Leo Tolstoy and the meaning of life

Posted: March 28, 2023 by chrisharper in Uncategorized
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By Christopher Harper

As Christians, Jews, and Muslims observe the important religious rites of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, I suggest that every believer and nonbeliever read the seminal works of Russian author Leo Tolstoy and his search for the meaning of life and religion.

Born into Russian royalty in 1828, Tolstoy became one of the most influential authors in the world. War and Peace and Anna Karenina are two of the greatest novels ever written.

As a member of the Russian elite, the young Tolstoy lived a dissolute life of gambling, drinking, and debauchery.

But a crisis of conscience, particularly after his service in the Crimean War in the mid-1850, sent him into a deep depression.

His search for the meaning of life led him to a personal belief in God that also emphasized nonviolence and asceticism. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the importance of Tolstoy’s writings in their beliefs.

A Confession, published in 1880, chronicles Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life and the influence of God.

At the outset, Tolstoy admits that his life and those of the elite lacked any significant meaning except to engage in debauchery. He writes: “I asked: ‘What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?’ And I replied to quite another question: ‘What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?’ With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: ‘None’.”

Tolstoy explores the sciences for the meaning of life and finds them wanting because they can only define the mathematical explanation of existence.

He writes: “It was long before I could believe that human learning had no clear answer to this question. For a long time, it seemed to me, as I listened to the gravity and seriousness wherewith Science affirmed its positions on matters unconnected with the problem of life, that I must have misunderstood something. For a long time, I was timid in the presence in learning, and I fancied that the insufficiency of the answers which I received was not its fault but was owing to my own gross ignorance, but this thing was not a joke or a pastime with me, but the business of my life, and I was at last forced, willy-nilly, to the conclusion that these questions of mine were the only legitimate questions underlying all knowledge, and that it was not I that was in fault in putting them, but science in pretending to have an answer for them.”

For the most part, he found organized religion wanting, mainly because of the hypocrisy of those heading the Russian Orthodox Church, and that got him excommunicated from the church. Nevertheless, he found the simple faith of the working and lower classes much closer to how he thought religion should be centered on faith.

Finally, Tolstoy writes about a dream in which he is pushed out into a river and understands the meaning of his life. He writes: “The shore was God, the stream was tradition, and the oars were the free will be given to me to make it to the shore where I would be joined with God. Thus, the force of life was renewed within me, and I began to live once again.”

Tolstoy’s Confession and his later books, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Resurrection, became more important to him than his recognized great works.

This season may be a good time to read this great man’s search for meaning.

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