Leo Tolstoy’s Four Ways Out Of The Misery of Human Condition

Leo Tolstoy on his 80th birthday

If you are a fan of great spiritual confessions or autobiographies such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker or Augustine’s Confessions, a book that should delight you is Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession. It is a slim volume yet full of life realizations coming from a man who abandoned the faith in progress and science.

Tolstoy came up with four possible ways how a man could cope with the fact that human life is meaningless. It was a problem that troubled Tolstoy a lot and led him to despair; so according to his words he spent some time observing people around him how they deal with the fact that human life is “vain, and evil, and that it is better not to live.”

The first means of escape is that of ignorance. It consists of failing to realize and to understand that life is evil and meaningless. For the most part, people in this category are women, or they are very young or very stupid men; they still have not understood the problem of life that presented itself to Schopenhauer, Solomon, and the Buddha. They see neither the dragon that awaits them nor the mice gnawing away at the branch they cling to; they simply lick the drops of honey. But they lick these drops of honey only for the time being; something will turn their attention toward the dragon and the mice, and there will be an end to their licking. There was nothing for me to learn from them, since we cannot cease to know what we know.

The second escape is that of epicureanism. Fully aware of the hopelessness of life, it consists of enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have without looking at the dragon or the mice; it lies in licking the honey as best we can, especially in those places where there is the most honey on the bush. Solomon describes this escape in the following manner:

“And I commended mirth, for there is nothing better for man under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; this will be his mainstay in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”

“So go and eat your bread with joy and drink your wine in the gladness of your heart. Enjoy life with a woman you love through all the days of your life of vanity, through all your vain days; for this is your fate in life and in the labors by which you toil under the sun. Do whatever you can do by the strength of your hand, for there is no work in the grave where you are going, no reflection, no knowledge, no wisdom.”

Most people of our class pursue this second means of escape. The situation in which they find themselves is such that it affords them more of the good things in life than the bad; their moral stupidity enables them to forget that all the advantages of their position are accidental, that not everyone can have a thousand women and palaces, as Solomon did; they forget that for every man with a thousand wives there are a thousand men without wives, that for every palace there are a thousand men who built it by the sweat of their brows, and that the same chance that has made them a Solomon today might well make them Solomon’s slave tomorrow. The dullness of the imagination of these people enables them to forget what left the Buddha with no peace: the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which if not today then tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures. The fact that some of these people maintain that their dullness of thought and imagination is positive philosophy does not, in my opinion, distinguish them from those who lick the honey without seeing the problem. I could not imitate these people, since I did not lack imagination and could not pretend that I did. Like every man who truly lives, I could not turn my eyes away from the mice and the dragon once
I had seen them.

The third means of escape is through strength and energy. It consists of destroying life once one has realized that life is evil and meaningless. Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner. Having realized all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us and seeing that the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it is better not to exist, they act and put an end to this stupid joke; and they use any means of doing it: a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart, a train. There are more and more people of our class who are acting in this way. For the most part, the people who perform these acts are in the very prime of life, when the strength of the soul is at its peak and when the habits that undermine human reason have not yet taken over. I saw that this was the most worthy means of escape, and I wanted to take it.

The fourth means of escape is that of weakness. It consists of continuing to drag out a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it. The people in this category know that death is better than life, but they do not have the strength to act rationally and quickly put an end to the delusion by killing themselves; instead they seem to be waiting for something to happen. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is better and have it within my reach, then why not surrender myself to it? I myself belonged in this category.

Thus the people of my class save themselves from a terrible contradiction in these four ways. No matter how much I strained my intellectual faculties, I could see no escape other than these four. One escape lies in failing to realize that life is meaningless, vain, and evil, and that it is better not to live. It was impossible for me not to know this, and once I had discovered the truth I could not close my eyes to it. Another escape lies in making use of whatever life has to offer without thinking about the future. And this I could not do. Like Sakia-Muni, I could find no pleasure in life once I had come to know what old age, suffering, and death are. My imagination was too active. Moreover, I could not enjoy the transient pleasures that just happened to come my way for a moment. The third escape lies in knowing that life is evil and absurd and putting an end to it by killing yourself. I understood this, but for some reason I did not kill myself. The fourth means of escape lies in knowing that life is as Solomon and Schopenhauer have described it, knowing that it is a stupid joke being played on us, and yet continuing to live, to wash, dress, dine, talk, and even write books. Such a position was disgusting and painful to me, but I remained in it all the same.

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