What Men Live By

What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy

What Men Live By is a short fable published in 1885 by Leo Tolstoy that revolves around an angel commanded to learn 3 Lessons before he can return to Heaven.

  1. Learn what dwells in man.
  2. Learn what is not given to man.
  3. Learn what men live by

And until the angel would learn these three truths, he was not to return to Heaven.  To skip to the end of the story, *SPOILER ALERT*, the angel learns the three things requested of him:

  1. “And I understood that in man dwells Love!”
  2. “It is not given to man to know his own needs.”
  3. “I have learnt that all men live not by care for themselves but by love.”

These answers I really resonated with.

God is Love and all humans, saints and sinners, have some aspect of God in them – because we came from God – and that aspect of God is so strong that it can be seen as one of the fundamental “elements” making up man’s being.  Love, and God dwells in Man.

The 2nd point is probably the hardest one, “it is not given to man to know his own needs.”  … But we all know what we need?  Don’t we?  Not really, and that’s the point Tolstoy is trying to make here.  The story during this part is about a rich man who is planning for the next year but has only a few hours to live unbeknownst to him.  He did not know what he truly needed because he did not know the future.  God however, knows the future well enough that he knows all of our needs.  So, if we don’t truly know our own needs, how can we live?

Enter the third lesson.  That men live by love, and not by care for ourselves.  Does this mean that no man is selfish?  No, that’d be a foolish notion I think.  What I interpret it to mean is that by love we ought to live.  Or, unless we live by love, we aren’t truly living.   Love is life, and thus to not live by love is to know death.  Tolstoy quoted St John saying just that at the beginning of the story.

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not abideth in death.” –1 “Epistle St. John” iii. 14.

In fact, Tolstoy lists other verses from John saying the same points he was trying to get across via fable.

“Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” –iii. 17-18.

“Love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” -iv. 7-8. “No man hath beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abideth in us.” –iv. 12. “God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him.” –iv. 16. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” –iv. 20.

Some of the final quotes in the book are worth sharing here.   The angel is once again stating the truth he know understands.  And I think he shares it beautifully:

“I knew before that God gave life to men and desires that they
should live; now I understood more than that.

“I understood that God does not wish men to live apart, and
therefore he does not reveal to them what each one needs for
himself; but he wishes them to live united, and therefore reveals to
each of them what is necessary for all.

“I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by
care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live.
He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love.”


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