How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jan 22, 2011

"Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction."
Erich Fromm

In 1886 Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story with a timeless message about a man who, in his lust for land, forfeited everything. In his How Much Land Does a Man Need? a peasant named Pahom complained because he didn't own enough land to satisfy him. He claimed, "If I have plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself." 

A short time later Pahom was able to buy a farm of 40 acres to live a more comfortable life. All was well for a while, but soon his contentment grew thin. His neighbors encroached on his land. His possessiveness caused them to threaten to burn his buildings. 

His greed for more land motivated him to buy 125 acres. He felt he was "ten times better off than he had been." He even rented more land than he owned. 

All went well for a while but after three years he grew tired of renting other people's land. A peasant came by and told him of 1,300 acres he could buy for 1,500 rubles, part in cash and part to be paid later. Just as he was about to clinch the deal, a stranger stopped by on his way back from the land of the Bashkirs where land was even cheaper. 

Pahom couldn't resist this opportunity. Greed had taken over his entire life. He left his wife to look after his homestead so he could join the stranger. After traveling over 300 miles, they finally reached the land of the Bashkirs. 

The Bashkirs explained the cost of land, "Our price is always the same, one thousand rubles a day." Pahom did not understand. The chief said that for 1,000 rubles Pahom could buy as much land as he could walk around in one day. 

Pahom was both surprised and excited because he knew he could get around a very large tract of land in one day. After a sleepless night, he traveled with the chief and the Bashkirs to the starting point. The chief took off his fox-fur cap, put it on the ground and said, "This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again. All the land you go around before the sun sets shall be yours." Pahom put his rubles on the cap and started walking. 

After going a hundred yards or so he dug a hole and stacked the sod on a pile to mark the spot and moved forward. On and on he walked digging hole after hole. 

The day flew by as he walked and dug holes. Before he knew it, the sun was starting to go down. Faster and faster he went. "He began running, threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept only the spade which he used as a support. Fear gripped his heart that he might not make it before the sun set. Terror seized him that he might die of the strain. His soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him; his mouth was parched; his breast was working like a blacksmith's bellows; his heart was beating like a hammer." 

Though afraid of death, he could not stop. He ran on and on and as he drew near he could hear the Bashkirs yelling and shouting to him. He looked up and to his horror he saw the sun had set just before he fell forward and his hands grabbed the fur cap. His friend ran up to him trying to raise him but he saw blood flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead. 

His friend picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed. 

No wonder Horace said, "He who is greedy is always in want." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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