G.K. Chesterton’s View of Tolstoy’s Aspiration to Simplicity

When in 1902 G.K. Chesterton first published his essay “Tolstoy’s Cult of Simplicity” in a book of twelve of his collected essays, he was only twenty-eight years of age, and it was then only two years after he had first met Hilaire Belloc in a London Soho Pub in 1900. Although Chesterton would finally be received into the Catholic Church only some twenty years later (in the summer of 1922), he already showed us his vivid perspicacity about Christianity and about certain quasi-Christian and heretical religious sects, to which he also already applied his generous paradoxes and his affectionate ironies. Already as a young man he could teach us very much about literature, even about certain Russian authors and their religious creeds and moral codes — even though he knew neither the Russian language nor Russia’s specific historic culture very well, much less to the depths already (and increasingly) grasped by Maurice Baring, his future and soon deeply beloved friend, who was also born in 1874.

Only five years after Chesterton had re-published his earlier 1902 essay, “Tolstoy’s Cult of Simplicity,” in his Varied Types in 1905, Tolstoy himself was to die, aged 82. In that November of 1910, moreover, Tolstoy was to die in a sudden and a sad way, while attempting still to live out his belatedly discovered spiritual ideals, which were derived, in part, from his own astringent interpretation of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.