I am currently reading the diaries of Sophia Tolstoy who spent her life loving and fighting with her famous husband. He was a rich aristocrat who had a spiritual conversion and became a religious ascetic. He was thus intent upon renouncing all the things that had characterised the man she married. The issue then arose of whether, when and to what extent it was right or justifiable to impose these values upon his wife and increasingly many children. She found herself caught between defending the interests of the children and feeling loyalty to her husband who was busy renouncing the wealth that they might inherit and trying to adopt a more spartan lifestyle that they did not enjoy. In the process of imposing a good deal of privation and conflict upon his family he became an inspiration to such people as Martin Luther King and Gandhi who went on to change the world. His books got banned and Sophia went to see the Tsar and by pulling strings got them unbanned and Tolstoy was then furious with her for associating with the Tsar at a time when the whole issue of the Russian hierarchy was in dispute. He was trying to set up schools for peasants that the government was also banning. Then a famine came along and Tolstoy set out to create food kitchens. Sophia asked how he was going to do all this if he was giving up all his money. She was often furious with him and accused him of being more interested in his own international reputation than is simple kindness to those near at hand. She left and went to Moscow. Then while in Moscow she had the idea of putting out a public appeal. A huge amount of money rolled in and she was able to send it to her husband to finance his famine relief effort. Thus the pendulum swung back and forth. All very difficult. One can easily see it from all points of view. This, of course, is one of the reasons for religious celibacy, however Tolstoy was not a celibate as evidence his (at least) fourteen children. A passionate life full of ups and downs. In some ways, in our modern age of supposed equality these issues are even more difficult to resolve. If each person fully pursues his or her spiritual path, compromise can become something close to betrayal of principle. In my own life I have often faced lesser degrees of similar problems. It is much easier in my current solitary life, but, even so, when visitors come there is always the dilemma to what extent are they going to adapt to my lifestyle and I to theirs.

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Reading from a woman's point of view, I certainly find myself siding with Sophia. She appears to have accepted/ taken on the role of creating practical support for her husband's idealism. She must have loved him a great deal and believed in him.


Nonetheless, how can you call yourself a religious ascetic and keep creating children? How can you create children and choose not to consider their well-being. Seems a bit hypocritical to me. Only in a male world could this behaviour inspire others. But I suppose public perception can be quite different from private reality. And in the end he is the one we usually remember, not her.

Three points:

1. To me what is interesting is not so much deciding which of them was right, but reflecting upon how this is - generally in milder form - a rather common scenario and source of a lot of tension in families, perhaps in our own relationships.

2. As you come close to saying, Carol, how can one have such high ideals and also have a family? Perhaps it is impossible. Perhaps family and ideals do not go together - or, at least, those sorts of ideals. That could be taken to have been the view of the Buddha. He preached leaving the "householder life" for that reason.

3. At the same time, Sophia also had ideals of a rather different sort. At a micro level these seem good - love the people closest to you - but at a macro level they can be seen as sustaining the oppressive society - what she wanted for her children was to retain as much of their privileges vis-a-vis the masses as possible.

Nothing is easy. :-)

I think that family life should be a middle way as well. It is also a sort of community or group and the leaders/parents must decide how to share time and resources in the best way, taking into account their values. Of course, it is not easy, it is a constant quest… Sometimes one of the group must be given all the energy and resources because it is important at that moment, and the rest should support this, but I do not think this should go on always like that. There are different members and needs are changing all the time. The parents or leaders should decide with equanimity…Even if you are pursuing a high ideal, surely, from time to time, you will have to leave it or dedicate it less time because of something else is happening: your family needs, your health, or other family member´s ideal…  Not easy but I think it is a worthy quest….But maybe this is also an ideal...

Thanks Nati. I agree. I don't think it is a question of taking sides but more one of seeing the upside and downside to idealism. A dharma teacher of mine once pointed out to me that idealism is often motivated by hate more than by love. It can mean the placing of abstract values above the contingencies of compassion in everyday life. The greatest idealist of the twentieth century was probably Hitler.

At the same time, having high ideals is not necessarily to be prey to idealism: Sophia clearly had high ideals as well. She seems to have tried to find ways, both to actualize her husband's dreams, and to care well for her children. She raised money for the work that mattered to her husband and, one assumes, herself. I don't at all see that having a family contradicts having high ideals. That would seem to be a very narrow view. Trying to take care of one's children is not automatically a means of sustaining an oppressive society.

This last is an interesting question and, I suppose, depends upon what one considers to be oppressive. This has been one of the main philosophico-political issues at least since Marx pointed out that heredity privilege leads to more and inequality unless counter-acted. The modern civic state does counter-act it with progressive taxation and with the provision of services, but it is eternally contentious how far this should so - as we see in the debate in USA over health care right now. In fact the normal political (right-left) divisions in modern society all focus on this issue. Sophia was furious with Tolstoy when he gave away the copyright to his books, making them free to reproduce and thus bringing no income to the family. He accused her of being money grabbing and she accused him of only being interested in being famous. At times it got exceedingly bitter. These are not disputes that are easily resolved because each side has a half-truth. Then the children were caught in the middle and some took one side and some the other. In the midst of all this the youngest child died - great tragedy, especially as he was the favourite of both parents, though one can see that he would also have been the nexus of a huge tug of war between them had he lived. In some way, better to die young and innocent.

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