True life begins where the tiny bit begins – where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place

eroding seaside cliff

True life is not lived where great external changes take place

Bryullóv (a painter) one day corrected a pupil’s study. The pupil, having glanced at the altered drawing, exclaimed: “Why, you only touched it a tiny bit, but it is quite another thing.” Bryullóv replied: “Art begins where the tiny bit begins.”

That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins – where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place – where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another – it is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.

by Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910)
from “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”
found in Essays and Letters
image – Randy Son Of Robert

True life is lived when tiny changes occur

Leo Tolstoy wrote the passage above as a preface for an acquaintance’s book. Tolstoy was an idealist and a reformer most of his life, increasingly so in his later years. Here, he’s urging readers to seriously consider the smallest of personality changes caused by using alcohol, drugs and even cigarettes. In the next section he goes on to talk about the goriest of murderer and earlier he’d described war crimes, but here in the middle we have a gently taught lesson from art.

Part of this passage is sometimes quoted out of context as “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.” I like very much the irony of stripping his warnings down to a few bare words and seeing, instead, an encouragement.

I suspect that warnings ring truest before revolutions; afterward we mine for inspirations that come from peace.

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