The Meaning of Life

Cover. Portrait of Leo Tolstoy [1887]. Artist: AIlya Efimovich Repin [1844-1930].


This text is an excerpt from A Confession [1882] by a master of realistic fiction and one of the world's greatest novelists, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy [1828 - 1910].



The book is a brief autobiographical story of the author's struggle with a mid-life existential crisis. It describes his search for the answer to the ultimate philosophical question: "If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?" Without the answer to this, for him, life had become 'impossible'. The story begins with the Eastern fable of the dragon in the well. A man is chased by a beast into a well, at the bottom of which is a dragon. The man clings to a branch that is being gnawed on by two mice [one black, one white, representing night and day and the relentless march of time]. The man is able to lick two drops of honey [representing Tolstoy's love of his family and his writing], but because death is inevitable, he no longer finds the honey sweet.

Tolstoy goes on to describe four possible attitudes towards this dilemma. The first is ignorance. If one is oblivious to the fact that death is approaching, life becomes bearable. The problem with this for him personally is that he is not ignorant. Having become conscious of the reality of death, there is no going back. The second possibility is what Tolstoy describes as Epicureanism. Being fully aware that life is ephemeral, one can enjoy the time one has. Tolstoy's problem with this is essentially moral. He states that Epicureanism may work fine and well for the minority who can afford to live 'the good life,' but one would have to be morally empty to be able to ignore the fact that the vast majority of people do not have access to the wealth necessary to live this kind of life. Tolstoy next states that the most intellectually honest response to the situation would be suicide. In the face of the inevitability of death and assuming that God does not exist, why wait? Why pretend that this vale of tears means anything when one can just cut to the chase? For himself, however, Tolstoy writes that he is "too cowardly" to follow through on this most "logically consistent" response. Finally, Tolstoy says that the fourth option, the one he is taking, is the one of just holding on; living 'despite the absurdity of it,' because he is not willing 'or able' to do anything else. So it seems 'utterly hopeless' - at least 'without God'.

So Tolstoy turns to the question of God's existence: After despairing of his attempts to find answers in classic philosophical arguments for the existence of God [e.g. the Cosmological Argument, which reasons that God must exist based on the need to ascribe an original cause to the universe], Tolstoy turns to a more mystical, intuitive affirmation of God's presence. He states that as soon as he said 'God is Life,' life was once again suffused with meaning. This faith could be interpreted as a Kierkegaardian leap, but Tolstoy actually seems to be describing a more Eastern approach to what God is. The identification of God with life suggests a more monistic [or panentheistic] metaphysic characteristic of Eastern religions, and this is why rational arguments ultimately fall short of establishing God's existence. Tolstoy's original title for this work indicates as much, and his own personal 'conversion' is suggested by an epilogue that describes a dream he had some time after completing the body of the text, conirming that he had undergone a radical personal and spiritual transformation.



I was baptised and educated in the Orthodox Christian faith. Even as a child and throughout my adolescence and youth I was schooled in the Orthodox beliefs. But when at the age of eighteen I left my second year of studies at the university, I had lost all belief in what I had been taught. Judging from what I can remember, I never really had a serious belief. I simply trusted in what I had been taught and in the things my elders adhered to. But even this trust was very shaky.

My break with faith occurred in me as it did and still does among people of our social and cultural type. As I see it, in most cases it happens like this: people live as everyone lives, but they all live according to principles that not only have nothing to do with the teachings of faith but for the most part are contrary to them. The teachings of faith have no place in life and never come into play in the relations among people; they simply play no role in living life itself. The teachings of faith are left to some other realm, separated from life and independent of it. If one should encounter them, then it is only as some superficial phenomenon that has no connection with life.

Thus to,day, as in days past, the teachings of faith, accepted on trust and sustained by external pressure, gradually fade under the influence of the knowledge and experiences of life, which stand in opposition to those teachings. Quite often a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.

A certain intelligent and honest man named S. once told me the story of how he ceased to be a believer. At the age of twentysix, while'taking shelter for the night during a hunting trip, he knelt to pray in the evening, as had been his custom since childhood. His older brother, who had accompanied him on the trip, was lying down on some straw and watching him. When S. had finished and was getting ready to lie down, his brother said to him, "So you still do that." And they said nothing more to each other. From that day S. gave up praying and going to church. And for thirty years he has not prayed, he has not taken holy communion, and he has not gone to church. Not because he shared his brother's convictions and went along with them; nor was it because he had decided on something or other in his own soul. It was simply-that the remark his brother had made was like the nudge of a finger against a wall that was about to fall over from its own weight. His brother's remark showed him that the place where he thought faith to be had long since been empty; subsequently the words he spoke, the signs of the cross he made, and the bowing of his head in prayer were in essence completely meaningless actions. Once having admitted the meaninglessness of these gestures, he could no longer continue them. 

Thus it has happened and continues to happen, I believe, with the great majority of people. I am referring to people of our social and cultural type, people who are honest with themselves, and not those who use faith as a means of obtaining some temporal goal or other. [These people are the most radical disbelievers, for if faith, in their view, is a means of obtaining some worldly end, then it is indeed no faith at all.] People of our type are in a position where the light of knowledge and of life has broken down the artificial structure, and they have either taken note of this and have left it behind them or they have remained unconscious of it.

As I now look back at that time I clearly see that apart from animal instincts, the faith that affected my life, the only real faith I had, was faith in perfection. But I could not have said what perfection consisted of or what its purpose might be. I tried to achieve intellectual perfection; I studied everything I could, everything that life gave me a chance to study. I tried to perfect my will and set up rules for myself that I endeavored to follow. I strove for physical perfection by doing all the exercises that develop strength and agility and by undergoing all the hardships that discipline the self in endurance and perseverance. I took all this to be perfection. The starting point of it all was, of course, moral perfection, but this was soon replaced by a belief in overall perfection, that is, a desire to be better not in my own eyes or in the eyes of God, but rather a desire to be better in the eyes of other people. And this effort to be better in the eyes of other people was very quickly displaced by a longing to be stronger than other people, that is, more renowned, more important, wealthier than others.


'I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder-there was not a crime I did not commit; yet in spite of it all I was praised, and my colleagues considered me and still do consider me a relatively moral man.'



With all my soul I longed to be good; but I was young, I had passions, and I was alone, utterly alone, whenever I sought what was good. Every time I tried to express my most heartfelt desires to be morally good I met with contempt and ridicule; and as soon as I would give in to vile passions I was praised and encouraged. Ambition, love of power, self-interest, lechery, pride, anger, vengeance-all of it was highly esteemed. As I gave myself over to these passions I became like my elders, and I felt that they were pleased with me.

I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder-there was not a crime I did not commit; yet in spite of it all I was praised, and my colleagues considered me and still do consider me a relatively moral man. 

Thus I lived for ten years.

During this time I began to write out of vanity, self-interest, and pride. I did the same thing in my writing that I did in my life. In order to acquire the fame and the money I was writing for, it was necessary to conceal what was good and to flaunt what was bad. And that is what I did. Time after time I would scheme in my writings to conceal under the mask of indifference and even pleasantry those yearnings for something good which gave meaning to my life. And I succeeded in this and was praised.

At the age of twenty-six, when the war had ended, I came to St. Petersburg and got to know the writers there. They accepted me as one of their own, heaped flattery upon me. Before I could tum around, the views on life peculiar to the writers with whom I associated became my own, and before long all my previous efforts to become better were completely at an end. Having no discipline myself, I let these views justify my life.

† This was the Crimean War [1853-56], in which England, France, Turkey, and Sardinia combined forces to defeat Russia.

The theory adopted by these people, my fellow writers, was that life proceeds according to a general development and that we, the thinkers, play the primary role in that development; moreover, we, the artists and the poets, have the greatest influence on the thinkers. Our mission is to educate people. In order to avoid the obvious question - 'What do I know and what can I teach?'­ the theory explained that it is not necessary to know anything and that the artist and the poet teach unconsciously. Since I was considered a remarkable artist and poet, it was quite natural for me to embrace this theory. As an artist and poet I wrote and taught without myself knowing what I was teaching. I received money for doing this; I enjoyed excellent food, lodgings, women, society; I was famous. Therefore whatever I was teaching must have been very good.

This faith in knowledge, poetry, and the evolution of life was indeed a faith, and I was one of its priests. Being one of its priests was very profitable and quite pleasant. I lived a rather long time in this faith without ever doubting its truth. But in the second and especially in the third year of such a way of life I began to doubt the infallibility of this faith and started to examine it more closely. The first thing that led me to doubt was that I began to notice that the priests of this faith did not agree among themselves. Some would say, 'We are the best and the most useful of teachers, for we teach what is needful while others who teach are in error.' Others would say, 'No, we are the true teachers; it is you who are in error.' They argued and quarreled among themselves and abused, deceived, and cheated one another. Moreover, there were many among us who were not even concerned about who was right and who was wrong; they simply pursued their own selfish ends and had the support of our activity. All this forced me to doubt the truth of our faith.

Furthermore, once I had come to doubt the faith of the writers, I began to observe its priests more closely and became convinced that nearly all the priests of this faith were immoral men, in most cases of a base and worthless character. Many of them were lower than those whom I had met earlier during my wanton military life, but they were complacent and self-satisfied to a degree that can only be found either among people who are complete saints or among those who do not know what holiness is. People became repugnant to me, and I became repugnant to myself. And I realised that this faith was a delusion.

But the strange thing is that even though I was quick to see the utter lie of this faith and renounced it, I did not renounce the rank bestowed upon me by these people, the rank of artist, poet, and teacher. I naively imagined that I was a poet and an artist, that I could teach all men without myself knowing what I was teaching. And so I went on. As a result of my association with these people, I took up a new vice: I developed a pathological pride and the insane conviction that it was my mission to teach people without knowing what I was teaching them.


'And so I went on. As a result of my association with these people, I took up a new vice: I developed a pathological pride and the insane conviction that it was my mission to teach people without knowing what I was teaching them.'


As I now look back at that period and recall my state of mind and the state of mind of those people [a state that, by the way, persists among thousands], it all seems pitiful, horrible, and ridiculous to me; it excites the same feelings one might experience in a madhouse.

At the time we were all convinced that we had to speak, write, and publish as quickly as possible and as much as possible and that this was necessary for the good of mankind. Thousands of us published and wrote in an effort to teach others, all the while disclaiming and abusing one another. Without taking note of the fact that we knew nothing, that we did not know the answer to the simplest question of life, the question of what is right and what is wrong, we all went on talking without listening to one another. At times we would indulge and praise each other on the condition that we be indulged and praised in return; at other times we would irritate and shout at each other exactly as in a madhouse. 

Thousands of workers toiled day and night, to the limit of their strength, gathering and printing millions of words to be distributed by mail throughout all Russia. We continued to teach, teach, and teach some more, and there was no way we could ever teach it all; and then we would get angry because people paid us little heed. 

Very strange indeed, but now I understand it. The real reason behind what we were doing was that we wanted to obtain as much money and praise as possible. Writing books and newspapers was the only thing we knew how to do in order to attain this end. And so that is what we did. But in order for us to engage in something so useless and at the same time maintain the conviction that we were very important people, we needed a rationale that would justify what we were doing. And so we came up with the following: everything that exists is rational. Further, everything that exists is evolving. And it is evolving by means of an enlightenment. The enlightenment in turn undergoes change through the distribution of books and periodicals. We are paid and respected for writing books and periodicals, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of people. This reasoning would have worked very well, had we all been in agreement; but since for every opinion expressed by one person there was always someone else whose opinion was diametrically opposed to it, we should have been led to reconsider. But we never noticed this. We received money, and people of our circle praised us; thus every one of us believed himself to be right. 

It is now clear to me that there was no difference between ourselves and people living in a madhouse; at the time I only vaguely suspected this, and, like all madmen, I thought everyone except myself was mad.
Back to Top