man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy
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What is the answer to the question posed by the title of Leo Tolstoy's work "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

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What an excellent answer by rahrak. The answer to the question Leo Tolstoy poses in "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is simple, but learning that answer comes at a significant cost for Pahom, the peasant protagonist of the story. It all begins with an argument over whether life...

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What an excellent answer by rahrak. The answer to the question Leo Tolstoy poses in "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is simple, but learning that answer comes at a significant cost for Pahom, the peasant protagonist of the story. It all begins with an argument over whether life is better in the country or in the city. Pahom is a peasant and believes peasant life in the country is the best in every way but one: "Our only trouble is that we haven't land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"

Though he only expressed this as a thought, he was overheard by a serious foe, and it will soon be used against him without his knowing. 

[T]he Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that [Pahom] had said that if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself. "All right," thought the Devil. "We will have a tussle. I'll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power."

Through a series of events, Pahom becomes a wealthy landowner. Though his intentions were generous and beneficent when he first began to acquire land, soon Pahom is constantly dissatisfied with what he has and falls for every trick of the devil which comes before him. Every time he is offered more land, he wants it, and he never stops to recognize the devil's hand manipulating him because of those rash words spoken in his kitchen not so long ago.

The final test offered up to Pahom by the devil is almost too good to be true, which of course should have caused Pahom to think twice before accepting the offer. For a thousand rubles, Pahom can have all the land he can walk in one day; he simply has to return to his starting spot by the end of the day. Pahom spends the night beofre planning his strategy: he will walk thirty-five miles, earning himself enough land to meet his own needs as well as to earn a considerable profit by selling parcels of the land to his neighbors.

As one might imagine, Pahom is unable to complete his greedy and overambitious plan except by exerting himself literally to death. He should have recognized the devil's hand in this (literally recognized him, as he was the one who gave Pahom the tip on this land), but he was too consumed by greed to be cautious or even sensible. It is a lesson he should have learned, but he did not.

We all understand the principle that greed can kill a person, but in this story that is a literal truth. In the end, the only land Pahom needs  is the six feet of land it takes to bury him. The larger point for all of us, of course, is that what we want is not the same as what we need (note that the question asks about needing rather than wanting) and we must keep our greedy impulses in check or they may kill us, either literally or figuratively. If Pahom had learned this lesson, he would not have wasted his life in the pursuit of something so ultimately meaningless. 

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