Leo Tolstoy: The Meaning of Life and a Leap of Faith

Leo Tolstoy (1828 –1910) was a Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in all of literature. His masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent some of the best realistic fiction ever penned. He also was known for his literal interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy became a pacifist and Christian anarchist, and his ideas of non-violent resistance influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Near the end of his life, he finally rejected his wealth and privilege and became a wandering ascetic—dying in a train station shortly thereafter.

At the height of his fame Tolstoy experienced a crisis of meaning.  He said that he contemplated suicide and could no longer live unless he could find the meaning of his life. He wrote about the crisis in a short work, “A Confession,” which was written in 1882 and first published in 1884. Tolstoy was one of the first thinkers to pose the problem of life’s meaning in a modern way.

Tolstoy tells us that he wrote to make money, take care of his family, and to distract himself from questions about meaning. But later—when seized with questions about the meaning of life and death—he came to regard his literary work as worthless. Without an answer to questions of meaning, he was incapable of doing anything. Despite fame, fortune, and family, he wanted to kill himself. He claimed that being born was a stupid trick that was played on him. “Sooner or later there would come diseases and death…all my affairs…would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself would not exist. So why should I worry about all these things?” In short, why should he do anything or care about anything if all is for naught?

Tolstoy had come to believe that the essence of life was best captured by the Eastern parable of a man hanging onto a branch inside of a well, with a dragon at the bottom, a beast at the top, and the mice eating the branch to which he clings. There is no way out and the pleasures of life—honey on the branch—are ruined by our inevitable death. Everything leads to the truth: “And the truth is death.” This recognition of death and the meaninglessness of life ruin the joy of life. There is, Tolstoy thought, no reason to live.

Was the answer in science? Science provides knowledge but it does not give comfort. And the kind of knowledge which gives comfort—knowledge about the meaning of life—doesn’t exist. This left him with the realization that all is incomprehensible. Yet Tolstoy noted that the sense of meaninglessness disturbs the learned more than it does the simple people. So he began to look to the working class for answers, to people who seem to have answered the question of the meaning. Tolstoy saw that they did not derive meaning from pleasure, since they had so little of it, and yet they thought suicide a great evil.

It seemed then that the meaning of life was not found in any rational, intellectual knowledge but rather “in an irrational knowledge. This irrational knowledge was faith…” Tolstoy says he must choose between reason, from which it follows that there is no meaning, and faith, which entails rejecting reason. What follows is that if reason leads to the conclusion that nothing makes sense, then reason is irrational. And if irrationality leads to meaning, then irrationality is really rational.

Tolstoy essentially argued that rational, scientific knowledge only gives you the facts. It only relates the finite to the finite, it does not relate a finite life to anything infinite. So that “no matter how irrational and monstrous the answers might be that faith gave, they had this advantage that they introduced into each answer the relation of the finite to the infinite, without which there could be no answer.” Only by accepting irrational things—the central tenets of Christianity—could one find an answer to the meaning of life.

So one must have faith, but what is faith? For Tolstoy “faith was the knowledge of the meaning of human life…Faith is the power of life. If a man lives he believes in something.” And he found this faith, not in the wealthy or the intellectuals, but in the poor and uneducated. The meaning given to the simple life by simple people … that was the meaning Tolstoy accepted. Meaning is found in a simple life and religious faith.

Reflections – While I understand and sympathize with Tolstoy’s sentiments, I can’t accept his solution. I have written extensively on this blog about why I reject the religious solution to the problem of the meaning of life. Rather than reiterate what I’ve said many times before I’ll let that great Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis speak for me.

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that man’s womanish heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man. … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better. At all events, in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreat, or go about begging.

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