In his Confessions, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy describes how, in latter life, he was ambushed by the specter of meaninglessness. It was his mortality that seemed most troubling to him, for if everything we do eventually vanishes into oblivion, what significance can life have? Staring into the void, Tolstoy was perplexed enough to consider suicide.
This led him to observe the lives of his fellow men. What is it, Tolstoy wondered, that gets them through the day? At first glance, other people seemed to be making it through life, relatively well. At least they weren’t in despair, like Tolstoy was. He concludes that there are four basic answers to the ultimate question of how life should be lived. (Readers might consider this a multiple choice test. Which of these is your answer? Choose only one.)
1. Ignorance: “It consists in not knowing, not understanding that life is an evil and an absurdity. People of this sort — chiefly women, or very young or very dull people — have not yet understood that question of life which presented itself to Schopenhauer, Solomon, and Buddha.” (Leo Tolstoy, A Confession. Translated by Aylmer Maude. 1921)
2. Epicureanism: “It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has… The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.” (Ibid. Tolstoy)
3. Strength and Energy: “It consists in destroying life, when one has understood it to be an evil and an absurdity.” (Ibid. Tolstoy) Tolstoy is suggesting that suicide is an act of strength.
4. Weakness: “It consists of seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it.” (Ibid. Tolstoy)
5. God: Tolstoy finally chooses a fifth answer, the belief in God, which involves for him an enormous inner struggle. After all, for an intellectual, an answer based on reason is easy, but one based on faith does not go down easy. It should be noted, though, that in turning to God Tolstoy still rejects organized religion.
OK, put your pencil away. Which answer did you choose? Be honest, now, for your deliverance from despair depends on it. It may be, though, that the correct answer for you is, quite honesty, “none of the above.” For there are certain answers that Tolstoy didn’t consider, at least in his Confessions.
Idolatry: 21st Century Style
The question of whether or not there is a God — and, if not, how then to live in the face of the loss of an ultimate meaning — was an important one in the Nineteenth Century and through the first half of the Twentieth. We find it not only in Tolstoy, but in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the existentialists of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, it continues till the late 1960s. After that, there is far less interest in the question of how to live in the face of meaninglessness.
Were people, from then on, no longer waiting for Godot? Did they find a replacement for God? Nietzsche thought that once people no longer believe in God that they would run for the sea to drown themselves. Apparently, he was wrong. What, then, happened?
Nietzsche didn’t envision is the emergence or reemergence of various forms of secular idolatry. By this we mean making a god out of that which is intrinsically finite. An example would be worshipping a politician, as if he were the savior. Of course, that sort of idolatry usually ends not long after a politician is elected, just as romance ends shortly after marriage. There are many other forms of idolatry. We shall only consider two them here.
6. Humanism: We have already discussed humanism in another essay, so we shall only consider it briefly here. Suffice it to say that that the humanistic worldview proposes that human beings do not need God or religion, but are able to find happiness and fulfillment solely in the secular domain. In truth, no one can live without the absolute, so something must be regarded as such. Science and progress end up being worshipped. In the case of Marxism, a utopian vision of a perfect world — one in which there will no longer be any inequality — is viewed as the millennium…
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