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‘Most Ordinary And Most Terrible’

One of the surprising things about the alternative-development racket is how old some of the ideas we are talking about now with increasing urgency actually are.

Henry David Thoreau was critiquing the impact of the industrial revolution more than a century before China built its first factory for Happy Meal toys. Scott and Helen Nearing were laying the foundations of the homesteading movement in the early 1950s. In 1961, philosopher Paul Goodman argued that cars should be banned from Manhattan in order to create “a livable city.”

November 20 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of another guiding light of alternative thinking, Russian novelist and moralist Leo Tolstoy (ironically, the next day, November 21, is UN World Television Day).

From his principled espousal of nonviolence to his vegetarianism to his critique of organized religion to his reconceptualization of the relationship between the state and society, Tolstoy shaped discussions that rage on today.

He learned to ride a bicycle at the age of 67, and his bike is on display at his estate near Tula. (See poem here.)

But I think the great writer’s most powerful impact was his insistence on individual responsibility, on the crucial importance of living a conscious, examined, intentional life. He argued persuasively that the opposite – a life of superficial fashion and of going along with the flow of external forces – was both destructive of the individual and morally untenable vis a vis other people and nature.

“Ivan Illych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and, therefore, most terrible,” he wrote in “The Death Of Ivan Illych.”

In his “Writings On Civil Disobedience And Nonviolence,” Tolstoy wrote: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible – except getting off his back.”

He’s been gone for a century now, but he’s still making us think. I’d love to hear what Tolstoy has meant in your life.