Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 5



Several times I asked myself:

"Can it be that I have overlooked something, that there is something which I have failed to understand? Is it not possible that this state of despair is common to everyone?"

And I searched for an answer to my questions in every area of knowledge acquired by man:

For a long time I carried on my painstaking search; I did not search casually, out of mere curiosity, but painfully, persistently, day and night, like a dying man seeking salvation. I found nothing.

I searched all areas of knowledge, and not only did I fail to find anything, but I was convinced that all those who had explored knowledge as I did had also come up with nothing.

Not only had they found nothing, but they had clearly acknowledged the same thing that had brought me to despair: the only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.

I searched everywhere. And thanks to a life spent in study and to my connections with the learned world, I had access to the most learned from all the various fields of knowledge:

These scholars did not refuse to reveal to me the sum of their knowledge, not only through their books but in conversations with them; I knew everything that knowledge had to answer to the question of life.

For a long time I could not bring myself to believe that knowledge had no reply to the question of life other than the one it had come up with.

For a long time I thought I might have misunderstood something, as I closely observed the gravity and seriousness in the tone of science, convinced in its position, while having nothing to do with the question of human life.

For a long time I was timid around knowledge, and I thought that the absurdity of the answers given to my questions was not the fault of knowledge but was due to my own ignorance;

but the thing was that this to me was no joke, no game, but a matter of life and death;

and I finally came to the conclusion that my questions were the only legitimate questions serving as a basis for all knowledge and that it was not I but science that was guilty before my questions if it should pretend to answer these questions.

My question, the question that had brought me to the edge of suicide when I was fifty years old, was the simplest question lying in the soul of every human being, from a silly child to the wisest of the elders, the question without which life is impossible; such was the way I felt about the matter.

The question is this: What will come of what I do today and tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?

Expressed differently, the question may be:

Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?

Throughout human knowledge I sought an answer to this question, which is one and the same question in the various expressions of it.

And I found that in regard to this question the sum of human knowledge is divided as if into two hemispheres lying opposite each other, into two opposite extremes occupying two poles, one positive and one negative. But there were no answers to the question of life at either pole.

One field of knowledge does not even acknowledge the question, even though it clearly and precisely answers the questions that it has posed independently. This is the field of experimental science, and at its extreme end is mathematics.

The other field of knowledge acknowledges the questions but does not answer it. This is the field of speculative philosophy, and at its extreme end is metaphysics.

From my early youth I had studied speculative philosophy, but later both mathematics and the natural sciences attracted me.

And until I had clearly put my question to myself, until the question itself grew within me and urgently demanded a resolution, I was satisfied with the counterfeit answers that knowledge had to offer.

In regard to the realm of experience, I said to myself:

"Everything is developing and being differentiated, becoming more complex and moving toward perfection, and there are laws governing this process.

You are part of the whole. If you learn as much as possible about the whole and if you learn the law of its development, you will come to know your place in the whole and to know yourself."

As much as I am ashamed to admit it, there was a time when I seemed to be satisfied with this. It was at this time that I myself was developing and becoming more complex:

My muscles were growing and getting stronger, my memory was being enriched, my ability to think and to comprehend was becoming greater; I was growing and developing.

Feeling growth within me, it was natural for me to believe that perfectibility was indeed the law of the entire universe and that in this idea I would find the answers to the questions of my life.

But the time came when I stopped growing; I felt that I was not growing but drying up:

My muscles were growing weaker, my teeth were falling out, and I saw not only that this law explained nothing to me but that there never had been and never could be any law of this kind; I had merely mistaken something for a law which I happened to have found in myself at a particular time in my life.

As I examined the nature of this law more closely, it became clear to me that there could be no such law of eternal development.

It became clear to me that to say everything is developing, becoming more perfect, growing more complex and being differentiated in endless space and time amounted to saying nothing at all:

None of these words has any meaning, for in the infinite there is nothing either simple or complex, nothing before or after, nothing better or worse.

The main thing was that my personal question, the question of what I am with all my desires, remained totally unanswered.

I realized that these areas of knowledge may be very interesting and quite attractive, but their clarity and precision are inversely proportionate to their applicability to the questions of life.

The less they have to do with the questions of life, the clearer and more precise they are; the more they attempt to provide answers to the questions of life, the more vague and unattractive they become.

If we turn to those fields of knowledge that try to provide answers to the questions, to physiology, psychology, biology, sociology, then we encounter a striking poverty of thought and the greatest obscurity;

we find in them a completely unjustified pretension to decide questions lying outside their scope, as well as incessant contradiction between one thinker and another and even thinkers contradicting themselves.

If we turn to those fields of knowledge that are not concerned with answering the questions of life but only with answering their own special, scientific questions,

then we may be carried away by the power of the human intellect, but we know beforehand that we shall find no answers to the question of life. These areas of knowledge completely ignore the question of life.

They say:

"We cannot tell you what you are and why you live; we do not have the answers to these questions, and we are not concerned with them.

If you need to know about the laws of light, however, or about chemical compounds or the laws governing the development of organisms; if you need to know about the laws governing physical bodies, their forms and the relation between their size and number; if you need to know about the laws of your own mind, then for all this we have clear, precise, indubitable answers."

Generally the relation between the experimental sciences and the question of life may be expressed in this way:

Question-Why do I live?

Answer-In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles undergo modifications of infinite complexity, and when you understand the laws that govern these modifications, then you will understand why you live.

Then along more speculative lines I would say to myself:

"All of mankind lives and develops according to the spiritual principles, according to the ideals that guide it.

These ideals find expression in the religions, the sciences, the arts, and the forms of government. As these ideals rises higher and higher mankind proceeds on to its greater happiness.

I am a part of mankind, and my mission, therefore, lies in helping mankind through the consciousness and realization of these ideals."

During my feeble-mindedness I was satisfied with this. But as soon as the question of life began to clearly emerge within me, this entire theory immediately collapsed.

In addition to the careless inaccuracy with which this type of knowledge draws its conclusions and makes general claims about humanity after having studied only a small portion of it;

in addition to the mutual contradiction among the various advocates of this view with respect to what the ideals of mankind are,

the strangeness, if not the stupidity, of this view is that in order to answer the question that occurs to every man: "What am I?" or "Why do I live?" or "What am I to do?"

- another question must first be settled: "What is the life of the humanity that is unknown to us, the life of which we can know only a small portion over a short period of time?"

In order to know what he is, a man must first know what the sum of this mysterious humanity is, a humanity made up of people who, like himself, do not understand what they are.

I must confess that there was a time when I believed this.

It was during the time when I had my own pet ideals to justify my whims, when I tried to devise one theory or another so that I could look upon my whims as laws that govern mankind.

But as soon as the question of life began to emerge in my soul in all its clarity, this reply immediately crumbled into dust.

And I realized that within the experimental sciences there are those that are genuinely scientific and those that are only half scientific, trying to give answers to questions that lie completely out of their realm;

thus I realized that there is a whole series of the most widely diversified fields of knowledge that try to answer questions beyond their scope.

Those that are only half scientific include the judicial, social, and historical sciences; in its own way each of these sciences attempts to decide the questions concerning the individual by seemingly deciding the question of life that concerns all of mankind.

But, as in the domain of the experimental sciences, a person who sincerely asks how he is to live cannot be satisfied with an answer that tells him to study the infinite complexities and changes that an infinite number of particles may go through in infinite space and time;

in the same way, a sincere person cannot be satisfied with an answer that tells him to study the whole of humanity, whose beginning and end we cannot know and whose parts lie beyond our reach.

It is the same with the semi-sciences as it is with the semi-experimental sciences: the more imbedded they are in obscurity, inaccuracy, stupidity, and contradiction, the further they deviate from their proper task.

The task of experimental science is to determine the causal sequence of material phenomena. If experimental science should run into a question concerning an ultimate cause, it stumbles over nonsense.

The task of speculative science is to discover the essence of life that lies beyond cause and effect. If its investigations should run into causal phenomena, such as social and historical phenomena, speculative science also stumbles over nonsense.

Experimental science, then, is concerned only with positive knowledge and reveals the greatness of the human intellect whenever its investigations do not enter into ultimate causes.

And, on the other hand, speculative science reveals the greatness of the human intellect only when it completely removes all questions concerning the sequence of causal phenomena and examines man only in relation to an ultimate cause.

Metaphysics or speculative philosophy occupies the extreme end of the spectrum of speculative sciences:

This science clearly raises the question of what I am and what the universe is, the question of why I live and why the universe exists. And since it’s very beginning it has always answered in the same way:

Whether the philosopher calls the essence of life that is within me and all living creatures an idea, a substance, a spirit, or a will, he is still saying that this essence exists and that I am this essence; but why it is there he does not know, and if he is a precise thinker, he does not answer.

I ask: "Why does this essence exist, and what comes of the fact that it is and will be?"

And not only does philosophy fail to answer, but all it can do itself is ask the same question. And if it is a true philosophy, then the sum of its labour lies in putting this question clearly.

And if it holds firmly to its task, then it can have only one answer to the question of what I am and what the universe is: all and nothing. And to the question of why the universe exists and why I exist it can only reply: I do not know.

Thus no matter how I twist and tum the speculative answers of philosophy, I can obtain nothing resembling an answer;

not because, as in the case of the clear, experimental sciences, the answer does not relate to my question, but because even though the sum of the intellectual labour is here directed toward my question, there is no answer. And instead of an answer, all one can obtain is the very same question put in a complicated form.