Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 7


Having failed to find an explanation in knowledge, I began to look for it in life, hoping to find it in the people around me. And so I began to observe people like myself to see how they lived and to determine what sort of relation they had with the question that had led me to despair.

And this is what I found among people whose circumstances were precisely the same as mine with respect to education and way of life:

I found that for the people of my class there were 4 means of escaping the terrible situation in which we all find ourselves.

The first means of escape is that of ignorance. It consists of failing to realize and to understand that life is evil and meaningless:

For the most part, people in this category are women, or they are very young or very stupid men; they still have not understood the problem of life that presented itself to Schopenhauer, Solomon, and the Buddha.

They see neither the dragon that awaits them nor the mice gnawing away at the branch they cling to; they simply lick the drops of honey.

But they lick these drops of honey only for the time being; something will turn their attention toward the dragon and the mice, and there will be an end to their licking. There was nothing for me to learn from them, since we cannot cease to know what we know.

The second escape is that of Epicureanism:

Fully aware of the hopelessness of life, it consists of enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have without looking at the dragon or the mice; it lies in licking the honey as best we can, especially in those places where there is the most honey on the bush.

Solomon describes this escape in the following manner:

"And I commended mirth, for there is nothing better for man under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; this will be his mainstay in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

"So go and eat your bread with joy and drink your wine in the gladness of your heart. Enjoy life with a woman you love through all the days of your life of vanity, through all your vain days; for this is your fate in life and in the labours by which you toil under the sun.

Do whatever you can do by the strength of your hand, for there is no work in the grave where you are going, no reflection, no knowledge, no wisdom."

Most people of our class pursue this second means of escape:

The situation in which they find themselves is such that it affords them more of the good things in life than the bad:

their moral stupidity enables them to forget that all the advantages of their position are accidental, that not everyone can have a thousand women and palaces, as Solomon did;

they forget that for every man with a thousand wives there are a thousand men without wives, that for every palace there are a thousand men who built it by the sweat of their brows, and that the same chance that has made them a Solomon today might well make them Solomon's slave tomorrow.

The dullness of the imagination of these people enables them to forget what left the Buddha with no peace: the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which if not today then tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.

The fact that some of these people maintain that their dullness of thought and imagination is positive philosophy does not, in my opinion, distinguish them from those who lick the honey without seeing the problem.

I could not imitate these people, since I did not lack imagination and could not pretend that I did. Like every man who truly lives, I could not turn my eyes away from the mice and the dragon once I had seen them.

The third means of escape is through strength and energy:

It consists of destroying life once one has realized that life is evil and meaningless. Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner.

Having realized all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us and seeing that the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it is better not to exist, they act and put an end to this stupid joke; and they use any means of doing it: a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart, a train.

There are more and more people of our class who are acting in this way.

For the most part, the people who perform these acts are in the very prime of life, when the strength of the soul is at its peak and when the habits that undermine human reason have not yet taken over. I saw that this was the most worthy means of escape, and I wanted to take it.

The fourth means of escape is that of weakness. It consists of continuing to drag out a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it.

The people in this category know that death is better than life, but they do not have the strength to act rationally and quickly put an end to the delusion by killing themselves; instead they seem to be waiting for something to happen.

This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is better and have it within my reach, then why not surrender myself to it? I myself belonged in this category.

Thus the people of my class save themselves from a terrible contradiction in these four ways. No matter how much I strained my intellectual faculties, I could see no escape other than these four.

One escape lies in failing to realize that life is meaningless, vain, and evil, and that it is better not to live. It was impossible for me not to know this, and once I had discovered the truth I could not close my eyes to it.

Another escape lies in making use of what very life has to offer without thinking about the future. And this I could not do.

Like Śākyamuni, I could find no pleasure in life once I had come to know what old age, suffering, and death are. My imagination was too active. Moreover, I could not enjoy the transient pleasures that just happened to come my way for a moment.

The third escape lies in knowing that life is evil and absurd and putting an end to it by killing yourself. I understood this, but for some reason I did not kill myself.

The fourth means of escape lies in knowing that life is as Solomon and Schopenhauer have described it, knowing that it is a stupid joke being played on us, and yet continuing to live, to wash, dress, dine, talk, and even write books. Such a position was disgusting and painful to me, but I remained in it all the same.

Now I see that if I did not kill myself, it was because I had some vague notion that my ideas were all wrong:

However convincing and unquestionable the train of my thoughts and of the thoughts of the wise seemed to me, the ideas that had led us to affirm the meaninglessness of life, I still had some obscure doubt about the point of departure of my reflections.

My doubt was expressed in this way:

I, that is, my reason declared that life is irrational. If there is nothing higher than reason and there is no way to prove that there is anything higher than it, then reason is the creator of life for me.

If there were no reason, then for me there would be no life. So how can this reason deny life when it is itself the creator of life?

Or to put it differently: if there were no life, my reason would not exist either. Therefore, reason is the offspring of life. Life is all. Reason is the fruit of life, and yet this reason denies that very life.

I felt that something was wrong here:

"Life is an absurd evil; there is no doubting this," I said to myself. "But I have lived, and I am still living; and all of humanity has lived and continues to live.

How can this be? Why do men live when they are able to die? Can it be that Schopenhauer and I are the only ones brilliant enough to have realized that life is meaningless and evil?"

Understanding the vanity of life is not so difficult, and even the simplest of people have understood it for a long time; yet they have lived and continue to live. How is it that they all go on living and never think to doubt the rationality of life?

My acquired knowledge, confirmed by the wisdom of the wisest of men, revealed to me that everything in the world, both organic and inorganic, was arranged with extraordinary intelligence; my position alone was absurd.

But these fools, the huge masses of simple people, know nothing about the organic and inorganic arrangement of the world, and yet they live, all the while believing that life is arranged in a very rational manner!

It occurred to me that there still might be something that I did not know.

After all, ignorance acts precisely in this manner. Ignorance always says exactly what I was saying. Whenever it does not know something, it says that whatever it does not know is stupid.

It really comes down to this:

all of mankind has lived and continues to live as if it knew the meaning of life, for without knowing the meaning of life it could not live; but I am saying that all this life is meaningless and that I cannot live.

No one prevents us from denying life, as Schopenhauer has done. So kill yourself, and you won't have to worry about it. If you don't like life, kill yourself.

If you live and cannot understand the meaning of life, put an end to it; but don't turn around and start talking and writing about how you don't understand life.

You are in cheerful company, for whom everything is going well, and they all know what they are doing; if you are bored and find it offensive, leave.

After all, if we are convinced of the necessity of suicide and do not go through with it, then what are we, if not the weakest, most inconsistent, and, to speak quite frankly, the most stupid of all people, fussing like foolish children over a new toy?

After all, our wisdom, however accurate it may be, has not provided us with an understanding of the meaning of life. Yet the millions who make up the sum of humanity take part in life without ever doubting the meaning of life.

Indeed, since ancient times, when the life of which I do know something began, people who knew the arguments concerning the vanity of life, the arguments that revealed to me its meaninglessness, lived nonetheless, bringing to life a meaning of their own.

Since the time when people somehow began to live, this meaning of life has been with them, and they have led this life up to my own time.

Everything that is in me and around me is the fruit of their knowledge of life. The very tools of thought by which I judge life and condemn it were created not by me but by them. I myself was born, educated and have grown up thanks to them.

They dug out the iron, taught us how to cut the timber, tamed the cattle and the horses, showed us how to sow crops and live together; they brought order to our lives. They taught me how to think and to speak.

I am their offspring, nursed by them, reared by them, taught by them; I think according to their thoughts, their words, and now I have proved to them that it is all meaningless!

"Something is wrong here," I said to myself. "I must have made a mistake somewhere." But I looked and looked and could not find where the mistake could be.