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tolstoy.jpg (2698 bytes)Philosophy 102: Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry
Class Notes on Tolstoy, "Faith Provides Life's Meaning"

1. Explain "an arrest of life." What happened to Tolstoy?
2. What is "the truth"?
3. What does Tolstoy say about art?
4. Does science give meaning to life? Do the working people? Rational people? Philosophers?
5. In what can one find the meaning of life?

Recommended Background Reading

Introduction: Tolstoy was a Russian novelist, moral philosopher, and religious reformer.
a. He made the Russian realistic novel a literary genre that ranks in importance and influence with Classical Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama.
b. He stressed the ethical and moral side of Christianity.
(1) The Sermon on the Mount especially impressed him: the doctrine of love.
(2) He condemned capitalism, private property, and the division of labor.
(3) He was an early champion of the non-violent protest and the doctrine of passive resistance.
c. Tolstoy was very much interested in childhood education and self-improvement.
(1) From the time of college on, he acquired the life-long habit of keeping a diary or journal of this thoughts, plans, and actions.
(2) He followed a rigorous course of self-study throughout his life.
(3) Some of his followers tried to build utopias on the basis of his ideas.
d. His views on living life as simply as possible led to problems with his wife after he put all his works in the public domain. He died at a railway station on his way to spend his remaining years at a monastery.


1. Explain "an arrest of life." What happened to Tolstoy?
a. Here is a person who had everything going for him: a great author, wealth, and respect of the nation. These, he says, held at bay any question of the meaning of life.
b. Note how Tolstoy describes his life in almost exactly the same terms as Russell's practical man:
"...what to me was the only truth, that it was necessary to live in such a way as to derive the greatest comfort for oneself and one's family."
c. An arrest of life: he did not know how to live or what to do. The significance of life had lost all meaning.
(1) The same questions: Why (do this)? Well (so what if I do)? and then (what if I don't)? In part, the questions are reminiscent of the expression, "Is that all there is?"
(2) To say that Tolstoy was merely suffering a "mid-life crisis" would be to commit a psychologism.
(3) Tolstoy did not know how to live or what to do. Also, he expresses a sense of "beingness towards death." (Cf., the "time of life curve" in the notes on Camus.)
(4) Notice, as well, Tolstoy expresses Camus' sense of being "undermined": "I felt that what I was standing on had given way..."
(a) Yet, he was in full command of his mental powers.
(b) Again, Tolstoy predates Camus' sense of the Absurd: " life is a stupid mean trick played on me by somebody." Tolstoy could not find any sensible meaning to a single act or to his whole life.
(5) "The Well of Life"--story from the Mahabharata: shows our predicament graphically.
(Note the drops of honey (authorship and family) are what Camus will later call, "eluding" from life.)


2. What is "the truth"?
(a) Cf. the description of "truth" above.
(b) "The truth" is simply that fact that I will die. Death is the truth.
(c) I remember reading a novel in college with the ending to the effect: rich, poor, handsome, ugly, they are all equal now (having had lived in a past century).


3. What does Tolstoy say about art?
(a) Art is an adornment of life, a decoy of life, a diversion, a way to elude life. (The idea is that a decoy is something which entices or lures us into a trap.)
(b) Art and poetry are an imitation of life: a representation of reality rather than reality, itself. (Compare this idea to Plato's theory of the good.)
(c) Consider the mundane example of the difference between seeing a movie instead of living your own life. Do you stand up, walk out of the movie, and say, "I have my own life to live"?
4. Does science give meaning to life? Do the working people? Rational people? Philosophers?
(a) The fact that I am part of the infinite destroys all meaning. Consider the levels of phenomena of the world and how they can be used to explain what we are.
physics--reality is made of fundamental particles and forces
chemistry--reality is made from the interactions of atoms constructed from the fundamental particles and forces
biochemistry--reality is made from interactions of carbon-chained atoms
biology--we are composed of these complex molecules (an interesting pile of molecules in a certain form)
psychology--our minds are chemical reactions in the brain
sociology and politics--social forces are no more than complex events composed and reducible to those same fundamental particles and forces in physics.
(b) The immense time-periods in recounting the story of existence from the "big bang" diminishes the meaning and significance of life as well. Consider the chart in the left-hand margin. My existence is not really noticeable in the enlarged scale dating from Homo erectus.
Big Bang: 12 to 15 billion years ago
Formation of the earth: 4.5 billion years ago
Homo erectus: 1.7 million years ago
Neanderthal Man: 20,000 years ago
Farming: 10,000 years ago
Mesopotamia: 5,000years ago
My life: 70 years
(c) The answer of science then is that human life is incomprehensible and is part of the incomprehensible and infinite universe.
(d) Consider, for example, our place in the vastness of the universe. If it were possible to travel at the speed of light, then it would take us...
11 hours to get to the planet Pluto,
4 years to get to the nearest star,
100,000 years to cross our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and
10 to 13 billion years to get to the farthest galaxy.
(e) Thus, Tolstoy believes the answers given by science are all identities (e.g., equations and explanations); science is the belief that there are no answers outside the complex relations of material processes.
(f) Insofar as philosophy is rational (c.f., our definition of  philosophy at the beginning of the course), the answer to the question of the meaning of life is indefinite. Tolstoy believes this analysis is true for all rational persons.
(1) Tolstoy believes this analysis is true for all rational persons.
(2) Rationality does not give insight into the meaning of the universe. How can anyone explain the finite in terms of the infinite?


5. In what can one find the meaning of life?
(a) Tolstoy believes that only irrational knowledge or faith makes it possible to live. He particularly cites the faith of the working people.
(b) Faith, alone, can give life meaning. To live humanly is to believe in something beyond proof.
(c) Note particularly that, although Tolstoy was a Christian, he is not proselytizing for that religion. He points out that the superstitions of religion are not essential to that faith.
(d) The faith that Tolstoy characterizes is faith in the relation of the finite to the infinite. He states that real faith is that which alone gives meaning and possibility to life.
(1) Reflection, arts, and sciences are mere pampering of appetites.
(2) The meaning given to this life is "truth."
(3) Note how the definition of "truth" has changes throughout the essay:
Truth1 was the attempt to live comfortably.
Truth2 was the fact of death.
Truth3 is faith.

Recommended background information:
Eugene Kamenka, "Tolstoy, Count Leo Nikolaevich," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York: Macmillan, 1967, Vol. 8, 146-149.


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