life becomes a blessing for people, not only those who live good lives but those who can see, know, and understand such lives.’

“It is difficult to bring people to goodness with lessons, but it is easy to do so by example.” – Seneca

‘Your enemies can be more useful to you than your friends, because your friends can often pardon your weaknesses, but your enemies notice them and attract your attention to them. Do not neglect the opinion of your enemies.’

“A person’s tongue is a tool which is sufficient to transmit the ideas created by the human mind. But in the domain of true and deep feelings, our tongue is weak.” – Lajos Kossuth

‘The past does not exist. The future has not begun. The present is an infinitely small point in time in which the already nonexistent past meets the imminent future. At this point, which is timeless, a person’s real life exists.’

“Time passes by!” we say. Time does not exist; only we move.” – After the Talmud

‘Time does not exist. There is only a small and infinite present, and it is only in this present that our life occurs. Therefore, a person should concentrate all his spiritual force only on this present.’

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