Over the course of three days Tolstoy shows us what life is like for him and, more importantly, the incredibly poor peasants who come to him for help. He listens to each of them, gives most of the 5 kopecks, and tries to help those whom he can.
One of the issues he addresses – though a secondary issue for him in this essay – is how these poor are perceived. Many are intelligent, some are drunks, quite a few are rough and rude. Each of them has a story that, as each one tells it, makes them the victim to circumstances they have no control over. For plenty this is actually true, and for a lot of others, however, they are themselves to blame, at least in part for their varied predicaments.
The point here, then, is that these circumstances that afflict many of these poor are, as Tolstoy sees it, immoral. He sees the majority of people working hard for the comfort of a few. And he sees how the few have arranged things so that the law is on their side and that these poor people will never be able to compete. Their sheep are taken away, the husbands are driven into the Army, and the once strong are quickly taken by Death (as evidenced by the man with the lung infection).
And at the heart of all this is what Tolstoy sees as the most immoral law there is: land slavery. He believes that land ownership is no different than the owning of human beings. He believes that if everyone had an equal share then many of the problems of the poor would be solved.
And he would get his wish soon enough because since this was written in 1910, it would only be a few years later (after the War) when Communism would take over. And we all know how that worked out, though the failing of Communism actually still proves Tolstoy’s point in how the few will always live at the expense of the poor and exploited “many” (see Animal Farm).
What I feel like us readers could still take away from this 100 year old essay on poverty in a modern society is how we see the poor. To me there seems to be a strong divide over the issue. On one side are the people who wish to help support the poor, and on the other the people who believe the poor need to lift themselves. And I don’t think either side is totally wrong or totally right.
On the helping side we believe that if we offer assistance and money and free services that the poor will utilize all these resources for their betterment. But the problem with giving too much (and Tolstoy only ever gave 5 kopecks at a time) is that it cheapens the person you’re helping. Adults are not children, adults have to help themselves. And that is the opinion of the other camp who believe hard work and effort alone can rise a person up, but this point of view fails to take into account that the world a poor person lives in can very quickly hinder any progress with even just one accident – a sheep taken for taxes or the death of a spouse can ruin an entire family and send the children to the orphanage.
And I got the feeling in the first 2 days of the essay that Tolstoy often felt overwhelmed by the whole situation. He seemed to spend all his time trying to do something but it was far more than one person could do, not to mention being exasperated by his fame as a writer which always drew attention.
So what can anyone do?
Well, I do believe we have to help each other, but I also believe we have to help ourselves. But I also believe that the “system” is rigged against us. I don’t believe that all the land should be given away free, or really anything should necessarily be free, but I think the world we live in where we have so many laws and rules designed to insulate us from the morality of our decisions, and so many more rules which allows a very few people to control so much, that we should rethink the entire game.
But above all, having empathy for people, no matter how crude they are, is the best place to start. It’s easy to say (on the left hand) “Here, let me give you a bunch of stuff”, or (o the right hand) “You’re poor because you’re lazy” is just belittling from both sides. And I think the more we feel squeezed by the very game that a lot of people are losing at, the more strongly we take a side on the debate.
But maybe not taking a side is actually the answer. Maybe just treating everyone as a human being and being empathetic to everyone, including their weaknesses, we might come up with a better way of doing some good.
Tolstoy basically ended his life by running out the front door in the middle of the Russian winter which, of course, killed the old man a few days later in a train station, probably because he had grown so frustrated with ever finding a solution that it drove him mad. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.