Tolstoy's account of the meaning of life, related in his essay, ‘My confession', revolves around a story he relates early in the essay about a traveler who jumps into a well to escape an ‘infuriated beast'. But at the bottom of the well is a dragon. The traveler can go neither up nor down, and so clings to a twig growing in a cleft in the well. Two mice, one black one white, appear and start nibbling on the twig:
'Now, at any moment, the bush will break and tear off, and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveler sees that and knows he will inevitably perish; but while he is still clinging, he sees some drops of honey hanging on the leaves of the bush, and so reaches out for them with his tongue and licks the leaves. Just so I hold on to the branch of life, knowing that the dragon of death is waiting inevitably for me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand why I have fallen on such suffering. And I try to lick that honey which used to give me pleasure, but now it no longer gives me joy, and the white and black mouse day and night nibble at the branch to which I am holding on. I clearly see the dragon, and the honey is no longer sweet to me. I see only the inevitable dragon and the mice, and am unable to turn my glance away from them. This is not a fable, but a veritable, indisputable, comprehensible truth.' (9)
The ‘drops of honey' that he formerly found sweet were his love of family and writing. But realization of death results in a certain attitude that he can't shake: Why? Well? and Then? (7) Basically - what's the point?
Science, Tolstoy argues, cannot supply us with a point. Science describes life - what it is - but it cannot identify any meaning to this life. Science can describe what things are, and what things are possible. But it can't describe what things mean. It cannot identify the significance of things.
Tolstoy finds the answer in faith.
'No matter what answers faith may give, its every answer gives to the finite existence of man the sense of the infinite - a sense which is not destroyed by suffering, privation and death. Consequently, in faith alone could we find the meaning and possibility of life ... faith was the knowledge of the meaning of life, in consequence of which man did not destroy himself but lived.' (14)
What is faith? Roughly: belief not based on logical or empirical evidence.
I think the question we should ask is: what is the content of the faith of which Tolstoy speaks? There are two ways of thinking about this.
One the one hand, there is a generic form of faith, which seems to amount to the idea that everything is going to be OK. As my grandmother used to say - falsely - everything happens for the best. Here is Tolstoy:
'I looked around at the enormous masses ... I could not recognize them as not understanding the question because they themselves put it and answered it with surprising clearness ... It appeared to me that all humanity was in possession of a knowledge of the meaning of life.' (12)
But is it really true that in adopting the generic version of faith you have put to yourself the question of the meaning of life? Or is it that you have simply refused to think about the question? If you are a hopeless optimist, have you solved the question of the meaning of life? That seems implausible: Hopeless optimism may be the result of refusing to address the issue of life's meaning, but it is doubtful that it results from solving the issue.
In any event, Tolstoy ultimately relies on a more specific form of faith: it's all going to be OK because ... You can, he thinks, fill in the dots in various ways, but all involve, as he puts it, the ‘sense of the infinite'. This can take various forms, and Tolstoy lists a few of them at the top of page 14.
'No matter how I may put the question, "How must I live?" the answer is "According to God's Laws." "What real result will there be from my life?" "Eternal torment or eternal bliss." What is the meaning which is not destroyed by death?" - "The union with infinite God, paradise."' (14)
These are all more specific versions of faith, ways of filling in the dots, and in them we can identify at least two themes:
A. God Laws - God's purpose more generally. The meaning of life is to be found in the fact that God has a purpose for us.
B. Eternal bliss, paradise (or the opposite). The meaning of this life is a matter of its being preparation for the next life.
We can't - at least not effectively - object to Tolstoy on these grounds: ‘How do we know there is a God who has a purpose for us?' ‘How do we know there is an afterlife?' We can't do this, because he would just reply: ‘Well it's faith, innit!. That's the whole point. If we were trying to convince Tolstoy that he was wrong, we can't just object to his faith - because he wouldn't care.
How do we argue with someone who bases their account of the meaning of life on faith? Give them what they want, and show that their view still doesn't work. The strategy is to show that faith, even if true, doesn't establish what it is supposed to establish.
So, consider the afterlife, which, following Tolstoy, we can accept on faith if only to hang him with this faith (i.e. for the purposes of argument). Is the meaning of this life to be found in its being a preparation for the next? Then we simply run into the problem of how the next life can have meaning? We wanted to solve the problem of how one life has meaning, and we now have to solve the problem of how another life has meaning. In other words, we haven't solved the problem of the meaning of life; we have merely pushed it back a step.
How about the other option? Suppose there is a God who has a purpose for us. Our purpose derives from God's purpose. So, the meaning of our life derives from the meaning of God's life. Here's the rub: in virtue of what does God's life have meaning? Is it purpose? Happiness? Something else? What? In other words, precisely the sorts of problems we run into trying to work out how our life has meaning - we are going to find those problems reiterated when we examine God's life. The appeal to God's purpose, like the appeal to an afterlife, doesn't solve the meaning of life for us - it simply pushes that problem back a step.
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