Tolstoy gives an account of his own life as he went from a comfortable normal life to a meaningless one with no purpose. He argues that while someone is alive, she/he must find a purpose that motivates him or her to continue existing. This purpose to living is beyond the rational knowledge of man. Every human being should have some faith in order to live. The existence of religion also provides some background beliefs that every human being has his/her unique importance in this world. Having faith in something also motivates our daily activities, as we hope to achieve unforeseen goals in the future.
Tolstoy used to live a complete life where he enjoyed the comfort of owning a vast estate that appreciated every passing day; as well as the love of his wife and children, who formed a wonderful family that every man could desire. He also rode on a good reputation that he had earned himself from the way he behaved and the good work he did. Despite all these simple human joys and a good health, Tolstoy lost meaning and excitement to life.
According to Tolstoy, the prospect that he will finally die, however, conceals purpose and meaning to his life. Death is the only predicament awaiting everyone who is alive. Nevertheless, soon he loses the point to life; it happens that Tolstoy fails to understand the fact why people have to live a good life when in the end they die leaving everything behind. From Tolstoy’s point of view, it was senseless and needless to live when there is no reason to it. Everything, that a person does, must be on the premises of purpose and reason. Tolstoy can only see his life as somebody’s experiment for his or her own amusement. He sees life as one that must be endured, since individuals have no choice out of it. This is especially brought out when he compares himself with the traveler. The reasons that people give as motivators for living are just there to deviate them from the reality and death. He cannot see why he must continue living when there is nothing that will come out of it in the end. The other people around him, including his family, should not live without a reason or purpose for it too.
He resolved in finding the meaning for living when he had realized that he is alone in his theory and failing to identify purpose for life. The rest of the people seemed to have a convincing sense why they endured their lives. In his attempts to unravel this issue, he tried to find answers using his rational knowledge, but it was a failure as well. Rational knowledge gives a conclusion that life is an evil, and therefore, no meaning should be attached to it. In as much as death marks the end of life, a person should not take his/her life just because she or he loses the purpose for living. There is a lot to live for, if only one believes so.
Finally, he concludes that the purpose or meaning to living is based on faith as presented by the irrational knowledge. Faith is the belief that a person has on something to be true; even though, one cannot see it. I think that this is the right conclusion, since a lot of other authors and philosophers share the same view. For instance, the work of Descartes is based on doing something where one actually can see reason. Solomon and Schopenhauer also identify faith as some kind of reason why people hold onto their lives. I also believe that it is beyond a person to think and come up with a purpose as to why he or she exists, since there are no such answers in rational knowledge; a person can only create his or her purpose for living through faith. Furthermore, the religious holy books such as the Quran and the Bible teach us that there is meaning and purpose in life by explaining why human beings exist. Like in the holy Christian book which is the Bible, in the book of Genesis, God created human beings and marking the start to the meaning of life in Adam and Eve. The same book also provides the hope for all human beings that they exist for a given purpose. Lastly, faith provides a fundamental future for those who believe that something unique will happen.
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A Confession by Leo Tolstoy
Near the end of his life, Count Leo Tolstoy wrote two lengthy essays on the topic of religion. Hesperus Press includes these two essays, “A Confession” (1879 – 1882) and “What is Religion, and What Does its Essence Consist of?” (1902). The edition includes a foreword by novelist and Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore with an introduction by famed Tolstoy translator Tony Briggs.
Tolstoy would revisit the religious theme in “Father Sergius” (written in 1890, published in 1898), an excruciatingly introspective tale of sensual temptation, religious duty, and personal mutilation. With “A Confession” and “What is Religion?”, Tolstoy works within the conventions of the non-fiction essay, having renounced his early fictional works (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection) as so much literary dross. “A Confeession” is an autobiographical essay and a moral reckoning, coming to terms with a life filled with personal wealth, family, friends, knowledge, and a nagging spiritual emptiness. The entire essay pivots on the existential quandary, “So what?” He cites long passages from Ecclesiastes and the life of Gautama Buddha to drive the point home. In the end, following years in the intellectual wilderness of the sciences and philosophy, he returns to the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church, albeit not without some personal reservations. The moral guidance of the Church draws him in, but the obscure rituals and ceremonies repel him.
Tolstoy wrote “What is Religion?” as an ambivalent believer. Ambivalent in the sense he remained skeptical of the trappings of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state-sponsored church of the Russian Empire. (The separation of state being a Western notion and one explicitly written in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.) Tolstoy asserts that since religion is part of man’s relationship with the infinite, man can only be moral when man has religion. (One can argue this point and with the specter of nuclear jihad and Bible-believing domestic terrorists, one probably should question this assertion. Tolstoy, like his fellow Russian compatriot, Ayn Rand, does not hold a monopoly on infallibility.) He hedges his assertion by differentiating the gaudy opulence and arcane rituals to “false religion” and the primitive simplicity of the peasants to “true religion.” While the sincerity of state-sponsored careerist clerics is always under suspicion, Tolstoy resembles Rousseau and cinematic hack James Cameron in his assumption that “true religion” is found among the peasants. This is not a far cry from the condescending notion of the Noble Savage and benevolent supernaturalism of the Na’vi in Avatar. For a writer as gifted with genius as Tolstoy, this patronizing generalization could only come from an aristocrat with wealth and privilege. Besides having a peasant’s view of faith, one should also have a personal relationship with God. But since the personal is the subjective, how can “true religion” be the same for all? In the end, it can be distilled to an issue of personal taste. Unfortunately with state-sponsored churches (and similar theocracies), personal taste takes a back seat to rigid dogma and slavish obedience. Every authoritarian and totalitarian regime learned this lesson from religion models. Only when church and state get decoupled can “true religion” and a personal relationship with God be achieved.
Overall, the Hesperus edition is a wonderful compact presentation of Tolstoy’s thoughts on spirituality. While Dunmore’s foreward is excellent, Brigg’s introduction appears as nothing more than an elaborate ad hominem attack on Friedrich Nietzsche. Just because Nietzsche went insane at the end of his life does not negate the power of his philosophy. Another demerit of this particular volume is for its miserly footnotes, especially in terms of more obscure points in Russian history and the Russian Orthodox Church. If these volumes were intended for non-specialists, it would be beneficial for these points to be explained.