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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Tolstoy on suicide

Leo Tolstoy had everything a man can desire, with the exception of one thing. His parents were members of the Russian aristocracy. He was a prodigious student, and of course, became a literary icon. He married, had a family and lived in a comfortably large estate. His works received countless accolades and by the time he entered his 50s; his legacy as an artist of the upmost caliber was assured. Most people can only dream of achieving a sliver of his renown, wealth and influence. Yet, all of this would mean little to Tolstoy, when faced with the apparent meaninglessness of life

Throughout his life, Tolstoy suffered from bouts of depression. He would immerse himself in his art in large part as a way of coping, however unsuccessful, with a profound, ineffable sadness. Yet incessant working, being a sort of distraction, is at best a palliative medicine; the sadness was still there, and it accompanied him always. It was only when he had finally attained access to every material good and social prestige an individual can possibly want, that the feelings he had tried so strenuously to ignore, would emerge from the depths of his soul, unfettered and uncompromising. As he reached the mid-point of his life, the question of whether or not to kill himself increasingly dominated his thoughts.

What was the cause of this despair? And how did he ever manage to overcome it? He describes the grappling with his existential crisis in his book “A Confession”:

“My question — that which at the age of 50 brought me to the verge of suicide — was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?’ Differently expressed, the question is: ‘Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’”

This is a good book, one which parallels St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like Augustine, Tolstoy sought answers in various sciences and philosophies to no avail. His inquiries only managed to perplex him further, finding that both abstract reasoning and experiential science either avoided the question or failed to acknowledge it altogether.

It became apparent that the question would remain unanswered. That is until he turned to the long-discarded Christian faith of his childhood. In faith Tolstoy found “an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death.” He describes how “only in faith can we find the meaning and possibility of life. I realized that the essential meaning of faith lies not only in the ‘manifestations of things unseen,’ and so on, or in revelation (this is only a description of one of the signs of faith); nor is it simply the relationship between man and God (it is necessary to define faith, then God, and not God through faith); nor is it an agreement with what one has been told, although this is what faith is commonly understood to be. Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequence of which is that man does not kill himself but lives. Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something.”

It is fascinating to see how geniuses struggle with the questions that gnaw at everyone’s conscience. Whether or not you find his conclusion satisfying, the sentiment (that is, the yearning for a purpose driven life) is one we all share. And I find it comforting that, at the very least, we can all claim a share in at least part of Tolstoy’s genius; his humanity.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.