Antony Flew on Tolstoy and Faith

Antony Garrard Newton Flew (1923 – 2010) was a British philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, he was notable for his works on the philosophy of religion and outspoken atheism. Flew taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto. In a 1963 essay titled “Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life,” Flew reconstructs Tolstoy’s argument as follows:

1. if all ends in death then life is meaningless;
2. all ends in death;
3. thus life is meaningless.
4. if life is meaningless then there are no desires that are reasonable to fulfill
5. thus there are no desires that are reasonable to fulfill.

Flew denies that the fact of death necessitates the conclusion that life is meaningless. He also denies that for something to matter it must go on forever. One could argue the opposite, he says, that our mortality gives life its meaning. Flew distinguishes the fact of suffering and death from the evaluative conclusion Tolstoy draws from them—that life is pointless and meaningless. He did not have to draw this conclusion.

Tolstoy also assumed the simple people knew something he did not, since they did not suffer from his condition. But he did not have to draw this conclusion either. The fact that simple people despair less than intellectuals doesn’t mean they possess knowledge of the meaning of life—maybe they just worry about different things than Tolstoy. Moreover, the fact that the peasants were not troubled like Tolstoy says nothing about whether their beliefs were true.

Yet none of this counts against Tolstoy if we don’t interpret him as expounding dogma, but as recommending a way of life. He found a solution to his condition, not in answers to his questions, but in a religious therapy for his symptoms that is itself devoid of cognitive content. Tolstoy found his answer in faith.

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