Leo Tolstoy and The Silent Universe

If you had everything else you wanted but your life lacked meaning, would it still be worth living? For the rich Russian count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the towering author of such classics as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this was not a merely theoretical question. This was a matter of life and death: “Why should I live?… What real indestructible essence will come from my phantasmal, destructible life?” was the question he asked himself. In his autobiography, My Confession (1882), he wrote that as long as he was unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of meaning, “the best that I could do was to hang myself.” What makes ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ such a powerful question that inability to deliver a satisfactory answer can push a person to the brink of a suicide?

…Read more about my take on Leo Tolstoy and his quest for meaning in this article recently published in Philosophy Now.


  1. Tim Bryant

    Dear Frank –

    As Tolstoy got older he reverted to a second childhood and he became a pochemushka, a “why-boy.” The term refers to both why-boys and why-girls – basically any little kid who goes around asking why this and why that and driving his or her parents crazy. My Russian cyber-GF Svetlana calls me pochemushka when she is not calling me Timoshka and other endearments.

    But Tolstoy’s why’s were pretty serious, as you note – not so much questions to learn something practical, like “How do you drive a car?” but questions of dire importance: “Why the heck am I doing what I’m doing?” and “What’s the point?” Then came the events described in My Confession – the horrible search for a way to end it all when not really wanting to go through it (for example, he hid all the knives in the house to keep himself from temptation. Those opposites set up a terrible tension, and the tension was resolved only over time as he observed the religious practices of peasant folk. I think the book might well be a condensation of a slow process rather than a sudden epiphany, but who knows? It could be a case of supersaturation, where things build up and then suddenly crystallize.

    As always I appreciate your thoughts because they allow my thoughts to expand too.

    Thank you so much; be grateful and enjoy life! 😍

    • Tim Bryant

      Yes, so young. I recently lost a friend to cancer, and it was horrible. The next day I heard of a friend of my sister’s who killed himself. These guys were about the same age, but one was much-loved and will be missed by many many people. The other guy? Hard to tell, but why is it that a beautiful humble and compassionate human being is taken from us while another guy can’t wait to get off the planet?

      Namaste, as God wills.

    • Eshanaiya

      Faith in GOD just hides the fact that the world is not so positive not so forgiving, hides the fact that death of some individual wont affect much even death of whole civilization wont cause any change.

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