Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 9
I ran into a contradiction from which there were only two ways out:
either the thing that I had referred to as reason was not as rational as I had thought, or the thing that I took to be irrational was not as irrational as I had thought. And I began to examine the course of the arguments that had come of my rational knowledge.
As I looked more closely at this course, I found it to be entirely correct:
The conclusion that life is nothing was unavoidable; but I detected a mistake. The mistake was that my thinking did not correspond to the question I had raised.
The question was: Why should I live? Or: Is there anything real and imperishable that will come of my illusory and perishable life? Or: What kind of meaning can my finite existence have in this infinite universe? In order to answer this question, I studied life.
It was obvious that the resolution of all the possible questions of life could not satisfy me because my question, no matter how simple it may seem at first glance, entails a demand to explain the finite by means of the infinite and the infinite by means of the finite.
I asked, "What is the meaning of my life beyond space, time, and causation?" And I answered, "What is the meaning of my life within space, time, and causation?" After a long time spent in the labour of thought, it followed that I could reply only that my life had no meaning at all.
Throughout my reasoning I was constantly comparing the finite to the finite and the infinite to the infinite; indeed, I could not do otherwise.
Thus I concluded and had to conclude that force is force, matter is matter, will is will, infinity is infinity, nothing is nothing; and I could not get beyond that.
It was something similar to what happens in mathematics when we are trying to figure out how to solve an equation and all we can get is an identity. The method for solving the equation is correct, but all we get for an answer is a = a, or x = x, or 0 = 0.
The same thing was happening with my reasoning in regard to the question concerning the significance of my life. The answers that all the sciences give to this question are only identities.
And in reality a strictly rational knowledge begins, in the manner of Descartes, with an absolute doubt of everything:
Strictly rational knowledge casts aside any knowledge based on faith and reconstructs everything anew according to the laws of reason and experiment; it can give no answer to the question of life other than the one I had received - an indefinite one.
It seemed to me only at first that knowledge gave a positive answer, the answer of Schopenhauer: life has no meaning, it is an evil. But as I looked into the matter I realized that this is not a positive answer and that only my emotions had taken it to be so.
Strictly expressed, as it is expressed by the Brahmins, by Solomon, and by Schopenhauer, the answer is only a vague one or an identity; 0= 0, life that presents itself to me as nothing is nothing.
Thus philosophical knowledge denies nothing but merely replies that it cannot decide this question and that from its point of view any resolution remains indefinite.
Having understood this, I realized that I could not search for an answer to my question in rational knowledge:
The answer given by rational knowledge is merely an indication that an answer can be obtained only by formulating the question differently, that is, only when the relationship between the finite and the infinite is introduced into the question.
I also realized that no matter how irrational and unattractive the answers given by faith, they have the advantage of bringing to every reply a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no reply:
However I may put the question of how I am to live, the answer is:
- according to the law of God.
- Is there anything real that will come of my life?
- Eternal torment or eternal happiness!
- What meaning is there which is not destroyed by death?
- Union with the infinite God, paradise.
Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which before had seemed to be the only knowledge I was inevitably led to recognize a different type of knowledge, an irrational type, which all of humanity had: faith, which provides us with the possibility of living.
As far as I was concerned, faith was as irrational as ever, but I could not fail to recognize that it alone provides humanity with an answer to the question of life, thus making it possible to live.
Rational knowledge led me to the conclusion that life is meaningless; my life came to a halt, and I wanted to do away with myself.
As I looked around at people, I saw that they were living, and I was convinced that they knew the meaning of life. Then I turned and looked at myself; as long as I knew the meaning of life, I lived. As it was with others, so it was with me: faith provided me with the meaning of life and the possibility of living.
Upon a further examination of the people in other countries, of my contemporaries, and of those who have passed away, I saw the same thing:
Wherever there is life, there is faith; since the origin of mankind faith has made it possible for us to live, and the main characteristics of faith are everywhere and always the same.
No matter what answers a given faith might provide for us, ever answer of faith gives infinite meaning to the finite existence of man, meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation, and death. Therefore, the meaning of life and the possibility of living may be found in faith alone.
I realized that the essential significance of faith lies not only in the "manifestation of things unseen" and so on, or in revelation, this is simply a description of one of the signs of faith; nor is it simply the relation between man and God,
faith must first be determined and then God, not the other way around, or agreeing with what one has been told, even though this is what it is most often understood to be.
Faith is the knowledge of the meaning of human life, whereby the individual does not destroy himself but lives.
Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must have faith in something. If he did not believe that he had something he must live for, then he would not live.
If he fails to see and understand the illusory nature of the finite, then he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, then he must believe in the infinite.
Without faith it is impossible to live.
I looked back on the course of my internal life and I was horrified:
It was now clear to me that in order for a man to live, he must either fail to see the infinite or he must have an explanation of the meaning of life by which the finite and the infinite would be equated.
I had such an explanation, but I did not need it as long as I believed in the finite, and I began to use reason to test it out. And in the light of reason every bit of my former explanation crumbled into dust.
But the time came when I no longer believed in the finite:
And then, using the foundations of reason, I began to draw on what I knew to put together an explanation that would give life meaning; but nothing came of it.
Along with the finest minds that mankind has produced, I came up with 0 = 0, and I was utterly amazed at coming to such a resolution and at discovering that there could be no other.
And what did I do when I searched for an answer in the experimental sciences?
I wanted to find out why I lived, and to do that I studied everything that was outside of myself. To be sure, I was able to learn a great deal, but nothing of what I needed.
And what did I do when I searched for an answer in the area of philosophy?
I studied the thoughts of those who found themselves in the same situation as I, and they had no answer to the question of why I live. I was not able to learn anything here that I did not already know - namely, that it is impossible to know anything.
What am I? A part of the infinite! Indeed, in these words lies the whole problem.
Is it possible that man has only now raised this question? And can it be that no one before me has put this question to himself, a question so simple that it rests on the tip of the tongue of every intelligent child?
No, this question has been asked ever since there have been people to ask it;
since the beginning man has understood that to resolve the question by equating the finite with the finite is just as inadequate as equating the infinite with the infinite;
since the beginning man has sought to articulate the relation between the finite and the infinite.
We subject to logical inquiry all the concepts that identify the finite with the infinite and through which we receive the meaning of life and the ideas of God, freedom, and good. And these concepts do not stand up to the critiques born of reason.
If it were not so terrible, it would be laughable to see the pride and complacency with which, like children, we take apart the watch, removing the spring and making a plaything of it, only to be surprised when the watch stops running.
A resolution of the contradiction between the finite and the infinite, an answer to the question of life that makes it possible to live, is necessary and dear to us.
And the one resolution that we find everywhere, at all times and among all nations, is the resolution that has come down from a time in which all human life is lost to us.
It is a resolution so difficult that we could come up with nothing like it, one that we thoughtlessly undo by again raising the question that occurs to everyone and for which we have no answer.
The concepts of an infinite God, moral good and evil, the immortality of the soul, and a relation between God and the affairs of man are ones that have been worked out historically through the life of a humanity that is hidden from our eyes.
They are concepts without which there would be no life, without which I myself could not live, and yet, putting aside all the labour of humankind, I wanted to do it all over again by myself and in my own way.
I did not think so at the time, but even then the seeds of these thoughts had already been planted within me.
I realized first of all that despite our wisdom, the position of Schopenhauer, Solomon, and myself was absurd: we considered life evil, and yet we lived.
This is clearly absurd because if life is meaningless and if I love reason so much, then I must destroy life so there will be no one around to deny it.
Secondly, I realized that all our arguments went round and round in a vicious circle, like a cog whose gears are out of sync:
No matter how refined our reasoning, we could not come up with an answer; it would always turn out that 0=0, and our method was therefore probably mistaken.
Finally, I began to realize that the most profound wisdom of man was rooted in the answers given by faith and that I did not have the right to deny them on the grounds of reason; above all, I realized that these answers alone can form a reply to the question of life.