Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 6



In my search for answers to the question of life I felt exactly as a man who is lost in a forest.

I came to a clearing, climbed a tree, and had a clear view of the endless space around me. But I could see that there was no house and that there could be no house; I went into the thick of the forest, into the darkness, but again I could see no house - only darkness.

Thus I wandered about in the forest of human knowledge:

On one side of me were the clearings of mathematical and experimental sciences, revealing to me sharp horizons; but in no direction could I see a house.

On the other side of me was the darkness of the speculative sciences, where every step I took plunged me deeper into darkness, and I was finally convinced that there could be no way out.

When I gave myself over to the bright light of knowledge, I was only diverting my eyes from the question.

However clear and tempting the horizons that opened up to me might have been, however-tempting it was to sink into the infinity of this knowledge, I soon realized that the clearer this knowledge was, the less I needed it, the less it answered my question.

"Well," I said to myself, "I know everything that science wants so much to know, but this path will not lead me to an answer to the question of the meaning of my life."

In the realm of speculative science I saw that in spite of - or rather precisely because of - the fact that this knowledge was designed to answer my question, there could be no answer other than the one I had given myself:

What is the meaning of my life? It has none.
Or: What will come of my life? Nothing.
Or: Why does everything that is exist, and why do I exist? Because it exists.

From one branch of human knowledge I received an endless number of precise answers to questions I had not asked:

answers concerning the chemical composition of the stars, the movement of the sun toward the constellation Hercules, the origin of the species and of man, the forms of infinitely small atoms, and the vibration of infinitely small and imponderable particles of ether.

But the answer given by this branch of knowledge to my question about the meaning of my life was only this:

you are what you call your life; you are a temporary, random conglomeration of particles. The thing that you have been led to refer to as your life is simply the mutual interaction and alteration of these particles.

This conglomeration will continue for a certain period of time; then the interaction of these particles will come to a halt, and the thing you call your life will come to an end and with it all your questions.

You are a little lump of something randomly stuck together. The lump decomposes. The decomposition of this lump is known as your life. The lump falls apart, and thus the decomposition ends, as do all your questions. Thus the clear side of knowledge replies, and if it strictly follows its own principles, there is no more to be said.

It turns out, however, that such an answer does not constitute a reply to the question:

I must know the meaning of my life, but to say that it is a particle of infinity not only fails to give it any meaning but destroys all possible meaning.

The experimental, exact side of knowledge may strike some vague agreement with the speculative side, saying that the meaning of life lies in development and in the contributions made to this development. But given the inaccuracy and obscurity of such a remark, it cannot be regarded as an answer.

Whenever it holds strictly to its own principles in answering the question, the speculative side of knowledge has always come up with the same reply down through the centuries:

the universe is something that is infinite and incomprehensible. Human life is an inscrutable part of this inscrutable "whole."

Again I put aside all the agreements made between speculative and experimental knowledge that constitute the whole ballast of the semi-sciences, the so-called judicial, political, and historical sciences:

In these sciences we are once again led to a false concept of development and perfection, with the only difference being that in one area we have the development of everything and in the other the development of people.

The falsehood is the same in both cases: development and perfection can have no purpose in infinity, no direction, and therefore can give no answer to my question.

Wherever speculative knowledge is exact and may be called true philosophy, and not what Schopenhauer refers to as professorial philosophy, which serves only to divide all existing phenomena into new philosophical columns with new names;

wherever philosophy does not turn away from the essential question, the answer is always the same as the one given by Socrates, Schopenhauer, Solomon, and the Buddha.

"We move closer to the truth only to the extent that we move further from life," says Socrates, as he prepares for death.

What do we who love truth strive for in life? To be free of the body and of all the evils that result from the life of the body. If this is so, then how can we fail to rejoice when death approaches?

"The wise man seeks death all his life, and for this reason death is not terrifying to him."

"If we accept the inner essence of the universe as will," says Schopenhauer, "and if we accept the objectivity of this will in all phenomena,

from the unconscious surges of the dark forces of nature to the fully conscious activity of man, we cannot avoid the conclusion that all these phenomena disappear in the free denial and self-annihilation of will;

the constant striving, the aimless and restless inclination toward all the levels of objectivity that make up the universe will disappear, and the variety of successive forms will come to an end;

and when form disappears, so do all the phenomena of form, including space and time, until the ultimate foundation of form finally disappears, that of subject and object.

Where there is no will, no appearance of phenomena, there is no universe. The only thing that remains before us is, of course, nothingness.

But the thing that opposes this passage into nothingness is our nature, our own will to live (Wille zum Leben), by which we are constituted, as is our universe.

The fact that we are so frightened of nothingness, or that we long so to live only signifies that we ourselves are merely this desire to live, and that we know nothing except this desire.

Therefore, upon the complete annihilation of the will, all that remains for us, we who are fulfilled by that will, is, of course, nothingness;

but on the other hand, for those in whom the will has been transformed and renounced, this universe of ours which is so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothingness.“

"Vanity of vanities," says Solomon, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity! What profit does a man derive from all the labours by which he toils under the sun?

One generation comes, while another generation passes away; but the earth abides forever. What has been will be; what has been done will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything, of which it may be said, behold, this is new? No, it has been already in the centuries that have come before us. There is no remembrance of former things; and there will be no remembrance of the things to come on the part of those who come afterward.

I, the Preacher, was King over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave up my heart to search and seek out through wisdom all the things that are under the sun; this hard pursuit God has given to the sons of men, so that they may be exercised in it. I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a languishing of the spirit.

I spoke in my heart, saying, see how I have been exalted and have attained more wisdom than all who have ruled over Jerusalem before me.

And my heart held much wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart over to knowing wisdom and to knowing madness and folly; I discovered that this too is a languishing of the spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases wisdom increases sorrow.

"I spoke in my heart, saying, I will try you with mirth, and you will enjoy the pleasures of good things; but this too is vanity. Of laughter I said: it is foolishness; and of mirth: what does it do?

I thought in my heart to delight my body with wine, and though my heart was guided by wisdom, I thought to adhere to foolishness until I could see what was good for the sons of men and discover what they should do under heaven during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great deeds: I erected buildings and planted vineyards for myself. I set up gardens and orchards and planted every kind of fruit-bearing tree; I made reservoirs to water the orchards, so that the trees might spring up.

I acquired servants and maidservants, and there were servants born in my house; I also had cattle, great and small, more than any who had been in Jerusalem before me;

I obtained silver and gold and treasures from kings and from other regions; I gathered unto myself singers and women who sing and the delights of the sons of men and various musical instruments.

And I became greater and wealthier than all who had ruled Jerusalem before me; and my wisdom abided with me. Whatever my eyes desired I kept not from them, nor did I forbid my heart any delight.

And I looked around at all the deeds my hands had performed and at the labours by which I had toiled; and behold, all was vanity and a languishing of the spirit, and there was no profit from them under the sun.

And I turned about to look upon wisdom and madness and foolishness. But I found that one lot fell to them all. And in my heart I said: the same lot will fall to me as to the fool - why, then, had I become so wise?

And I said to my heart: this too is vanity. For there will be no eternal memory of the wise man or of the fool; in the days to come all will be forgotten, and alas, the wise man dies the same death as the fool!

And I came to hate life, because all the works that are done under the sun had become repulsive to me; for all is vanity and a languishing of the spirit.

And I came to hate the labour by which I had toiled under the sun, because it must be left to the man who will come after me. For what will a man have from all his labour and the anxieties of his heart by which he toils under the sun?

For all his days are sorrow and his labours grief; even at night his heart does not know peace. And this too is vanity. There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and let his soul find delight in his labour.

"All things come alike to all; one lot falls to the righteous and to the wicked, to the good and to the evil, to the clean and to the unclean, to the one who sacrifices and to the one who does not sacrifice; as to the virtuous, so to the sinner; as to the one who swears, so to the one who fears an oath.

This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that one lot falls to all, and that the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, that there is madness in their heart and in their life; and after this they go to join the dead.

Whoever is among the living still has hope, since it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion:

The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, neither have they any reward, for even the memory of them has been lost to forgetfulness;

their love, their hate, and their jealousy have already vanished, and there will be no more honour done to them in all the things that are done under the sun."

Thus speaks Solomon, or the one who has written these words.

And this is what an Indian sage has to say:

Śākyamuni, a young and happy prince from whom sickness, old age, and death had been hidden, went out for a ride one day and saw a dreadful, toothless, drivelling old man.

The prince, from whom until now old age had been hidden, was taken aback and asked the driver what this meant and why this man had come to such a pitiful, disgusting, hideous state.

And when he found out that this is the common lot of all people, that he, the young prince, would also come to this, he could not go on with the drive and ordered the driver to return home so that he could reflect on this.

And he shut himself up alone and pondered it. He probably thought of something or other to console him, for once again, happy and cheerful he went out for a drive.

But this time he met a sick man. He saw an emaciated, feeble, trembling man with dim eyes.

The prince, from whom sickness had been hidden, stopped and asked what this could mean.

And when he found out that this was sickness, which befalls all people, and that even he, the healthy and happy prince, may get sick tomorrow, once again the spirit of merriment left him; he ordered the driver to return home, where he again sought peace of mind.

And he probably found it, for a third time he went out for a drive. But the third time he saw yet another new sight:

he saw some people carrying something: "What is it?" A dead man. "What does ‘dead’ mean?" asked the prince. And he was told that to become a dead man means to become what this man had become.

The prince went down to the dead man, uncovered him and looked at him. "And what now will become of him?" asked the prince. And he was told that the man would be buried in the earth.

"Why?" Because he will never again be alive and only stench and worms will come of him.

"And this is the fate of all people? And it will happen to me as well? They will bury me, and a stench will rise from me, and worms will consume me?" Yes.

"Go back! I don't want to go for a drive; I shall never go for a drive again."

Śākyamuni could find no comfort in life:

He decided that life is a great evil, and he drew on all the strength of his soul to free himself and others from life, to free them in such a way that after death life would never be renewed and the root of life would be completely destroyed. Thus speak all the Indian sages.

Thus we have the direct answers that human wisdom has to give when it answers the question of life.

"The life of the body is an evil and a lie. And so the destruction of the life of the body is a blessing, and we should long for it," says Socrates.

"Life is what it should not be, an evil; and a passage into nothingness is the only blessing that life has to offer," says Schopenhauer.

"Everything in the world - both - folly and wisdom, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow-all is vanity and emptiness. A man dies and nothing remains. And this is absurd," says Solomon.

"It is not possible to live, knowing that suffering, decrepitness, old age, and death are inevitable; we must free ourselves from life and from all possibility of life," says the Buddha.

And the very thing that has been uttered by these powerful minds has been said, thought, and felt by millions of people like them. I too have thought and felt the same way.

Thus my wanderings among the fields of knowledge not only failed to lead me out of my despair but rather increased it.

One area of knowledge did not answer the question of life;

the other branch of knowledge did indeed answer, all the more confirming my despair and showing me that the thing that had befallen me was not due to an error on my part or to a sick state of mind. On the contrary, this area of knowledge confirmed for me the fact that I had been thinking correctly and had been in agreement with the most powerful minds known to humanity.

I could not be deceived. All is vanity. Happy is he who has never been born; death is better than life; we must rid ourselves of life.