History of vegetarianism: Leo Tolstoy

September 07, 1998

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy chose and championed vegetarianism

by Gregory B. Betts

 Tolstoy was introduced and became a vegetarian, all on the same day. With only one conversation.

It must take a special kind of intelligence to change one’s life so suddenly. The confrontation and reversal of personal hypocrisies can be harrowing, especially if the information is coming from someone who is less famous, of lower status, and hitherto unknown. Yet, Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy was one such man with proven ability to hear an argument, accept it, and change his entire life to meet his new knowledge. Instantly.

Tolstoy was a strange and unpredictable man. Born on Sept. 9, 1828 in the Russian province of Tula, his supreme intelligence moved him through numerous roles and vocations, with very different affects on his life.

He entered the University of Kazan in 1844, but tended to fritter his time away amidst the social explosion overwhelming the city. People were dancing in the streets, arguing in alleyways, and singing songs of Russia in every tavern, and the romance was too much for the young Tolstoy. He skidded through school, greatly unsatisfied with the experience and became thoroughly muddled about what form his life ought to take.

This is dreadful! Not the suffering and death of the animals, but that people suppress in themselves, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures…

At this stage, his love of nature was already well formed. His diary, from July, 1857, records the following private euphoria:  “I love it when you do not exult and rejoice alone in Nature, but when around you myriads of insects buzz and whirl, and beetles, clinging together, creep about, and all around you birds overflow with song.”

Confused to the point of madness, he went to war, and fought with his heart, but that too, eventually, left him cold. His writing suddenly took an increased prominence in his life, as people throughout the world began to tune their ears to his pen. He settled down in an estate at Yasanaya Polyana for 15 years, farmed the land and wrote two of the greatest novels in the history of literature; Anna Karenina, and War and Peace.

The idea of vegetarianism

He began reading vast amounts of philosophy, and meeting and conversing with the best minds in Russia. It was in this time, quite out of the blue, that Tolstoy ran across the idea of vegetarianism. The idea had not occurred to him prior to his discussion with a Mr. William Frey, one afternoon in 1885. Frey gave a great diatribe about the inevitability of vegetarianism, and the naturalness of such a diet.  In the famous conversation, Tolstoy thought for a moment and exclaimed, “Yes, my friend… you are quite right. Thanks, thanks for your wise and honest words! I will certainly follow your example and abandon flesh-meat.”

His contemplation on the root of meaning in both the moral and the fundamental sense was quickly worked into his new-found vegetarianism. Flesh-eating, he found to be, “simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling – killing”.

But unlike so many self-righteous individuals, Tolstoy did not use his wisdom as a sword with which to behead his peers. Two of his children quickly followed suit and became vegetarian, but his wife and aunt, also living with him, did not. He put them under no obligation to abandon meat. He deeply believed that an individual is accountable for themselves, and possesses infinite influence over the world. It is therefore necessary to concentrate on our own beings, and correct the hypocrisies that lie within before turning potential venom outwards.

He was, however, fond of teasing his housemates on their habit. One dinner time, his aunt came to the table to find a carving knife and a chicken upon her chair. Her fluster was answered by Tolstoy, in the manner of “We knew you wanted chicken, but none of us would kill it”. For an upper-class lady of the time, that was humourously close to scandal.

Tolstoy spurned on many followers, who in turn influenced the world immeasurably. It was his disciples who first introduced a young and bold man, Mahatma Ghandi, to the moral significance of vegetarianism.

He will always be remembered most for his fiction, but Tolstoy was particularly valiant for his attempt to carve out a holistic sense of meaning from the world and the universe. His efforts, that carried him from war to farmland to wandering guru, found some strength in the peacefulness of a diet that left no creature miserable and his own soul closer to honesty.

“This is dreadful! Not the suffering and death of the animals, but that people suppress in themselves, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like themselves – and by violating their own feelings, become cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life.”

– Leo Tolstoy, translated from “The First Step,” 1892.

 From the September / October 1998 issue of Lifelines.

To learn more about becoming vegetarian, visit our Go Veg page, or try our 7-Day Veggie Challenge.