man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy
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How much land does a man actually need? Explain the message conveyed by Tolstoy through this story.

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The ultimate answer, at least implied by Tolstoy, is that a man does not need any land at all.

In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy became devoted to spiritual values and the ideal of an ascetic lifestyle in which he viewed physical pleasures as evil. Material possessions, he...

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The ultimate answer, at least implied by Tolstoy, is that a man does not need any land at all.

In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy became devoted to spiritual values and the ideal of an ascetic lifestyle in which he viewed physical pleasures as evil. Material possessions, he came to believe, are meaningless in comparison with the spiritual connection to God that one must seek. Though a wealthy landowner himself, he wore a peasant's blouse and went to work in the fields alongside the farm laborers he employed, just as his protagonist Levin in Anna Karenina attempts to do. He also relinquished the copyrights to his books. Altogether, these acts were an attempt to deny the material world, in preparation for the next life.

His protagonist in "How much Land does a Man Need?" ends up killing himself because he wants more and more land, and in trying to claim it, dies through exhaustion. Even a more moderate theme than a complete denial of material ownership is that one should be happy with the limitations God imposes upon man. If one seeks more than one needs, the result is failure and death.

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The simple answer to the first question is as follows: just enough to be buried in. You can't take it with you, as they say, and that applies as much to vast landholdings as it does to material possessions. But Pahom doesn't seem to understand this. He's so obsessed by the acquisition of land, so blinded by greed, that he eventually comes to grief over it.

In telling his story, Tolstoy is railing against what he sees as the grasping materialism of contemporary society, especially among the peasants. With the abolition of serfdom in Russia, many peasants sought to use their newly-won freedom to become landowners. In acquiring land, however, they often became disconnected from the soil, the land on which they had been born and where they had worked all their lives. Tolstoy supported the abolition of serfdom, but he was worried that peasants would now make the same mistake as their former masters and treat land as just another commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Tolstoy strongly believed that the almost mystical connection that had previously bound peasants to the soil was in danger of being lost forever, and he uses the tragic case of Pahom as a salutary warning.

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Tolstoy was very strongly influenced by the ideas of the American reformer Henry George, who was initially influenced by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. Henry George in his chief work Progress and Poverty  held that no one was entitled to own any part of the earth, that it should be common property like the sea and the sky. The government should rent out the land and derive its entire income from that single source. People, according to George and Tolstoy, will tend to acquire more land than they can possibly use and then force others to pay them for the use of it. That is what happens notoriously with sharecropping and explains why sharecroppers are usually so poor. Tolstoy believed that if men only took as much land as they could use, there would be enough for everybody, and poverty would be reduced or eliminated. In Pahom, the protagonist of "How Much Land Does a Man Need?", Tolstoy is mainly exhibiting the greed and selfishness inherent in human nature.

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