“I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.” So said Leo Tolstoy about his agonizing struggle with existence in the light of setting rationality up against religion and faith when trying to answer his life’s most pressing and fundamental questions. His book, A Confession, is a memoir that charts his journey through hopelessness in the face of a meaningless life to the admission that faith – “a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives.” The following excerpt follows his exploration of how faith is the only way to fuse or to pivot between the seemingly incompatible – the finite and the infinite.
I understood that it was not possible to seek in rational knowledge for a reply to my question, and that the reply given by rational knowledge is a mere indication that a reply can only be obtained by a different statement of the question, and only when the relation of the nite to the infinite is included in the question. And I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution
In whatever way I stated the question, that relation appeared in the answer. How am I to live?— According to the law of God. What real result will come of my life?—torment or eternal bliss. What meaning has life, that death does not destroy?—Union with the eternal God: heaven.
So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge—faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life; and that consequently it makes life possible. Reasonable knowledge had brought me to acknowledge that life is senseless—my life had come to a halt and I wished to destroy myself. Looking around on the whole of mankind I saw that people live and declare that they know the meaning of life. I looked at myself, I had lived as long as I knew a meaning of life. As to others so also to me faith had given a meaning to life and had made life possible.
Looking again at people of other lands, at my contemporaries and at their predecessors, I saw the same thing. Where there is life there, since man began, faith has made life possible for him, and the chief outline of that faith is everywhere and always identical.
Whatever the faith might be, and whatever answers it might give, and to whomsoever it gives them, every such answer gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death. This means that only in faith can we find for life a meaning and a possibility. What, then, is this faith? And I understood that faith is not merely “the evidence of things not seen,” etc., and is not a revelation (that defines only one of the indications of faith), is not the relation of man to God (one has first to define faith and then God, and not define faith through God); it is not only agreement with what has been told one (as faith is most usually supposed to be), but faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live.
And I recalled the whole course of my mental labour and was horrified. It was now clear to me that for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite. Such an explanation I had had; but as long as I believed in the finite I did not need the explanation, and I began to verify it by reason. And in the light of reason the whole of my former explanation flew to atoms. But a time came when I ceased to believe in the finite. And then I began to build up on rational foundations, out of what I knew, an explanation which would give a meaning to life; but nothing could I build. Together with the best human intellects I reached the result that o equals o, and was much astonished at that conclusion, though nothing else could have resulted.
What was I doing when I sought an answer in the experimental sciences? I wished to know why I live, and for this purpose studied all that is outside me. Evidently I might learn much, but nothing of what I needed.
What was I doing when I sought an answer in philosophical knowledge? I was studying the thoughts of those who had found themselves in the same position as l, lacking a reply to the question “Why do I live?” Evidently I could learn nothing but what I knew myself, namely that nothing can be known.
What am I?—A part of the infinite. In those few words lies the whole problem.
Is it possible that humanity has only put that question to itself since yesterday? And can no one before me have set himself that question—a question so simple, and one that springs to the tongue of every wise child?
Surely that question has been asked since man began; and naturally, for the solution of that question since man began, it has been equally insufficient to compare the finite with the finite and the infinite with the infinite, and since man began the relation of the finite to the infinite has been sought out and expressed.
All these conceptions in which the finite has been adjusted to the infinite, and a meaning found for life: the conception of God, of will, of goodness, we submit to logical examination. And all those conceptions fail to stand reason’s criticism.
Were it not so terrible, it would be ludicrous, with what pride and self-satisfaction we, like children, pull the watch to pieces, take out the spring, make a toy of it, and are then surprised that the watch does not go.
A solution of the contradiction between the finite and the infinite, and such a reply to the question of life as will make it possible to live, is necessary and precious. And that is the only solution which we find everywhere, always, and among all peoples: a solution descending from times in which we lose sight of the life of man, a solution so difficult that we can compose nothing like it—and this solution we light-heartedly destroy in order again to set the same question, which is natural to every one and to which we have no answer.
The conception of an infinite God, the divinity of the soul, the connexion of human affairs with God, the unity and existence of the soul, man’s conception of moral goodness and evil— are conceptions formulated in the hidden infinity of human thought, they are those conceptions without which neither life nor I should exist; yet rejecting all that labour of the whole of humanity, I wished to remake it afresh myself and in my own manner.
I did not then think like that, but the germs of these thoughts were already in me. I understood, in the first place, that my position with Schopenhauer and Solomon, notwithstanding our wisdom, was stupid: we see that life is an evil and yet continue to live. That is evidently stupid, for if life is senseless, and I am so fond of what is reasonable, it should be destroyed, and then there would be no one to challenge it. Secondly, I understood that all one’s reasonings turned in a vicious circle, like a wheel out of gear with its pinion. However much and however well we may reason, we cannot obtain a reply to the question; but o will always equal o, and therefore our path is probably erroneous. Thirdly, I began to understand that in the replies given by faith is stored up the deepest human wisdom, and that I had no right to deny them on the ground of reason, and that those answers are the only ones which reply to life’s question.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
From: A Confession
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