Faith Provides Life's Meaning
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 10 - The Meaning of Life
Leo Tolstoy, from My Confession
Kem Stone - 1 August 2008
Every philosophical question is secondary to that of the question of life’s meaning.  The search for life’s ultimate
purpose is what led me to study philosophy in the first place, and in my studies I learned that there are no
answers, only possibilities.  One possibility is that provided by faith: life is given meaning through our relationship
with a personal God.  This is a possibility I reject on rational grounds, as did Leo Tolstoy, the author of this text,
until he abandoned rationality for faith as a way of escaping the existential anguish that results almost unavoidably
from considering the full implications of life in a universe without God.  Tolstoy’s “confession” captures this
anguish brilliantly and serves as a beautiful and poetic illustration of the struggle within a mind obsessed with life’s
emptiness.  However, I believe that abandoning this struggle for the comforts of religious doctrine is not the ideal
way to handle the problem.  I know nothing about Leo Tolstoy other than that he was a 19th century Russian
novelist who wrote
War and Peace, so I can not pass judgment on whether accepting the Christian faith was right
him but I believe that people in general should avoid this course of action.  I agree that faith can give life
meaning, but it is ultimately a false meaning, and humanity can have no future if it continues to cling to false ideas
about its existence.  In my opinion it is better to believe that life is ultimately meaningless than to believe its
meaning can be found in ancient documents allegedly written by the creator of the universe.  Some people may
need such beliefs in order to have any peace of mind, but if one does
not believe, it is better for that person to find
a way to achieve peace of mind
in spite of this disbelief rather than accepting a lie as the truth simply for the sake
of such comfort.

For most of his career, Tolstoy believed that the only necessary truth about life is that one ought to live in such a
way as to derive the greatest comfort for oneself and one’s family.  But at one point the question of “Why?” came
to his mind and everything changed as he found that he no longer knew how to live or what to do.  “There
happened what happens with any person who falls ill with a mortal internal disease.  At first there appear
insignificant symptoms of indisposition, to which the patient pays no attention; then these symptoms are repeated
more and more frequently and blend into one temporarily indivisible suffering.  The suffering keeps growing, and
before the patient has had time to look around, he becomes conscious that what he took for an indisposition is the
most significant thing in the world to him—his death” (593).  The inevitability of death naturally raises questions
about life’s meaning, which Tolstoy at first took as foolish and childish but eventually regarded them as the most
important and profound questions that one can ask, but questions which he would never be able to solve.

As long as he did not know
why he was living, he found he could not do anything.  Why pursue wealth and
property?  Why have an education or provide your children with one?  Why attempt to become a famous, world-
renowned author?  By what principles can anyone live by?  Upon what foundation can anyone stand?  The fact
that Tolstoy himself had every reason to be happy—a loving family, wealth, and fame—he could not escape the
anguish.  He began to develop a strange mental condition that I and many others that I have known tend to
experience when confronted with life’s absurdity: he imagined that his entire life was a stupid, mean trick played
on him by somebody.  “Involuntarily I imagined that there, somewhere, there was somebody who was now having
fun as he looked down upon me and saw me, who had lived for thirty or forty years, learning, developing, growing
in body and mind, now that I had become strengthened in mind and reached that summit of life from which it lay
all before me, standing as a complete fool on that summit and seeing clearly that there was nothing in life and never
would be.  And that was fun to him” (594).  The joke is that everything we do, every effort we exert, every task
we accomplish, is ultimately for nothing.  Everything shall eventually pass away and cease to exist.  Tolstoy writes
that a person can live only so long as he is drunk, but as soon as he sobers up he can not help but see that
everything in life is a deception—and a
stupid one at that.

To better illustrate this condition, Tolstoy recounts the Eastern tale of a man running from a beast who jumps into
a well with a dragon at the bottom.  He grabs onto a twig growing in the cleft of the wall, and knows that whether
he climbs out of the well or lets go and falls to the bottom, he will be eaten.  He sees two mice, one white and the
other black, circling the twig and gnawing at it, so he knows that his death is inevitable.  In the tale, the man
notices some drops of honey hanging on the leaves of the twig, and he finds that it is the sweetest honey he has
ever tasted.  Tolstoy, however, writes that he finds no pleasure in the taste of the honey; that he can not turn his
glance away from the mice that bring him closer and closer to the inevitable.  “The former deception of the
pleasures of life, which stifled the terror of the dragon, no longer deceive me.  No matter how much one should
say to me, ‘You cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think, live!’ I am unable to do so, because I have
been doing it too long before.  Now I cannot help seeing day and night, which run and lead me up to death.  I see
that alone, because that alone is the truth.  Everything else is a lie” (595).  To those who would say that the simple
pleasures of life are enough—that life does not require a meaning to be worth living—the man in the true grips of
the existential crisis replies that even these pleasures are empty.  Death does not make the honey taste sweeter,
but quite the opposite: it removes the flavour completely.  It shows that all pleasures, all things that seem to have
inherent value, actually have none.

This is what Tolstoy means when he writes that death is the only truth, and everything else is a lie.  Even his family,
who share the same condition of either living with the deception or seeing the horrible truth, has no value.  Why
should he love and care for them?  For a long time he believed that art and poetry could transcend
meaninglessness, but he ultimately found that these too were merely adornments or decoys of life.  “So long as I
did not live my own life, and a strange life bore me on its waves, so long as I believed that life had some sense,
although I was not able to express it, the reflections of life in every description in poetry  and in the arts afforded
me pleasure, and I was delighted to look at life through this little mirror of art; but when I began to look for the
meaning of life, when I experienced the necessity of living myself, that little mirror became either useless,
superfluous, and ridiculous, or painful to me” (596).  As long as he could believe that life had some sense, he was
capable of rejoicing, but after the confrontation with life’s meaninglessness, art was no longer capable of affording
him any amusement.  He felt as though he was lost in a forest, climbing the trees in search of houses but finding
only more forest stretching as far as the eye can see.  To come across just one house in the wilderness—one
purpose or explanation that could provide life with meaning—would be enough to resolve the entire crisis.

Tolstoy’s search for houses in the wilderness encompasses the experimental sciences as well as the speculative
sphere of knowledge.  Unfortunately, the sciences mostly seem to provide answers to questions he did not ask,
such as the chemical composition of the stars or the origin of species.  The answer that scientific knowledge
provide to the question of life’s purpose is horrifying: “You are a temporal, accidental conglomeration of particles.  
The interrelation, the change of these particles, produces in you that which you call life.  This congeries will last for
some time; then the interaction of these particles will cease, and that which you call life and all your questions will
come to an end” (596).  This explanation not only renders life meaningless, but actually strips it of all
possibility of
having meaning.  The speculative sphere of knowledge is only slightly less unsatisfying, saying only that life is an
incomprehensible part of an incomprehensible all.  Life
may have meaning but we can never understand what it is.

This is the opinion held by most of the liberal and learned men in Tolstoy’s time.  After associating with them for
most of his career, he began to wonder whether he should not inquire about life’s meaning among the educated
few whose lives had no meaning and who wanted to kill themselves, but among the billions of working men who
had been carrying their lives on their shoulders.  He had once hypothesised that all men fit into four categories
according to their reaction to life’s meaninglessness.  All men, he believed, either 1) lived in ignorance of the
problem, 2) ignored the problem and focussed instead on the pursuit of pleasure, 3) acknowledged the problem
and committed suicide, or 4) lived aimlessly, lacking the fortitude to take their own life.  But upon closer
inspection, he realised that the masses did not actually fit into these categories.  They are not ignorant of the
problem of the meaning of life, they just have their own answers.  They do not relentlessly pursue pleasures;
indeed their lives are mostly characterised by constant suffering.  They regard it as evil to kill themselves.  And
they do not live aimlessly because their belief systems provide meaning and purpose to everything they do.  They
are able to live by putting their faith in an irrational knowledge.

Tolstoy began to understand that he would find no answers in on the path of rational knowledge.  He believed that
he would either have to accept rational knowledge which leads to the negation of life, or accept an irrational faith
which affirms life but leads to a negation of reason.  The only alternative would be to discover that either what he
called rational was not so rational, or what he called irrational was not as irrational as he had thought.  In
endeavouring to verify the train of his rational thoughts, he found that they inevitably led to the conclusion of life’s
meaninglessness, but he also discovered that his reasoning had not been in conformity with the question he had
asked of himself.  His question contained the necessity of explaining the finite through the infinite and vice versa.  
Every reflection, however, could only produce the same results: matter was matter, infinity was infinity, nothing
was nothing, and nothing could come from it.  “There happened something like what at times takes place in
mathematics: you think you are solving an equation, when you have only an identity.  The reasoning is correct, but
you receive as a result the answer:
a = a, or x = x, or 0 = 0.  The same happened with my reflection in respect to
the question about the meaning of my life.  The answers given by all science to that question are only identities”
(598).  Tolstoy concluded that scientific knowledge can give no other answer to the question of life’s meaning than
an indefinite answer.

The answer provided by faith, on the contrary, gave definitive concrete answers that related the finite to the
infinite.  The answer to the question of how a person must live is simple: according to God’s laws.  The answer to
the question of what will result from life is concrete and palpable: eternal bliss or eternal torment.  Whereas
without faith death destroys all of life’s meaning, with faith the union with the infinite God survives bodily death and
provides life with eternal significance.  “The rational knowledge brought me to the recognition that life was
meaningless, my life stopped, and I wanted to destroy myself.  When I looked around at people, at all humanity, I
saw that people lived and asserted that they knew the meaning of life.  I looked back at myself: I lived so long as I
knew the meaning of life.  As to other people, so even to me, did faith give the meaning of life and the possibility
of living” (599).  Whatever answers that faith may provide, it always gives a sense of the infinite to the finite
existence of man.

Faith, as most of the learned men in Tolstoy’s time understood it, was merely the agreement of a man with what
he is told.  But Tolstoy began to believe that faith is something much deeper: the knowledge of the meaning of
human life, the power of life itself, the purpose that a man requires to live.  Tolstoy endeavoured to cultivate the
acquaintance of as many ordinary people of faith as he could, and saw many aspects of their existence which he
found more attractive than the lives of the learned.  Whereas among the learned hardly one in a thousand
expressed belief in God, among the masses hardly one in a thousand was not a believer.  Whereas among the
learned most life passed in idleness and amusement, the masses passed their lives in hard work which satisfied
them.  “In contradistinction to the people of our circle, who struggled and murmured against fate because of their
privations and their suffering, these people accepted diseases and sorrows without any perplexity or opposition,
but with the calm and firm conviction that it was all for good.  In contradistinction to the fact that the more
intelligent we are, the less do we understand the meaning of life and the more do we see a kind of a bad joke in
our suffering and death, these people live, suffer, and approach death, and suffer in peace and more often in joy”
(600).  Finally, whereas among the learned a calm death without terror was rare, among the faithful a restless and
insubmissive death was the exception.  These people worked, lived, and died in the comfort of the knowledge of
the meaning of life, and Tolstoy did not see this as vanity, but good.

And so Tolstoy began to love these people, and after spending two years among them he underwent a
transformation.  The attitudes of those in the circle of the rich and learned became not only troubling but repulsive
to him.  All of the arts and sciences they cultivated were nothing more than amusements, the pampering of the
appetites, devoid of any real meaning.  “But the life of all the working masses, of all humanity, which created life,
presented itself to me in its real significance.  I saw that that was life itself and that the meaning given to this life
was truth, and I accepted it” (601).  Tolstoy does not claim to have been swayed by logical arguments for God’s
existence, nor by a sudden and miraculous divine revelation.  He merely adopted the belief system of the masses
because it was more attractive to him emotionally.  He placed his own psychological well-being above rationality,
and adopted the irrational faith he had been avoiding his entire life.

Regardless of how I feel about Tolstoy’s eventual conversion, he does a brilliant job of illustrating the existential
crisis that those of us who can not accept the irrational knowledge of faith must go through.  Most striking is the
idea of the universe as a cruel joke being played upon us as we live and die, struggle and suffer, succeed and fail
over and over again for what ultimately amounts to nothing.  Life, no matter how simple it may be, requires a great
deal of effort.  For those who are not necessarily in any rush to die, but who are nevertheless constantly aware
that their lives and all of their actions ultimately have no significance, exerting the effort to continue through life is
much more difficult than it is for those who believe that everything has a deeper purpose.

Tolstoy is correct in his assessment of scientific and speculative knowledge.  The scientific method only provides
answers to questions of the mechanical nature of the universe, leaving the spiritual side untouched.  Science also
denigrates the spiritual side by removing the quality of the miraculous from many of the universe’s greatest
wonders.  The stars in the sky, the changing seasons, the incredible richness and diversity of plant and animal life
on this planet—all of these lose their miraculous quality when explained in terms of solar mechanics, the behaviour
of molecules, natural selection, and so on.  The more science tells us about
how the universe works, the farther
we come from understanding
why it is here in the first place.  The bigger we understand the universe to be, and
the smaller we realise that humanity is in the grand scheme of things, the less chance it seems that there is any
reason we are here at all, other than the accidental meeting of certain particles that sparked an incredibly long and
complex process that eventually led to us.  Scientific knowledge does not give us life’s meaning but actually
strengthens the sense that no such meaning exists.  And speculative knowledge, the reflections of philosophy, lead
in the same direction.  Rationality, even when divorced from empirical knowledge, can never take one beyond the
conclusion that life’s meaning can not be deduced rationally.  For science and philosophy, life can never be
anything more than an incomprehensible part of an incomprehensible existence.

My opinions only diverge from those of Tolstoy when he considers what he believes to be the only ways possible
for a man confronted with life’s meaninglessness to react.  The only options are not dismissal and pursuit of
pleasure, acceptance and suicide, or rejection in favour of faith.  One can also accept life’s meaninglessness and
live in full recognition of the fact.  The idea later put forward by Camus of the “Absurd Hero” does not occur to
Tolstoy.  He does not believe that one can live with a sense of affirmation of life unless that finite existence is
understood in infinite terms.  But like Sisyphus who continues to push his rock up the mountainside despite
knowing full well that it will roll back down and he will never accomplish anything, one can live in full recognition
of life’s absurdity and continue to exert the necessary effort.  It is the opinion of Camus, and one which I share
wholeheartedly, that there is even a special kind of dignity in living this way.  It requires much more inner strength
to live what one
knows is a meaningless life than to accept the easy answers that faith provides in order to allow
oneself to believe that life has meaning.

This is why I see Tolstoy’s decision to ultimately accept the Christian faith as a “cop-out”, for lack of a better
term.  Now, as I have said I know almost nothing about Tolstoy so I want to refrain from passing judgment on
him personally and the decisions he made in order to get through his own life.  Clearly he struggled with the same
problems I have struggled with, and it may be that in the end it came down to either accepting the irrational or
killing himself, in which case I can certainly not condemn him for choosing the former.  However, when
considering people in general I would much rather they maintain a greater reverence for the Truth than for
whatever makes life easier or more enjoyable.  Perhaps it is much easier to live in blissful ignorance and to believe
that you are being watched by a benevolent deity at every moment, but if this idea strikes you as absurd you ought
not accept it simply because the alternative is too difficult.  Perhaps the company of the believers is more
enjoyable than that of the sceptics, but that is no basis by which to alter your beliefs.  To accept an entire religion
simply because you admire its followers is just as absurd as someone who is not a racist joining the Ku Klux Klan
because he enjoys the rallies.  One’s beliefs should ideally come from their own rational reflections, and not from
others whose beliefs they wish to share simply for the sake of sharing their beliefs.

That being said, I do not know the extent to which Tolstoy actually accepted the doctrines of mainstream
Christianity.  One can certainly accept the idea of an infinite God without adopting all of the dogma and
superstition that an organised religion attaches to it.  Indeed, even I believe in some deeper reality through which
the finite existence of this life is given everlasting significance.  However, I am willing to accept that this may be a
false belief, and I never lose sight of the very real possibility that death is the final end, that human extinction will
wipe away any significance that I or any other human being manages to make during this brief flicker of time within
the grander universe, and that everything that happens is completely accidental and utterly devoid of meaning.

Ultimately, I believe that a mere acceptance of the possibility that life is meaningless would go a long way towards
bringing humanity as a whole closer to the hope of a better future.  As long as we take Tolstoy’s way out and
reject the horrifying possibility that life may be meaningless in favour of the comforting yet in most cases
demonstrably false ideas that religion provides, we will never stand up and take full responsibility for who we are
and where we are going as a species.  Faith
can provide life with meaning, but it will ultimately be a false
meaning, and we are much stronger if we reject all possible meanings that spring only from the desire for infinite
significance, and decide to be content with finite meanings only.  If we avoid the allure of religion and resolve that
life and human existence will have only the meanings that we decide to attach to it, we will have taken the greatest
step towards growing out of our collective adolescence and reaching a higher phase in history, one in which
humanity as a whole behaves like an adult, completely devoted to choosing the rational over the comfortable and
strong enough to face the possibility that life may have no eternal significance after all.