Leo Tolstoy, Character Educator

It is Easter Sunday. After a cold winter, the sun shines. The melting snow waters form a muddy puddle in the village street. Two girls, Malásha and Akoúlya, begin to play in their new dresses. When Malásha splashes dirty water on Akoúlya an argument ensues that soon embroils the whole village. As the fathers of the children begin to brawl, the girls carry on playing – digging a channel in the mud that funnels water between the fighting men. Laughing and giggling as the water finds its way, the children run along the course of their newly formed stream. The adults look at the mirth of the children and stop their altercation. For the children are wiser than the men, seizing the moment, forgiving, and enjoying the day.

This short story, no more than two pages in length in its original form, represents Tolstoy’s view of moral education. It is one of Tolstoy’s many parables written for ordinary Russians after he gave up the novel in order to focus on religious and ethical matters. Tolstoy, who engaged whole-heartedly with the philosophy of the enlightenment, moved away from Russian orthodoxy to embrace a worldview similar to the American transcendentalists and the British Unitarians (a popular liberal Christian movement at the turn of the century). The moral law was obvious and intelligible, even to children. It was reflected in all the world’s religions, the scriptures of which Tolstoy devoured as part of his life’s wide reading. In order to do the right thing and live well, the only thing a person needed to do was to get back to their original self, and to discard the corrupting influences of the society of the day – which included, most of all, the evil effects of the education system.

Thus Tolstoy, as famously depicted in the paintings of Ilya Repin, eschewed the trappings of middle-class life, dressed as a peasant farmer and worked in the fields. The most famous episode of his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, demonstrates the meaning of this challenge to the established order. Levin, a land-owner like Tolstoy, desperately seeks the meaning of life. But this is not to be found by reading the philosophers or following the normative conventions of aristocratic society. Instead, it is realised through the few simple words of a wise labourer. One should live rightly according to God’s law. This idea has the effect of a ‘spark’ on Levin, instructing him far more satisfactorily than any of the discourses of the great and good.

Tolstoy’s fiction ranks among the highest literary achievements of all time. His philosophy also had a huge impact on figures as diverse as Wittgenstein, Gandhi and Dorothy Day. A popular movement of communes emerged based on Tolstoyan principles in Gloucestershire, Essex, the USA, South Africa and Russia. Yet his educational work, although a continual preoccupation from the founding of his own school in the 1860s, to the educational essays written in the last years of his life, remains less well-known, despite having some influence on John Dewey and other progressives. Tolstoy’s beliefs, though radical, led him to many educational conclusions that have subsequently become commonplace. He endorsed a universalism and internationalism that has since become central to the global pluralism we know today. Children should learn moral stories from all the world’s cultures. To this end, Tolstoy translated and adapted Muslim, Buddhist, Chinese and Jewish stories and sayings as well as those of the classical period and Christianity. The curriculum should be child-focussed and teachers should listen to their students as a pre-requisite of their emancipation. (One of Tolstoy’s early pedagogical articles was even entitled ‘Should we teach the peasant children to write, or should they teach us?’). Tolstoy was an educational pioneer whose application of Rousseauian principles to pedagogical experiment, and Kant’s moral philosophy to religion, led to a view of moral education that anticipated the theories of the American psychologist Laurence Kohlberg. There are universal moral laws which are progressively grasped through natural stages of a person’s development.

Perhaps most overlooked of all Tolstoy’s work, and perhaps of most interest to character educators, is his artistic rendering of the psychology of character development. While evident in all his great novels, this is best illustrated in his early trilogy of novellas, Childhood, Boyhood and Youth. It is telling that Tolstoy should first turn his literary talent to explore a first-person account of growing-up. Nicholas, the main protagonist, goes through a series of developmental stages as he deals with childhood grief, fights with his teachers, experiences beauty in nature, deals with self-doubt, falls in love, and struggles with the transition to university.

Like the children and ordinary people presented in his fiction, Tolstoy, was, no doubt, as an artist, telling and insightful. His private life, however, on closer inspection, presents us with a character who was far from exemplary. He had a notoriously stormy marriage and in his early years was profligate (at least to his own narration).  In his later life, to the despair of some of his family members and critics alike, he became increasingly moralistic and difficult, finally fleeing his home to die in a railway station surrounded by the world’s media, his wife even excluded from his bedside. His reception overall has been that of a great literary artist, his philosophy and educational ideas, including his moral parables, less well-regarded.


Annotated bibliography

Primary texts in chronological order of writing (numerous other translations of Tolstoy’s works are available)

Childhood, Boyhood and Youth. (1852-1857) Translated by L. and A. Maude. 1947. London: Oxford University Press.

‘Should we teach the peasant children to write, or should they teach us?’ (1862) In Tolstoy on Education: Tolstoy’s Educational Writings 1861–1862. Selected and edited by A. Pinch and M. Armstrong; translated by A. Pinch. 1982. London: Athlone Press, pp. 222–247.

Anna Karenina (1874–1876) Translated by R. Bartlett. 2014. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

‘Little girls wiser than men’ (1885). In Collected Shorter Fiction. Translated by A. and L. Maude. 2001. London: Everyman, pp. 100–102, vol. 2.

Secondary texts

Moulin, D. (2014) Leo Tolstoy. London: Bloomsbury. (Part of the Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought, Paperback, 195 pages)

This book gives a general introduction to Tolstoy’s educational thought.

Moulin, D. (2017) ‘Tolstoy, universalism and the world religions’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History 68: 3 pp. 570-587

This article gives an overview of Tolstoy’s religious and ethical worldview.           


Daniel Moulin-Stożek is a research fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

The above image is a photograph, taken by Daniel Moulin-Stożek of Tolstoy’s house on the Yasnaya Polyana estate, now a state museum dedicated to him.

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