“What Men Live By” is a fantastic parable in a collection of Tolstoy’s early stories How Much Land Does a Man Need? And Other Stories. A parable is etymologically a “throwing beside” or a comparison. It is a saying or story in which something is expressed in terms of something else. Usually this something is a religious truth narratively expressed in terms of ordinary experience. And, of course, most famously parables are known to be Christ’s main instructional medium.
What I found surprising as I read “What Men Live By” (and several other gems in the collection—“Where Love Is, God Is” and “God Sees the Truth, But Waits”) is how deftly Tolstoy tells his clearly didactic stories. The religious truths explicitly named in this and other stories came to me afresh and with the same hunger the gospel parables bring. This hunger is for things unseen or at least things seen dimly.
This is fitting. A parable offers you truth, but not directly. You have to work for it or, rather, you have to want it and want it as if you were in the story. Kierkegaard called this indirect communication and identified it as the only way to understand Truth. And, Kierkegaard claimed, understanding Truth is being changed by Truth.
I think Tolstoy attempts this type of communication in these stories. In “What Men Live By” he offers three truths that Mikhail, an angel punished by God and sent to earth, must learn: what dwells in man, what is not given to man, and what men live by. Sorry, no spoiler here; the only way to find out is indirectly, by reading the story itself! Rather, what’s fascinating is this angel’s description and vision of humanity once these lessons are learned. It is an analogical description and vision, and it’s analogical because of its nature in truth. I don’t want to lessen analogy to some mere play of language.
When Mikhail, the angel, is sent back to earth, he is taken in, naked and freezing, by a poor shoemaker. The shoemaker’s wife, however, berates her husband for coming home with a fellow drunk (she suspects dubious activities). And this is how Mikhail, almost childishly, retells it:
This woman was even more terrifying than the man. Her breath seemed to come from the grave and I was almost choked by that deathly stench. She wished to cast me out into the cold and I knew that if she did she would die.
Her inhospitable words and hard heart are deadly. They threaten life, but they threaten her own life—not Mikhail’s! If she casts him out she would die, not him. How fascinating. And how true. Death is all too often reduced to a physiological event; but here, in analogy, in the light of truth death is self-concern. As Rowan Williams wonderfully puts it, we live and die with our neighbor (Where God Is, Rowan Williams).
The wife curses her husband who, though initially reluctant as well, only wants to provide a warm meal to this poor stranger. However, she is eventually, and astonishingly, calmed and transformed. Mikhail continues:
Then suddenly her husband told her to think of God and at once she was transformed. When she had given us supper I returned the look she gave me and saw that death no longer dwelt in her, but life. And in her too I could see God.” (142, “Where Love Is, God Is,” Leo Tolstoy).
She feeds this stranger and welcomes life to dwell again in her. Not surprisingly, Tolstoy provides epigraphs from 1 John to this story. Most poignantly, Tolstoy brings us to know “that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 2: 14).