In his 1886 short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Leo Tolstoy shows how a continual desire for more can ultimately cause us to lose everything.
The main character of the story is a peasant named Pahóm, who at the beginning can be heard complaining that he does not own enough land to satisfy him. He states that "if I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!" But unbeknownst to him is that the devil is present sitting behind the stove and listening.
A short amount of time later, a landlady in the village decides to sell her estate, and the peasants of the village buy as much of that land as they can. Pahóm himself purchases some land, and by working off the extra land is able to repay his debts and live a more comfortable life.
However, Pahóm then becomes very possessive of his land, and this causes arguments with his neighbours. "Threats to burn his building began to be uttered." This is the first sign that greed is disrupting his moral values.
Later, he moves to a larger area of land at another Commune. Here, he can grow even more crops and amass a small fortune, but he has to grow the crops on rented land, which irritates him.
Finally, he is introduced to the Bashkirs, and is told that they are simple-minded people who own a huge amount of land. Pahóm goes to them to take as much of their land for as low a price as he can negotiate. Their offer is very unusual: for a sum of one thousand rubles, Pahóm can walk around as large an area as he wants, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. If he reaches his starting point by sunset that day, the entire area of land his route encloses will be his. He is delighted as he believes that he can cover a great distance and has chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime.
That night, Pahóm experiences a surreal dream in which he sees himself lying dead by the feet of the Devil, who is laughing.
His journey across the land illustrates his greed. He stays out as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun sets. Toward the end, he realizes he is far from the starting point and runs back as fast as he can to the waiting Bashkirs. He finally arrives at the starting point just as the sun sets. The Bashkirs cheer his good fortune, but exhausted from the run, Pahóm drops dead. His servant buries him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thus ironically answering the question posed in the title of the story.
(From a sermon by Scott Chambers, A Message For People Like Me, 2/2/2011)
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